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Ethics of Fossil Collecting


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musicnfossils

So I briefly spoke to a palaeontologist during a Q&A session he held a while ago on his Instagram page, and I asked him what his favourite fossil was that he had or currently owned. His responses were essentially that he believes that fossil collecting is unethical because it can hinder science by hiding important finds away in private collections and prevent the public from seeing some specimens because museums sometimes cannot pay the exorbitant prices that the market creates. 

 

I’d like to hear your opinions on this issue, since this forum is essentially full of collectors. As a collector, I’m somewhere in the middle of, “nothing for anyone but scientists” and, “it’s fair game”. Especially when you factor in things like private land, should the government be able to rip Dino bones out of someone’s property that someone essentially unknowingly paid for when obtaining said land? 

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FF7_Yuffie

I've always thought for rare finds and rare full skeletons, scientists and museums should get first dibs--same with other things like art, if something like a van Eyck is up for grabs, museums should have first crack at it. For a fair price--not getting away witj buying a Rex skeleton for 10k or something daft.

 

But at the same time, unless its been used for research or its too fragile, the museum items should be displayed. Like, I heard many museums like the NHM have more stored away than in public eye, which is wrong for me. If a museum can't display their iguanodon skeleton for all to enjoy, loan it to a smaller museum that can.

 

But for common bits like Oviraptor eggs or Pstitaccosaur skeletons and isolated bones, I see no problem having them open for collectors. Like soneone having a Triceratops skull or apatpsaurus leg bone, science isn't gonna lose out.

 

 

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I think this is an important issue to discuss.

 

My opinion is that collectors should be able to collect fossils. First, most of the fossils people own are pretty common ones and museums would not be able to or need to study them due to the volume they are found in, but obviously not all fossils are like this. Many collectors also make contributions to science, by donating important pieces to be studied. I also think that without private collectors many many pieces would be lost forever, since these people are often the reason why many fossils are found in the first place and without them these pieces would just be left to be weathered and eroded away into dust. At least when a fossil is in private hands it can be preserved and it is likely that it can be studied in the future.

You said that they stated that the fossils are very expensive, but at the same time arranging trips to find certain fossils is very expensive and time consuming. Without private collectors even fewer fossils would be found as Paleontology as science does not have much money put into it, and as I mentioned before many fossils are donated and others can be studied while they remain in private hands.

I am not really sure about the argument you brought up from them stating "it prevents the public from seeing them" were they talking about the fossils? Most museums display only a little bit of their actual collections to the public what would be the difference between that and having it in private hands in terms of this? I understand that some exceptional pieces could be displayed but most will not be.

 

Hope at least some of what I said makes sense, I am really interested in hearing other opinions on this topic, maybe mine will change.

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When responding to this topic, I ask all members to remember that TFF has been dedicated to building bridges between the professional and amateur communities.  Stereotyping rants against amateurs or professionals will not be published.  

 

Personally, I think private property rights supersede any institution's perceived notion of what part of my property they deem I don't deserve.

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FF7_Yuffie
11 minutes ago, Misha said:

 Most museums display only a little bit of their actual collections to the public what would be the difference between that and having it in private hands in terms of this? I understand that some exceptional pieces could be displayed but most will not be.

 

 

Yeah, I hate museums doing that unless its too fragile to display.

 

If they cant display it, loan it out. Im sure there are lots of small museums who would love to display that Allosaurus skull thats kept in a vault and would benefit from doing so.

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Praefectus

I don't think fossil ownership is unethical at all. Just because a fossil is in a private collection does not mean it is hidden away from the world. There are many examples of research papers being published on privately owned fossils. Fossils are eroding faster than they are being collected and there are not enough researchers to collect everything. Many paleontological discoveries would not have happened without the help of private collectors. 

 

I recommend reading through these posts. 

 

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musicnfossils
15 minutes ago, JohnJ said:

When responding to this topic, I ask all members to remember that TFF has been dedicated to building bridges between the professional and amateur communities.  Stereotyping rants against amateurs or professionals will not be published.  

 

Personally, I think private property rights supersede any institution's perceived notion of what part of my property they deem I don't deserve.

I agree with 100% of this and I have faith that the members of this community are mature enough not to let it devolve into mudslinging. :)

 

19 minutes ago, Misha said:

I am not really sure about the argument you brought up from them stating "it prevents the public from seeing them" were they talking about the fossils? Most museums display only a little bit of their actual collections to the public what would be the difference between that and having it in private hands in terms of this? I understand that some exceptional pieces could be displayed but most will not be.

 

Yes they were talking about fossils. I agree with your point. I heard somewhere that my local Dino museum has less than 1% of it’s collection on display. Can’t substantiate that claim but it’s believable. I found part of a ceratopsian limb bone eroding out of the soil and reported it to them, they refused to collect it because of the sheer abundance of ceratopsian material they have already...and since digging is illegal here, that bone is likely going to be left to erode away. Unfortunate in my opinion. 

 

This is just a side note but I wonder if museums would ever decide to sell or auction off items that are of no scientific significance. Maybe they don’t have a care for that dusty old triceratops horn but I sure would love it. Perhaps they should do that in some circumstances to help raise funds for future projects. 

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I think there is a lot of controversy surrounding this

To which there probably isn't a clear cut answer.

 

There are probably many rare specimens in the hands of private collectors which some scientists would love to study. 

And on the other hand there are also hundreds of specimens gathering dust in museum draws that haven't been looked at in decades.

 

And one could also question countries that don't allow amateur collecting

There are probably many fantastic specimens that will get destroyed by erosion, but could be preserved if there were allowed to be dug up. 

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LordTrilobite
2 hours ago, musicnfossils said:

I agree with 100% of this and I have faith that the members of this community are mature enough not to let it devolve into mudslinging. :)

 

 

Yes they were talking about fossils. I agree with your point. I heard somewhere that my local Dino museum has less than 1% of it’s collection on display. Can’t substantiate that claim but it’s believable. I found part of a ceratopsian limb bone eroding out of the soil and reported it to them, they refused to collect it because of the sheer abundance of ceratopsian material they have already...and since digging is illegal here, that bone is likely going to be left to erode away. Unfortunate in my opinion. 

 

This is just a side note but I wonder if museums would ever decide to sell or auction off items that are of no scientific significance. Maybe they don’t have a care for that dusty old triceratops horn but I sure would love it. Perhaps they should do that in some circumstances to help raise funds for future projects. 

Yes, many museums generally have most of their collection hidden away from the public. What the public sees is only a small portion. Though there are some museums that have most of their specimens on display. The Teylers Museum in Haarlem, Netherlands would be one example of this.

 

And yes it does sometimes happen where museums get rid of specimens of no scientific significance. Be it in the trash, in the museum shop or some other way. A few years ago the Nature museum in Rotterdam had a special day where people could get an Ice Age bone for a token 1 euro. They had a whole load of North Sea Pleistocene bones they wanted to get rid of. These bones ranged from whale to mammoth to horse. It was great for little kids having the opportunity to own a real mammoth bone. I think that day sparked a lot of future palaeontologists.


A lot of fossils are "saved" by private collectors. Many fossils erode out of rocks every day and will be lost forever. Museums don't always have the time or money to dig everything up.

Regardless of who owns the fossil. Information is key. The most information is retained, the better. If a fossil in a private collection has enough information it could still be worthwhile to a museum at a later time.

But too often not enough information is saved on possibly important items. So even if a fossil is physically "saved" it might not have any scientific value anymore because it doesn't have enough information associated with it.

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I have had this same discussion multiple times on TFF. For example:

Next time, ask the paleontologist if people should be able to collect art and privately own it or not? What if it is considered an important piece? What if I painted it myself? What if the artist gave it to me?

 

Or ask if I should be allowed to own rocks or minerals. What about scientifically important samples? Who decides? What about the worthless rocks in my yard? What about road construction gravel from the quarries in Schoharie, NY? That is mined and sold by the ton and I go collect it (prior to it being crushed) about once a year for the fossils in it.

 

Can I collect butterflies? Coins? Stamps? What if they are scientifically/historically/artistically "important" specimens? Maybe the concept or private ownership is the problem? Should the government own everything? 

 

It is like the ethics of vegetarianism. I have no problem if you feel bad about killing animals to eat them and chose not to. But I am an animal evolved to eat a mixed diet of plant and animal products (teeth of an omnivore, shorter gut than an herbivore, enzymes for digesting lactose,etc.) and it is cruel and unethical to force me to eat a diet I am not evolved for.

 

Similarly imposing your ethical choice to not collect fossils on others is unethical. Just like choosing another's religion for them is unethical. Besides that paleontologist could never house, catalog or keep all the fossils in the collections of my friends and I. Should the common specimens he has no room for be crushed into road gravel instead of filling my garage? (Don't ask my wife that last question.)

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I've found that there is a wide range of thinking among paleontologists from those who on Jan 1 post on twitter the image I show below, as their New Years resolution, to those that are more willing to work with collectors.  The good new is that with those that I've encountered most see the value and importance of collecting and do not view it as unethical.   How many of us have reached out to notable dinosaur paleontologists like Carpenter, Hendrickx, Larsen, Evers, Currie and those that contribute here on the forum and found they are more than willing to give their time to help.  Gosh when I see Mork Norell of the AMNH and others walking around the Tucson fossil show it cannot be all that bad.  I dismiss those who throw out the ethics card and support those that value our presence.

 

20200522_022921.thumb.jpg.97add036d76915a60bf22e1c216cea4c.jpg

 

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1 hour ago, Scylla said:

Similarly imposing your ethical choice to not collect fossils on others is unethical. 

Excellent statement, Gus. :dinothumb:

There is no Kantian categorical imperative whereby anyone should will all collectors to do some one thing in all cases, as that does not take into account a lot of different and relative conditions (and competing/conflicting moral duties makes it a mess anyway, which is part of why Kant's second critique seems to fall flat on its face). To impose a singular, monolithic ethics leaves no room for personal, moral choice, which generally ought to be the foundation for any system of ethics. 

 

The laws, of course, somewhat supersede all of that. The laws are not infallible, but change requires a great deal of long effort through lobbying, or getting elected to an office that is in a position to change the laws, and then gaining support for those changes. Some of the laws seem silly, or a bit like overkill, created as they may have been without full comprehension of the nature of fossil collecting. They may be out of an abundance of caution to prevent the destruction of public lands should the proverbial floodgates of collectors open. :P 

 

But anything beyond where the domain of law extends comes down to personal choice. I would hope collectors would make the choice to donate something scientifically significant to a museum to continue a now centuries-long cooperation. If a collector chooses not to, I can feel free to be disappointed, but I respect that person's choice. I can try to persuade said person through reason, but I cannot compel, nor should I employ guilt or invoke some purist sense of moral duty to browbeat that collector into donating a find. Something not donated willingly is more like a tax than a free choice. Some collectors are simply not ready to part with their finds just as yet, perhaps willing them to a museum once they die, and that's fine, too -- science can be patient, and perhaps the collector would like to privately enjoy their find a little longer. 

 

Professionals and amateurs make the very best partners when both members of that partnership can mutually agree on the terms. Both serve essential roles that further science. If one side disparages the other by using labels like "unethical," that blanket generalization complicates the partnership and sets a poor example for the continuation of that partnership for our next generation of researchers and collectors. 

 

 

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3 minutes ago, Kane said:

Excellent statement, Gus. :dinothumb:

There is no Kantian categorical imperative whereby anyone should will all collectors to do some one thing in all cases, as that does not take into account a lot of different and relative conditions (and competing/conflicting moral duties makes it a mess anyway, which is part of why Kant's second critique seems to fall flat on its face). To impose a singular, monolithic ethics leaves no room for personal, moral choice, which generally ought to be the foundation for any system of ethics. 

 

The laws, of course, somewhat supersede all of that. The laws are not infallible, but change requires a great deal of long effort through lobbying, or getting elected to an office that is in a position to change the laws, and then gaining support for those changes. Some of the laws seem silly, or a bit like overkill, created as they may have been without full comprehension of the nature of fossil collecting. They may be out of an abundance of caution to prevent the destruction of public lands should the proverbial floodgates of collectors open. :P 

 

But anything beyond where the domain of law extends comes down to personal choice. I would hope collectors would make the choice to donate something scientifically significant to a museum to continue a now centuries-long cooperation. If a collector chooses not to, I can feel free to be disappointed, but I respect that person's choice. I can try to persuade said person through reason, but I cannot compel, nor should I employ guilt or invoke some purist sense of moral duty to browbeat that collector into donating a find. Something not donated willingly is more like a tax than a free choice. Some collectors are simply not ready to part with their finds just as yet, perhaps willing them to a museum once they die, and that's fine, too -- science can be patient, and perhaps the collector would like to privately enjoy their find a little longer. 

 

Professionals and amateurs make the very best partners when both members of that partnership can mutually agree on the terms. Both serve essential roles that further science. If one side disparages the other by using labels like "unethical," that blanket generalization complicates the partnership and sets a poor example for the continuation of that partnership for our next generation of researchers and collectors. 

 

 

Agreed. Now that we solved that, let's tackle word peace:thumbsu:

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Abstraktum
15 minutes ago, LordTrilobite said:

A few years ago the Nature museum in Rotterdam had a special day where people could get an Ice Age bone for a token 1 euro.

 

If this ever happens in Leiden, please give me a PM :D

 

 

Personally I think private collecting is totally fine, as long as you obey the law.

 

Just one great example from Germany what can be achieved if private collectors and science work together:

This is the 12th Archeopteryx (sorry for the bad picture by me) that was found in the Solnhofen area.

It was found in 2010 at a public quarry by a private collector. You can still dig in the quarry. So maybe the next Archeopteryx is up to you :) 

 

 

Quote

[…]

Now the reliable collector informed the Bavarian State Collection in Munich, impelled by his scientific intention. Even before the preparation had been finished, the fractured specimen was immediately declared a cultural monument of national meaning. By this, the owner’s wish to save the fossil for scientific access was accorded. The owner of the property, where the find was made, got payed off generously and by mutual agreement, as he was eligible for half of the value by law.

[…] 

Today, the first scientific evaluation is finished. Despite the paramount importance of his discovery, the finder of this Archaeopteryx wishes to remain anonymous. We owe it to his prudent and genuine commitment to present one of the most important finds of the world on exhibition. 

 

20190316_135700.jpg.f988a155f01891c0270d29a0ed84d330.jpg

 

20190316_135717.jpg.11a7daf12c27caea96d97ec746489599.jpg

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Fossildude19
5 hours ago, musicnfossils said:

I agree with 100% of this and I have faith that the members of this community are mature enough not to let it devolve into mudslinging. :)

It's good to have faith in the members, but some topics can be sensitive triggers for some people, and sometimes we lose sight of objectivity in the face of passionate debate.

I have seen this topic covered many times here, and invariably someone oversteps, and we have to step in.

 

We strive here to get amateurs and professional paleontologists to work together. Not everyone is out to make a buck collecting, and not every specimen is museum worthy.

I think the best way forward is to cooperate with professionals, donate specimens when asked to, and salvage what may be erased forever by erosion and time. 

 

We can't take all of it with us when we go, so I think that should be kept in mind during any estate planning process. 

Keeping good records of finds will make your collection more scientifically important, and more likely to be wanted by a museum when that time comes. 

 

And as John said, please keep any generalizations or stereotyping rants off of the Forum. 

 

 

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WhodamanHD

The vast majority of professionals I’ve met are more than willing to work with commercial fossils dealers as well as amateur fossil collector, and recognize our value. The vast majority of fossil dealers and amateurs I’ve met are more than willing to work with professionals and their institutions and recognize their value. In my experience, it is a select few on the fringes of either side who cause most of the problems. Most recognize we all are working towards the same goal and we are better working together than against each other. This forum is a shining example of that Professionals-public cooperation.

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Here in Switzerland the largest collection of dinosaur fossils is owned by a mineral and fossils dealer/collector who founded a museam to display his finds. He donated all holotype skeletons to the state to make sure that they are available for research in the future (e.g. in case his museum has to close at some point for whatever reason). Researchers from Switzerland and abroad regularly come to the museum to study the finds.

For his lifelong work in paloentology and for building bridges to private collectors he was awarded a doctor title honoris causa. Also, a whale and a dinosaur have been named after him. 

 

For me this is a good example that both private individuals and researchers can work together. :dinothumb:

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Uncle Siphuncle

I enjoy walking through a house full of self-found, self-prepped specimens on display, be it your house or mine.  

 

I do make donations of generally 2 kinds:  painful and painless.  Painless donations are generally culled specimens donated to kids and schools in bulk.  

 

Painful donations are the ones that deserve display space at home and mark significant personal achievement.

 

I am more likely to donate a new species than a range extension, but the latter can go either way based on completeness/condition.      For example, I have gladly donated some partials of rare ammonites in good enough condition to preserve diagnostic details and have sufficient scientific detail, but don’t make the cut for home display.  I like to hold onto the pretty and complete ones.  

 

As for new taxa, my donation timing depends on eagerness of the researcher to publish.  No point in a cool find languishing in accessioned storage when it can instead be appreciated daily by me and shown to friends.

 

In the end, we are all temporary stewards of our prized finds.  In 20-40 years I may be dust, but science will still be around to accept my finds.

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A small discussion on the subject is ongoing right now on the Russian forum and I must admit some scientists have a negative view on collectors. They cite horror stories  about collectors bragging to have depleted a site before scientists arrived, stealing from museums etc. They forget the fact that there are lots of ugly cases in official institutions as well.

SOME cases of unscrupulous collecting definitely happen but not to the extent of viewing all collectors (or collectors in general) as bad guys. This kind of position represents a professional/social bias and has psychological roots: desire to consider oneself  a white knight, unite as a group by stating something bad about others, thinking that collectors use fossils for making enormous money while themselves defend humanity with empty pockets etc. Immature, in other words

In my opinion, science, collectors and private fossil extracting companies should work together, and if things are organised as they should, to mutual benefit. Supporting conflicts and trying to suppress private collecting is unproductive

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1 hour ago, Uncle Siphuncle said:

I enjoy walking through a house full of self-found, self-prepped specimens on display, be it your house or mine.

Is that why I have this fossil you found and prepped on display in my house?

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I can see both sides of the argument here. Although I agree important specimens should be given a chance to be examined/ studied, there are also just way too many common fossils out there to let go to waste. In my specific case here, walls of crinoids. This formation is well studied and has a lot of good literature documented on it. Still, it would be a shame to let all these just erode away in my opinion. I think collecting in the bigger picture is a good thing. Respecting rules, laws, private property, and just having a good sense of what's right and wrong is always a good rule of thumb.

20200522_123829.jpg

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This goes both ways. I know other scientists who were invited out to assess and excavate a site, then, once excavation was nearly complete (including hundreds of man-hours of work), the landowners turned around and told the scientific crew thanks for the help and sold the fossils to a commercial dealer. I know of cases where jackets were stolen from active professional dig sites on public lands. Where active research quarries were raided for fossils. I've even seen cases where people are actively trading in fossils which were stolen from museum collections and even have original specimen numbers or specimen tags on them. I've seen a lot of people bring fossils to scientists under the guise that they're considering donating the fossil, only to actually be looking for an appraisal before putting it up for sale. I'm absolutely not accusing anyone here of doing that, but it's important to understand what we're sometimes dealing with.

 

This has all gotten substantially worse following the Sue fiasco, once everyone decided they could make big money by finding and selling fossils for ultra-rich collectors. I'm totally okay with the sale of fossils (people absolutely need compensation for the time and effort that goes into finding and preparing these specimens) but to some extent the way this market has operated has fed into some of the worst aspects of human greed and led to some massive ethics breaches, including straight-up violations of domestic and international law.

 

There are certainly scientists who are just jerks towards private collectors, but this is a two-way street and there needs to be mutual respect here. Mostly we are just trying to do our job, and that job is producing the best possible research in order to provide the best possible sum of knowledge about the ancient world. This benefits collectors as much as it benefits the scientific community, because it helps you understand what it is you have and what it means, rather than simply having a pretty display item. Scientists need to be respectful when asking people to consider donating an object of personal pride or an object which cost considerable time or money to acquire, and need to clearly state why this is important, but at the same time, if a scientist takes the effort to examine a fossil, do some background reading on it, and explain to you the importance, it is only fair to give serious consideration towards donating the material.

 

If the greediest of hobbyists prevent us from doing our job, the hobby will suffer. If we block you from exploring the fossil record on your own, our ability to do our jobs also suffers. There has to be space for both professionals and hobbyists in this ecosystem, otherwise it will harm all of us.

 

As far as what museums are doing, I think there's some misunderstanding here. When we reposit fossils into a museum collection, it isn't because we greedily want to keep other people from looking at them; it's because this is the best way to protect those fossils from damage and preserve them for future scientific research. We are not trying to hide them away from people. If you are unhappy with the extent of the fossil displays at your local museum and would like to see more fossils, then please consider contributing to financial support for either temporary or permanent exhibit updates. Museums are not for-profit organizations and often barely make ends meet, and almost never have the money sitting around for major changes to their facilities. This is largely because museums try to keep their entrance fees as low as possible to further their educational missions, with a lot of the finances going towards school-group educational programs. This is especially important for poorer public school districts, which often have their programming provided free of charge. Such programming can be an important experience for students who otherwise might never think they have a chance at a career in science, technology, or engineering.

 

I'm happy to answer any questions to the best of my ability.

 

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Uncle Siphuncle
5 hours ago, RuMert said:

A small discussion on the subject is ongoing right now on the Russian forum and I must admit some scientists have a negative view on collectors. They cite horror stories  about collectors bragging to have depleted a site before scientists arrived, stealing from museums etc. They forgot to say there are lots of ugly cases from official institutions as well.

SOME cases of unscrupulous collecting definitely exist but not to the extent of viewing all collectors (or collectors in general) as bad guys. This kind of position is a professional/social bias and has psychological roots: desire to consider oneself  a white knight, unite as a group by stating something bad about others, thinking that collectors use fossils for making enormous money while they defend science and humanity with empty pockets etc. Immature, in other words

In my opinion, science, collectors and private fossil extracting companies should work together, and if things are organised as they should, to mutual benefit. Supporting conflicts and trying to suppress private collecting is unproductive

Bad conduct can erupt both with private collectors as well as academics, not just commercial collectors.  I have had private collectors ravage personal sites I've shared in good faith.  I have a friend who tipped off a particular institution to 3 good sites, and in all 3 cases, said institution got between him and the landowner and wrecked his access to those sites.

 

I wouldn't stereotype any one of the 3 collector groups mentioned; it is more a question of human nature.  That is why I have spent time thinking of ways to place boundaries on human nature when dealing with something as finite, consumable and vulnerable as a fossil site.  In short, I prefer to deal with individuals and academics from out of state when a site of personal value is involved, as distance and difficult logistics tend to encourage more honorable behavior.  Make being greedy too difficult or expensive for them, if you don't know them well enough to trust them.  That can ease up after a sensible vetting period, during which the other person has a chance to demonstrate reciprocity, respectful conduct as a guest, or both.

 

On the other end of the spectrum, keep a few sites on hand where you have taken what you need, and the sites still produce, but you are bored with the fauna.  These can be personally found sites, locally known sites, or major sites across your state which are extremely well known.  These sites are easier to share with people you don't know well, and with collectors of all experience levels.  It is satisfying to help people, and that is easiest when you don't have to worry what happens to the site, since your representative sample is safely curated in your personal collection.

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