The Role of Avocational Paleontologists in the Twenty First Century

Chris Cozart (1911 Sherwood Pl., Wheaton, IL 60187, USA).


Discussions held at the workshop by members of the Independent Paleontologist Topic Session were attended by Warren Allmon, Jens Franzen, Whitey Hagadorn, Kurt Henne, Cathleen May, and Chris Cozart, Topic Coordinator. Independent paleontologists are individuals within the paleontological community who have a great interest in paleontology but earn a living through other means. These individuals collect, study, or teach about fossils but, for the most part, do not have an academic degree in paleontology. The discussions and recommendations reported in this paper do not represent a consensus of all interested parties but reflect the opinions of those participating in the workshop. They are meant only to provide a basis for future discussions.

An issue at the workshop was the lack of understanding within the broader paleontological community regarding what an independent paleontologist is and what group of people the term represents. Such other terms as amateur or avocational paleontologist have somewhat different meanings and connotations. The tremendous range of activities, interests, and expertise among these individuals discourages use of a collective term to describe everyone with a nonprofessional, noncommercial interest in fossils. For the purpose of facilitating session discussion the group adopted the term avocational paleontologist, recognizing that nomenclature and labels do not adequately describe this range and may constrain their perceived value.

Titles notwithstanding, avocational paleontologists and, more importantly, their interaction with other paleontological group and organizations through public education, museums, commercial enterprises, academic institutions, governments, and the media were regarded as critical to the future health of paleontology. Most of the discussion focused on identifying obstacles to developing the present health of these relationships and nurturing their future.


The group discussed a number of obstacles to smooth relations between avocational paleontologists (APs) and other groups. The first of these was communication issues surrounding public education. Schools do not know whom to contact for help from the avocational community and generally do not do a good job of communicating their needs. On the other hand, APs need to do a better job of publicizing what they have to offer. This can be done individually but would probably be more effective through such intermediary institutions as universities, museums, and governmental agencies. APs also should add to their offerings by seeking help from educators and professionals. The general goal of this effort should be to increase the public interest in, understanding of, and support of paleontology.

A second area discussed was the relationship between APs and museums. These groups have different and sometimes competing missions and motivations. In particular, there may be disagreement over custody of fossils or the maintenance of a collection. Museums typically are space constrained and insist on picking and choosing what they accept. On the other hand, donors want their collection's identity kept intact. Both groups can cite examples of specimens and information lost by the other. A potential solution to both the museum space issue and the custody of collections would be to provide a means whereby a private collection could become an auxiliary collection of a museum. The policies, standards, and guidelines for curation of the collection would be those of the parent museum. An alternative would be to certify certain private collections as repositories on the stipulation that they meet a standard set of guidelines. The goal would be to preserve collections for future generations and facilitate access for study. Other issues regarding gatekeeping, liability, and succession planning for such collections need to be addressed.

The last area discussed was the relationship between avocational paleontologists and commercial collectors (herein referred to as commercial paleontologists). The potential loss of scientific data from the public domain when fossils are sold to those who do not maintain scientific data or do not give access to their collections is an issue. Potential solutions are proposed.

1. Increase cataloging of private collections so that specimens can be tracked regardless of ownership.
2. Develop financial resources to fund acquisition by institutions so that scientifically important specimens can be purchased.
3. Find ways to increase the conservation ethic among collectors, possibly by finding ways to reward ethical practice through recognition, tax breaks, or compensation.


It became apparent, both during the topic discussion and during the general proceedings of the workshop, that there is no generally accepted definition of an avocational paleontologist. There is a need to develop an improved understanding and definition of the amateur paleontological community. Answers to questions about the different types of amateur and avocational paleontologists and the criteria by which different roles and interests may be described need to be developed. This will provide a basis for common understanding and communication with other paleontological communities, such as those within museums, universities and governments.

Related questions are important to answer. What is the size of the amateur paleontological community? Is the community increasing or decreasing in numbers? Are there goals and, if so, what are they? What contribution does/could/should this community make towards the success of paleontology in the 21st century? How should the community interact with museums, academic institutions, commercial enterprises, and governments? How should these other communities communicate with avocational paleontologists? How can others interact and contribute positively to the avocational paleontologist community?


Nomenclature and labels do not adequately describe the range of avocational paleontologist activities and may constrain their perceived value. The absence of interaction or negative interactions between this group and others paleontological groups can reduce its ability to contribute to the progress of the science and the goals of the group. There are competing needs and goals between the different groups of people involved in paleontology. A symbiotic relationship between the professional community and avocational paleontologist is desirable and perhaps critical.

Communication between the groups is critical to the improvement of understanding, cooperation, and achievement of goals. At present, communication could and needs to be greatly improved.


I express my thanks to the members of the topic group for their spirited participation, to Whitey Hagadorn for taking notes, and to Cathleen May for serving as scribe. I also wish to express my appreciation to those responsible for organizing and funding the conference and making it possible for us to meet.

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