Archive for October 10th, 2010

The value of amateur paleontology

October 10th, 2010

Brian Bade in the midst of his fossil collection and paleontological library.

SULLIVAN, OHIO–Last month I gave a talk to the North Coast Fossil Club about an obscure fossil group, the hederelloids. My purpose, besides simply enjoying the good company of fossil enthusiasts, was to show the audience a type of small and encrusting fossil they have all collected but probably didn’t notice because these creatures do not (at least to the naked eye) look very interesting. Sure enough, many in the club remembered seeing these fossils, and some had learned a considerable amount about them. Members began to send me specimens in the mail for further study.

One gentleman, though, told me he had hundreds of hederelloid fossils on Devonian brachiopods and corals collected in Ohio, Michigan and Ontario — and that I was welcome to use whatever specimens I needed to advance the science. Today I visited Brian Bade in nearby Sullivan, Ohio. His collection of these fossils and many more astounded me. He has thousands of specimens, matched with an extensive paleontological library. The fossils are very well curated (that is, we can easily tell the collecting localities and stratigraphic horizons) and expertly prepared. Brian is generous with his treasures and wants nothing more than to see them used in scientific studies. I borrowed several dozen encrusted brachiopods and corals to get started on a hederelloid taxonomy project.

Brian Bade with one of many, many drawers of specimens.

Brian is an excellent example of why amateur fossil paleontologists are essential to the progress of professional paleontology. He has a very keen eye for finding fossils and keeping them in their proper geological context (“provenance”). He instinctively can tell which specimens may be most interesting to science, and he shares with the professionals an appreciation for their beauty and rarity. Brian knows how to work with landowners and quarry managers to make sure access to fossil sites is maintained, which is a skill sometimes lacking in casual collectors. Amateur paleontologists often have far more time for fieldwork than the professionals, and usually have more experience in sorting out particular kinds of fossils in their specialties. Many paleontological studies rely upon the skills of amateurs to provide the raw data. Indeed, “amateur paleontologist” is not quite the right title considering the knowledge base and experience these men and women have accumulated. I prefer to call them simply “paleontologists”.

Devonian brachiopods in one of Brian's drawers. This year's paleontology class can now identify them from here!