Trilobites from the gift shop
Moroccan trilobites like the Paradoxides sp. pictured here are among the most popular types of fossils found in private collections. Collecting fossils has evolved from a rare and eccentric hobby of the rich, as it was in the nineteenth century, into a fashionable and accessible hobby for many. You can buy a trilobite or ammonite in the gift shop of almost any natural science museum in the world, and they are often the starting point for children’s collections.
Trilobites are a class of extinct arthropods that inhabited the seas and oceans from the Cambrian to the Permian. Because of their rapid evolution and wide distribution, trilobites have become so-called guiding fossils – fossils that allow you to determine the age of rocks – and for this they are valued by geologists. These mostly small, up to a dozen centimeters, extinct marine arthropods featured a highly diverse chitinous shell, which they shed several times during their lifetime, much like modern crabs.
The bizarre nature of the well-preserved shells and their high prevalence in rocks made these marvelous invertebrates favorites of the paleontological enthusiast public, and a popular science book was even written about them, “Trilobites. the “witnesses to evolution.” Trilobites started to be controlled on an absolutely unbelievable scale as a result of their very own fame, which played a terrible joke on them.. This is due to the fact that the transfer of fossils from the category of exotic rarities into the category of well-known curiosities has led to an increase in demand. Of course, the supply has also risen: entire villages in Morocco now subsist on large-scale mining operations to extract specimens for collections.
This extraction of fossils is hard and sometimes dangerous physical work, and it is done by low-income people who were farmers and cattlemen before collecting became fashionable. There are no professional paleontologists and geologists in these “mining companies”, at best there is unofficial or semi-official cooperation with some scientists helping in identification of finds. The main criterion for product quality is not scientific value, as in the case of expeditions conducted by institutes and universities, but aesthetics, which directly determines how quickly a fossil can be sold. Such an approach is recognized by the paleontological community as one of the major problems of the field, since uncontrolled development of geological sites leads to their destruction and irrecoverable loss of information. The sampling site is not documented, making it impossible to determine the exact geological age and burial conditions, and preference is given to large and preserved specimens, while small fossils (fossils) and fragments often go to the dumps regardless of their importance to the scientific community.
Sometimes extracted fragmentary fossils are “ennobled” and “improved” or even faked: waving a pickaxe in the heat is much less pleasant than sculpting and carving cute models in the shade. An excellent example of this is the trilobite from the main photo – about 30% of the shell is preserved, the rest (including the head) is a restoration of the preparator.
Sometimes masters go even too far in their efforts, which resulted in the well-known empirical fact: if a fossil looks very beautiful and you’ve found it in a roadside store in a distant village, most likely it’s a fake and not a unique specimen of museum level. Even shepherds from the Sahara have a good Internet connection, and any serious find will be offered first to the big dealers.
The most common counterfeiters are large single samples of fossils with not very high level of detail. Small specimens are usually unprofitable to make, and the work is more laborious and requires a higher level of artistic skills. A remarkable illustration of this is the case of the rather rare trilobite Andalusiana sp. (about 530-520 million years old), which is known for reaching a record size of about a third to a quarter of a meter. Due to the large size of the shell and its simplicity, plates with “Andalusians” can be found in absolutely any souvenir store in Morocco.
The best friend of the creator of fake fossils is paint. Most often it is either black or rust-brown, imitating the film of natural iron oxides and hydroxides on the surface. The paint simultaneously masks reconstructed parts and adhesions, as well as clearly defines the area on the specimen where the attention of the beholder should be directed. It also plays a role that an ultraviolet flashlight (these substances glow yellow-green) is often used to identify glue or epoxy on the sample surface, but if you cover the glue or epoxy form areas with paint, this method becomes useless.
Of course, knowledge of faking techniques is only about thirty percent of the information needed to make a competent verdict. To understand whether the number of trilobite segments corresponds to its size, whether the species is real/undescribed or completely fictitious, whether several organisms in the specimen are of the same geological age, is possible only based on experience and knowledge of paleontology and geology. And this task is constantly solved by professional paleontologists working with acquisitions. An example of such competent work can be seen in an article on the collective behavior of trilobites recently published in Nature Scientific Reports (see more Collective behavior was already in trilobites, Elements, 10/30/2014). In the supplementary information, some of the Moroccan specimens are geographically referenced simply as “N of Zagora” (“north of Zagora“), which, given the lack of fieldwork information in the article or accompanying material, can be unequivocally interpreted as acquisition. Interestingly, a month after the publication of this article in Scientific Reports, rare specimens with chains of trilobites Ampyx priscus could still be found in the fossil dumps in Marrakech and Erfoud, most likely obtained simultaneously with the material used in the study.
The abundance of fakes has led to the fact that about half of the trilobites sold in open-air sales or souvenir stores are not real or are 70% or more restored, making their and many other fossils a risky business of questionable ethics. Such purchases support the illegal business of extracting them, which ultimately leads to the destruction of geological sites. An alternative to purchase is to search for them yourself, but here, too, it is important to think about the consequences of your actions. To help collectors, many organizations, such as The Paleontological Society, which has existed since 1908, have developed guidelines for collecting fossils that can be followed to avoid breaking the law, destroying geological sites, and still add to the collection. For example, an excerpt from The Paleontological Society’s constitution recommends adhering to the following ideas and rules for collecting:
“1. Fossils are objects of scientific and educational value for amateurs and professionals alike.
2. The variety and rarity of fossils varies and there are individual fossils or taxonomic groups of particular value to science.
3. to leave a fossil uncollected is to guarantee its destruction by natural geological processes.
Thus, the Society deems it necessary to adhere to the following rules when collecting:
1. Always notify the landowner and obtain appropriate government permits to collect fossils.
(2) All collecting should follow the local laws governing it.
3. Every collector should try to make rare and unique fossils available to the scientific community.”
Photo © Mike Peel from commons.wikimedia.org, Paradoxides sp., Middle Cambrian (about 500 million years old), Morocco.