Seven Reasons to Kill Someone (Involving Palaeontology): 2. The Black Market

Have you watched Elementary yet? No? Care about spoilers? Yes? Then skip this post. Don’t worry, I’ll be back and you can find it again.

In this instalment of “seven reasons to kill someone (involving palaeontology):

2. Your dealings on the fossil black market are about to be exposed.

One of the ways Sherlock managed to home in on his murderer in Dead Clade Walking was the villain’s use of the fossil black market to obtain extra bones for his Dimetrodon specimen. I mentioned yesterday why this was a problem for Dimetrodon science, but it also seems like a prohibitively risky use of the market for illegal fossils. (Because if you source bones from more than one locality and stick them together claiming a complete skeleton, it would take a palaeontology postgrad thirty seconds to notice the difference in preservation.)

The fossil ‘black market’ is a real thing, and it’s a lucrative industry. In most countries of the world (if not all) there are strict laws about what you can and cannot collect from the ground and/or take out of the country. Two years ago, Tarbosaurus (a sister genus of Tyrannosaurus) made the news when two specimens appeared in auctions in the UK and the USA, despite the facts that 1) specimens of this genus have never been found outside Mongolia and 2) exportation of fossils from Mongolia, like with many countries, is very much illegal.

Elementary touched on this when the Nanotyrannus was claimed to come from Mongolia (though the method used to make this claim was clumsy and contradicted Sherlock’s later identification of the rock as Paleogene in age).  Private collectors will pay a great deal of money for their own personal dinosaur. Dinosaurs being available for profit usually results in a scramble for funding, which is something museums tend to be short of, even when the global economy isn’t in its current  state. The famous Tyrannosaurus rex at the Field Museum (Sue) wouldn’t have gone to that museum without generous sponsorship from certain corporations. Fossils go for a lot of money.

Palaeontologists are, by nature, collectors. Most of us have a private collection of fossils and rocks, usually started when we’re knee high to a giraffe. We like to go outside and spend hours looking for a likely site and then spend days excavating that site.  Palaeontologists are also, by accident, a poor breed. Unless we’re married to an accountant from the City, or micropalaeontologists working in the oil industry, palaeontology is a public sector academic subject that attracts people who are more interested in sorting long lines of near-identical vertebrae than they are in eating at a fancy restaurant tonight.

What I’m implying is – many palaeontologists are just a moral conviction and an Indiana Jones quote away from becoming fossil hunters ourselves. Lucky we’re all good people, isn’t it?


Fossil smuggling is a big deal, and it makes palaeontologists very angry – not only is it stealing massive amounts in monetary value from the source country, but it causes environmental destruction and increases erosion, as well as destroying vital palaeontological evidence.

[We’re all crime-show fans here, yes? Think of palaeontology as a type of forensic reconstruction, and the rock in which fossils are found as a crime scene. Even if a poached fossil makes its way into the hands of a palaeontologist, it’s like a body being handed to a coroner with no details of the now-destroyed crime scene.]

So let’s go back to our crime show murderer. He works in a museum – he has access to resources and authority that make it possible (if not easy, because bureaucracy) to gain permission and funding to go to some of the most valuable and important fossil sites in the world. I mean, it’s noble in twisted way that he uses his black market contacts to gain prestige for his museum by completing a Dimetrodon skeleton, but it might also be possible that he’s using his contacts to sell off some of the more valuable specimens on the side, to boost his own income or to supplement his meagre research grant. It would certainly be easier than getting museum funding to buy at illegal auctions.

But should his involvement get out, that would easily (and rightfully) ruin his career and destroy any chance of getting future research published. And that might be something our villain would kill for.

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