08/14/2012 10:38 am ET Updated Oct 14, 2012

Explore, Discover, Share, Preserve, Sustain... Plunder?

Scrambling along the muddy banks of Alberta Canada's Red Willow River, a team of expectant explorers eagerly followed the lead of paleontologist Phil Bell. Only the week before Bell had discovered and partially excavated what promised to represent a fully intact fossilized hadrosaur. Although unable to unearth the dinosaur in its entirety Bell had carefully preserved the partially exposed vertebrate, wrapping this securely in a protective layer of burlap and plaster over which a blue tarpaulin was laid. To completely conceal the telltale tarp, loose soil was scattered, camouflaging the site until Bell's projected return a few days later.

While hadrosaur remains are among the more prevalent of fossil finds, the discovery of a pristine skeleton is an extremely rare circumstance and one that proffers a unique glimpse towards expanding the understanding of what transpired within the dinosaur realm. When the group reached the location however, instead of the anticipated opportunity to garner a wealth of information, Bell and the others encountered a scene of senseless desecration. The protective materials so painstakingly applied lay wantonly strewn about, the fossil itself maliciously defaced, fractured remnants of the once nearly perfect specimen lay littered amongst the debris. The vandalism yielded a devastating blow not just to Bell personally but to scientific discovery overall.

The hadrosaur, noted for its duck-like bill and often ornate crest is categorized as a gentle herbivore believed to have ambled capably on either two or four legs throughout Asian, European and North American plains and wooded regions including Canada's Grand Prairie during the Cretaceous period. Beginning at the end of the Jurassic period approximately 144 million years ago, the Cretaceous timeframe was the longest running period in the Mesozoic era signaling at its closure approximately 65 million years ago an abrupt end of the majority of non-avian dinosaurs. The plenitude of hadrosaur evidence since disclosed seemingly indicates that these creatures were among the most abundant at the time of this mass extinction. A fully represented skeleton offered a unique opportunity to glean clues that could help piece together the puzzle of events that led to this large scale species death but also more about the hadrosaur's little known activities in the region.

Unfortunately the recent incidence of pillage encountered by the young paleontologist and his team is a scenario that continues to be replicated in various formats the world over. Dinosaur remains have proven particularly popular targets as they can be especially lucrative. When in the early 1920s Roy Chapman Andrews came up with the idea of auctioning off an "extra" dinosaur egg to ostensibly help raise the profile as well as fund his next expedition, he unwittingly opened the door to what has developed into new avenues for trade in natural and cultural artifacts. Although the auction proved successful as a novel fundraising tool, it unleashed unanticipated consequences, highlighting natural finds as valued commodities it engendered distrust as to whether the motivations of the Chapman Andrews expeditions were truly scientific or monetary in nature. As a result, permits from the Chinese were no longer forthcoming and subsequent planned expeditions had to be abandoned. In 1923 the discovery of dinosaur eggs represented the first such known to the modern world. The renowned insurance group Lloyds of London was asked to insure their safekeeping in transit from China to the U.S. When asked the value of the eggs, Chapman Andrews reportedly replied "scientifically they are priceless, commercially they would be worth what someone would pay for them." Commercial price level was ascertained shortly thereafter when the egg was auctioned for $5,000, an astronomical amount for the time.

It continues to be the high prices that the markets are willing to pay that fuels trade for relics. The voracity of demand has encouraged product inventory obtained through questionable or illicit practices. This past June the Mongolian Government tried to stop a sale at at New York auction of an approximately 70 million year old Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton alleged to have been illegally sourced from Mongolia's Nemegt Basin. The skeleton, which under the auction hammer fetched over $1 million, was promptly seized by the U.S. government and sequestered in a warehouse pending verification of its origins and mode of derivation.

The sensational nature of the specimen, and the hefty price tag that it generated, helped in this case to attract sufficient notice to elicit government intervention, however the burgeoning plethora of Internet auction and other sites has added dimensionally to avenues for dispensing goods. The sheer volume, global reach and ability to quickly remove or recalibrate information makes these virtually impossible to monitor. Information can be rapidly dispersed at minimum cost, offering relative anonymity for sellers, providing regulators scant windows of opportunity to disseminate, investigate and pursue offenders. Therefore the largely unregulated Internet has provided vast, inexpensive means to quickly and profitably offload fossils, archeological objects and antiquities of dubious provenance. The haste to capitalize on the desirability of fossilized dinosaur remains and other ancient finds has led to these being in some instances literally bulldozed out of the ground. Meanwhile underwater treasure seekers scour the seabeds seeking out and claiming shipwrecks to recoup and sell off valuable artifacts. Such negligent carnage inevitably destroys critical information important to science.

With so many questions as yet unanswered, it is undoubtedly remiss to irretrievably disturb or destroy potential transmissions that the past has to offer. Scientists today continuously ponder and wrestle with only incomplete information, juggling this to piece together more conclusive pictures of an overall puzzle. The important communications proffered by historical vestiges and artifacts in their natural settings can provide windows of understanding into past circumstances and events which significantly contribute towards comprehending current situations as well as yield critical clues towards preventing and warding off similar future calamities. Protection of these is essential. However, while the scientific community imposes and seeks to strictly adhere to exacting regulations governing the treatment of natural and historical sites, it is those beyond this that seek to spoil for profit or pure sport that have little regard for scientific method. Monetary incentives have fostered a growing realm of profit seekers including a host of for profit enterprise operating under the banner of "historical preservation." These profitably augment excavation and scavenging activities via the sale of retrieved relics deemed "redundant" thus forever eradicating a chapter of the world's ongoing scientific story offered through systematic in situ observation.

As such the mantra of the explorer/scientist to explore, discover, share, preserve, sustain is being infringed upon by plunder. It is unlikely that stricter laws and regulations on their own will provide sufficient remedy to counter illicit behavior or questionable treatment of scientific finds. Alberta, Canada, the jurisdiction where Phil Bell's hadrosaur fossil discovery was vandalized, counts among the strictest of anti-poaching regulations and yet the region has experienced numerous destructive episodes involving protected scientific field research sites. More critically in tangent with stringent enforcement of sanctions and penalties, is the need to infuse a greater respect for the natural world and what it offers. The recognition of the past and the value of its lessons towards present and future. Through education and the appreciation that we are among the first to potentially glean the benefits of an historical understanding of former conditions and their consequences will help secure the protection of field research and history's time capsules. As Roy Chapman Adams so aptly stated "scientifically they are priceless."