Explore Topics

Paleontological Resources Management

Policy and Program Objectives

The Nature of Paleontological Resources

Fossils are non-renewable resources. There are a finite number of fossil specimens for any given extinct species, and that number is always decreasing as specimens are destroyed by erosion. Paleobotanical and paleozoological fossils comprise two types: body fossils and trace fossils. Body fossils are the structural remains of the plant or animal itself, including both hard tissues (e.g., bones, shells, seeds) and soft tissues (such as skin, leaves, cells). Trace fossils are the result of biological activities, such as tracks, root traces, coprolites, nests, middens, burrows, and borings. Both body and trace fossils need to be considered as paleontological resources by park managers. There are numerous types of fossils listed in the Hierarchical Classification Outline (HCO) of the NPS Museum Handbook, Part II.

Identification of Paleontological Resources

The identification of paleontological resources is critical for all parks. If paleontological resources do occur within park boundaries, the significance of those resources must be evaluated (see Evaluating the Significance of Paleontological Resources, below).The first step in identification is to gather all relevant existing information. Literature reviews and assessments of collections in outside repositories can provide the first background steps for obtaining baseline paleontological resource data. Professional paleontologists, staff at the Geologic Resources Division, and Cooperative Ecosystem Study Units can provide support in this endeavor.

Literature Surveys

Scientific literature should be reviewed for paleontological localities within park boundaries. During surveys, list of publications and a checklist of fossil species should be developed. Publications specific to paleontological resources in the park should be added to the park's bibliographic database, if they are not already included.

Collection Surveys

A list of non-NPS museums and academic institutions managing park fossil collections should be compiled. Sources of this information include scientific publications, collection permit records, and park researchers.

Identification of Areas with Potential for Significant Paleontological Resources

Literature and collection surveys will bring together what is known about a park's paleontological resources. Such information can be used to document sensitive areas and geologic formations that may continue to produce significant paleontological resources. However, a lack of published information does not imply a lack of significant fossil occurrences. Geologic formations extending beyond park boundaries may yield information relevant to park resources.

Paleontological Survey

A paleontological survey is the systematic inventory of geologic units in order to gather baseline data on paleontological resources. The Yellowstone Paleontological Survey report (1998) could serve as a model or prototype for parks developing similar inventories. Appropriate geologic and paleontologic field techniques should be used during paleontological surveys. This requires the services of professional paleontologists. Because of the difficulty in adequately identifying paleontological specimens in the field, samples may need to be collected for preparation and identification in the lab. Such specimens and their associated data must be catalogued into the park's museum collection using NPS protocols (see references above).All significant localities discovered during a paleontological survey should clearly document the paleontological content and geological context so that any researcher or park staff unfamiliar with the site could relocate it with little trouble. Site documentation should have three components.1. Paleontological Locality FormAt a minimum, each locality record should contain the following:a. locality identification number.b. geographic locality data; global positioning system (GPS) data, where available; US Geological Survey (USGS) topographic map quadrangle; UTM; longitude-latitude; township/range/section; state; county.c. geological locality data; age, supergroup, group, formation, member, bed. d. geological context; depositional environment, lithologic description.e. paleontological content; taxa present, identified to lowest possible rank (identification of specimens in the field will be tentative; if specimens are collected for further identification, such collection is noted on the form, and field identification is replaced later if warranted by preparation and study in the lab).f. collections and record; field numbers of any specimens collected, park museum accession and catalog numbers pertaining to collected specimens.g. notes; notation of imminent dangers, such as locality in side of ravine or area of high erosion, signs of vandalism, etc.h. the condition of the locality (basically a locality in good condition is one that is managed so that the physical locality, specimens from the locality, and the associated data are not being damaged or lost to science). 2. Photo DocumentationGround photos are taken at ground level. Each site should be documented with a close-up photograph of the locality, as well as a photograph of the general setting of the locality. The latter photograph should be marked to show the exact siting of the locality and bear the locality number.Each locality should have its setting and number plotted on aerial photos. The scale of photographs should be adequate to allow geologically or geographically adjacent localities to be plotted separately.3. Geographic Information System (GIS) Documentationa. Obtain GIS data for all known paleontological resource localities using "state-of-the-art" technology.b. Develop paleontological resource elements within a GIS.c. Produce a paleontological locality map for the park.d. Maintain restricted access to sensitive paleontological localities and their associated information.

Not every park will need to conduct all of the above listed actions in order to identify its paleontological resources. These actions can be adapted to meet the specific needs of each park. Small parks with limited paleontological resources whose geologic and geographic distributions are well documented may only need a literature survey or collection survey to provide additional baseline data on the material that came from those sites. Large parks with little information on their paleontological resources may start with a literature survey, followed by a collection survey to determine whether a paleontological survey is needed. Parks that were established in whole or in part for their paleontological resources should complete literature, collection, and paleontological surveys in order to develop a comprehensive database regarding these resources.

Evaluating the Significance of Paleontological ResourcesFossils can have interpretive, historical, or scientific significance. While the first two are relatively easy to determine, scientific significance may change over time as new discoveries are made and/or new information is learned. Once paleontological resources have been identified, their scientific significance must be evaluated in order to take appropriate management action.There is no single yardstick by which the scientific significance of a fossil can be measured. Some factors will often automatically make a specimen significant. Examples are: specimens belonging to poorly known taxa, soft tissue or delicate structure preservation, specimens showing pathologies or injuries, specimens of unusually large size for their species, specimens showing paleoecological relationships (such as symbiosis, parasitism, commensalism, or predation), and specimens associated with datable materials (e.g. radiometric, paleomagnetic, or index fossils).However, many other subtle factors may make a specimen scientifically significant. While specimens of poorly known species are always significant, species which are extremely abundant may also be significant because they supply a large sample that can yield data on population structure; individual, ontogeny (individual life history), and sexual variation; allometry (biological or morphological measurements), etc. Specimens that are broken or incomplete may reveal details of internal anatomy that are not available from more complete specimens. Seemingly mundane specimens may provide important geological and geographical range extensions.Furthermore, paleontological resources have uses beyond the science of paleontology. For example, species that are common and widespread may be extremely important to geologists for the correlation of sediments over large areas, and a fossil of little utility for evolutionary studies may provide a paleoecologist with critical information for understanding the depositional environment.Thus, substantive paleontological knowledge is required in order to properly evaluate the scientific significance of fossils, and input from professional paleontologists is critical for the appropriate management of paleontological resources. The paleontological advisor should be familiar with the particular group of fossils being evaluated. Thus, active and past researchers within the park should be contacted. If such researchers are not available, superintendents should seek assistance from the Geologic Resources Division, other NPS paleontologists, or professional societies such as the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (for fossil vertebrates), the Paleontological Society (for fossil invertebrates), the Paleobotanical Section of the American Botanical Society (for fossil plants), Cooperative Ecosystem Study Units, and other academic institutions.

Not all paleontological resources within a park will be of equal significance and some may have little or no scientific significance. Professional paleontological input should be sought in developing broad groupings of paleontological resources with differing significance. These can be prioritized and paleontologists and managers should work together to develop the management actions appropriate for each site.

Management Actions for Paleontological Resources

Once paleontological resources have been identified and evaluated as to their condition and significance, management can select actions to be taken at each locality. Professional paleontologists should be consulted in determining which actions are most appropriate for any given site. A number of factors should be considered in determining appropriate management actions, such as the scientific significance of the specimen or locality, the interpretive value of the paleontological resources, and natural and human threats to the paleontological resources.Potential management actions include:

    1. No action: Appropriate for sites that have few or no paleontological resources.
    2. Monitoring: Periodic re-examination of a locality to determine if conditions have changed such that different or additional management actions are required. Photographic records should be kept so that changes can be more easily ascertained.
    3. Cyclic prospecting: Areas of high erosion that also have high potential for producing fossil specimens should be periodically examined for new resources. The frequency of such cyclic prospecting will depend on the abundance of paleontological resources and the rate of sediment erosion.
    4. Stabilization and reburial: Significant specimens that cannot be immediately collected may be stabilized using the appropriate consolidants and reburied. Reburial slows down but does not stop the destruction of a fossil by erosion. Thus, this action is to be used only as an interim measure.
    5. Protective Structures: Sites or specimens that are to be exhibited in situ will usually require protective fences or shelters. Shelter structures range from small plastic domes to large buildings with attendant exhibits and research facilities. However, the use of structures may invite theft or vandalism and may also present problems of climate control and specimen degradation.
    6. Excavation: Excavation may be partial (such as the collection of a particular specimen in a fossil reef or the emergency collection of bones in imminent danger of destruction), or complete (an entire skeleton or an entire microvertebrate locality). (See Intensive Management, below.)
    7. Closure: Closure may be temporary (to accommodate an excavation in progress) or permanent (to protect areas with abundant significant paleontological resources that are easily pilfered). Closed areas may be completely withdrawn from public use or restricted to staff-led activities.
    8. Patrols: Important sites or areas may be in the area of existing patrol routes and should be brought to the attention of patrol rangers. Other areas may require the modification of patrol routes. Patrols may be important in preventing or reducing theft and vandalism.
    9. Confidentiality of sensitive information: Disclosure by the NPS, museums, scientific researchers, or publications of the nature and specific location of paleontological resources in park areas may lead to theft, harm, or vandalism of those resources. When appropriate and practical, the NPS should enter into agreements with museums, researchers, publications, and the creators of maps and databases to limit the disclosure of this information.

Many sites will require a mix of these actions for proper management. For example, an area with several highly significant localities may be closed to the public until funding is obtained for excavations. Once excavations are underway, guided walks for visitors may view the progress. After excavations are completed, the area may be opened to the public and cyclically prospected by the NPS or permitted researchers every few years. Information about the resources may be made available to the public via museum displays or scientific publications, but information about the nature and specific location of the resources that could lead to their vandalism or theft may be kept confidential.

Intensive ManagementThe natural process of erosion is an important element associated with the discovery of paleontological specimens. At the same time, erosion is also the major threat to most fossils, because once exposed at the earth's surface, fossils can be rapidly destroyed. Thus, in many cases significant paleontological resources can be protected only by intensive management, which includes collection, preparation, and placement in a museum collection for preservation and study. Input from the Geologic Resources Division and professional paleontologists should be sought when collecting is being considered. Such advice can help in estimating length of time, cost, needed supplies, etc.Fossils can be collected in many ways; the method varies with the nature of the resource. For example, the collection of sponges from a reef complex is much different than excavating a dinosaur skeleton, and both differ from the bulk collection and processing of matrix at a microvertebrate or pollen locality.Once collected, the relationship between the fossil(s) and its geologic context can be lost. Thus, the records of an investigation are as vital as the specimens collected. Minimum requirements for field data are given above. More documentation should accompany particularly valuable specimens or those that require complicated excavations, including information such as preferred orientations, photographs and detailed descriptions of sediments, quarry maps, and association with other specimens. In cases where plaster jacket blocks (similar to a cast around a broken bone) are collected, records should include orientation of the jacket and the specimens within the jacket, which side is to be opened, and what the nature and extent of any consolidants or chemical wrappers may be.Although collection will prevent the natural destruction of a fossil specimen, preparation in the lab is often required before the specimen is available for scientific evaluation and study. Fossil preparation is a specialized subdiscipline of paleontology and preparation should only be performed by professionals with suitable training. Locality files should be maintained for all specimens collected.

Because of the wide range of preparation techniques and the ever-changing list of consolidants and preservatives used in paleontology, detailed preparation records should be kept whenever possible. All preparation techniques and methods should be recorded and retained as part of the museum records. Refer to the NPS Museum Handbook, Part II, Chapter 3, for guidance. Such data will be invaluable to those undertaking future preparation and long-term conservation of these specimens.

Recovery of Paleontological Resources Discovered During Other ActivitiesOccasionally, fossils and trackways will be discovered during surveys and other park operations and activities. These should be thoroughly documented by photography and field notes, with copies provided to the park paleontologist or natural resource program manager promptly upon return from the field.

The decision to recover such specimens should not be made lightly. Such fossil discoveries should be left in situ except when collection is authorized by a Scientific Research and Collection permit (see below) or when the following five conditions are met:

  • The discovery team includes individuals professionally trained in paleontology or closely related fields (geology, archaeology) who are authorized by the park to collect similar fossil types in this park (evidence of such authority should always be carried in the field and displayed to park staff on request);
  • The fossils are recognized by expert authorities as being scientifically significant;
  • The park paleontologist or other expert determines that the fossils are at imminent risk of damage or loss due to erosion, weathering, construction activity, or theft (this determination will depend on the substrate, the potential for mitigating the risk by means other than removal, and on the remoteness of the location);
  • The park and/or the discovery team has or can obtain the personnel, equipment, funding, and commitment to completely document the location and safely recover and preserve the specimens; and
  • A federally authorized repository has indicated its willingness to assume long-term responsibility for curation of the specimens in accordance with NPS Museum Handbook standards.

Scientific Research and Collection

Park-originated Research

Whether conducted by outside researchers or park paleontologists, all park-originated paleontological research must be identified in the park's resource management plan. If the park does not have professional paleontological expertise on staff, it should seek the assistance of the Geologic Resources Division, other NPS professional paleontologists, Cooperative Ecosystem Study Units and other academic institutions, and outside paleontologists in addressing paleontological resources in the resource management plan. Superintendents may also develop a specific paleontological research plan to provide a more detailed treatment of problem areas identified in the resource management plan.

Research Originating Elsewhere

Outside researchers' projects may not necessarily be identified in the resource management plan, but may still be valuable to a park. Outside researchers must submit a written application to the park to obtain a Scientific Research and Collection Permit for proposed scientific activity that involves fieldwork, specimen collection, and/or has the potential to disturb resources or visitors (see DO 74 Studies and Collecting (being developed) and, in this Reference Manual, Research Administration and Collections for further explanation and application forms). The permitting system includes provisions to ensure that scientific research activities comply with both servicewide and park-specific requirements. The Geologic Resources Division or Regional Office should be contacted for assistance in evaluating paleontological research proposals if subject matter expertise is not available in the park.

If the park approves the proposed project and application, the researcher must deposit copies of his or her field data (notes, photographs, maps, etc.) with the park. Researchers must also submit an Investigators’ Annual Report to the park. Noncompliance with permit requirements should result in the park’s suspension of research activities or revocation of the permit.


Persons who collect paleontological specimens without a permit or otherwise disturb paleontological localities and specimens are subject to civil and criminal penalties (see Authorities section above).

A Scientific Research and Collection Permit is not required in emergency situations. The superintendent can authorize researchers or staff to collect specimens when specimens are in imminent danger of damage or loss through erosion, theft, and/or vandalism. Such a threat must be of such an immediate nature that the time involved in the normal permitting process would result in the loss of the specimen.

Repository and Institutional Curatorial Obligations

Under current NPS policy, all paleontological specimens found within park boundaries remain federal property unless they are consumed in analysis or discarded after analysis. 36 CFR § 2.5 requires that all natural resource objects placed in exhibits or collections be accessioned and catalogued into the park's museum collection. Generally, researchers are responsible for accessioning and cataloging collected specimens; a park that assumes this responsibility itself should explain this in the conditions of the approved permit. The park should also include the following conditions in the Scientific Research and Collecting Permit (1) the requirements for preparation of collected specimens, and (2) where collected specimens will be deposited. For guidance on managing natural resource collections, see DO 24 NPS Museum Collections Management; and in this Reference Manual Research Administration and Collections; and the NPS Museum Handbooks Part I and Part II.

Paleontological Resources Management Table of Contents | RM#77 Table of Contents
update on 02/05/2004  I   http://www.nature.nps.gov/rm77/paleo/ProgramGuide.cfm   I  Email: Contact Us
Please download the latest version of Adobe Reader :: Free Download