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Exporting fossils without proper authorization is not only a nuisance to countries in the Global South, but also a violation of the law.


A model of a complete dinosaur fossil hung by cables

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In 1995, scientists David Martill and Eberhard “Dino” Frey examined the skull of a dinosaur fossil discovered in northern Brazil. Upon closer inspection, they made an interesting observation. A CT scan revealed that the snout of the 110-million-year-old animal had been artificially lengthened by fossil traders, most likely to increase its value.

Martill and Frey were frustrated with the circumstances, so they dubbed the newly discovered species Irritator challengeri.

However, the fossil’s presence in Germany’s State Museum of Natural History Stuttgart did not alleviate the frustration.

Regrettably, there is a commonly held belief that countries in the Global South are viewed as a mere attraction for researchers from the North.

Over 2,000 paleontologists and their allies have signed a public letter urging for the return of a fossil to Brazil. The letter was recently sent to Petra Olschowski, the minister responsible for science, research, and arts in Baden-Württemberg, where the fossil is currently housed in a museum.

Aline Ghilardi, a paleontologist from Brazil’s Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, stated that the Irritator is a significant fossil from Brazil due to its well-preserved skeleton, which is a rarity among dinosaurs globally. Ghilardi is also involved in leading the repatriation initiative.

The restitution request is based on Brazilian legislation enacted in 1942 declaring that fossils found in the country are the state’s property and cannot be traded or exported without authorization. A 1990 law also mandates that any holotype (a fossil representing a new species) remain in the country.

Ghilardi stated that the main goal is to ensure that the laws of Brazil are upheld. There is a widespread belief that countries in the Global South are seen as a mere attraction for researchers from the North to exploit for their own gain by taking fossils and displaying them in their museums for academic recognition. This behavior is seen as a form of neocolonialism.

Ethical Statement

In May of this year, the publication of a new analysis of Irritator’s skull in Palaeontologia Electronica gained the attention of the academic community.

Close-up photos of a dinosaur jaw

Several researchers have studied the Irritator challengeri fossil. Credit is given to Sales and Schultz in 2017, and the source can be found at https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0187070 under the CC BY 4.0 license.

The published work included a statement of ethics addressing the potential issues surrounding the fossil’s status, leading to considerable backlash regarding the museum’s acquisition methods. The authors suggest that a German dealer likely obtained the fossil from collectors in Brazil and removed it from the country before 1990. The museum then purchased the specimen from the dealer in 1991.

The main writer of the study, paleontologist Serjoscha Evers from the University of Fribourg, acknowledged in an email to Eos that he and his team made a mistake in their statement by referring to it as an ethics statement. He clarified that the issue with the fossil is actually a legal matter.

“It is not always just or ethical to study a fossil solely because it is on display in a museum.”

Evers, who has endorsed the letter in favor of returning the Irritator fossils, has chosen to suspend his efforts on other Brazilian fossils until there is legal clarity on their source or unless the study is conducted with a Brazilian colleague leading the project.

“I have become more conscious of the issue of origin compared to before – simply because a fossil is housed in a museum and accessible for research does not necessarily make it just or ethical to work with it,” Evers stated. “I believe that anything proven to be obtained illegally should definitely be returned.”

The article written by Evers about the Irritator was temporarily removed from Palaeontologia Electronica for 2 days in order for the journal to review the situation. The editor of the journal, Matúš Hyžný, stated in an email to Eos that the editorial board concluded there was no misconduct by the authors and therefore decided to keep the article accessible.

Michael Rasser, the assistant director of the Department of Paleontology at the State Museum of Natural History Stuttgart, stated in an email that the institution is taking the request for the return of the fossil seriously and is collaborating with the Ministry of Science, Research and Arts of Baden-Württemberg to investigate all details and come to a legal conclusion.

This is not a singular occurrence.

This is not an isolated incident.

The case of the Irritator involves a recent effort by paleontologists in Latin America to have a German museum in Baden-Württemberg return a dinosaur fossil to Brazil. The Ubirajara jubatus fossil was taken out of the country without proper authorization during the 1990s or 2000s and was featured in a 2020 study published in Cretaceous Research by Martill and Frey.

During the month of June, the Ubirajara fossil was returned to Brazil, marking the first time a dinosaur fossil has been repatriated to the country. As a result, the Cretaceous Research paper was retracted by editors and the director of the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe, where the fossil was previously housed, stepped down from their position.

These occurrences are not uncommon, but rather a result of an ongoing scientific domination in the realm of paleontology.

Juan Cisneros, a paleontologist at Brazil’s Federal University of Piauí and a key figure in the repatriation efforts, stated that these occurrences are not singular but rather a result of an ongoing scientific colonialism in the paleontology field.

In a research study conducted in 2022, Cisneiros, Ghilardi, and their team examined all existing literature on newly discovered fossil species from two significant geological sites in northeastern Brazil and Mexico over the last 30 years. The study revealed that 80% of the publications did not mention whether the authors had obtained permission to collect or export the specimens, a requirement by both countries. Additionally, approximately 90% of the specimens described by foreign researchers were from Brazil, despite the country’s prohibition on exporting holotypes.

At present, Ghilardi and her team are creating a catalog of over 500 holotype fossils located in museums across Germany, Japan, and the United States. These fossils are suspected to have been obtained unlawfully from Brazil.

A drawing of a brown and orange dinosaur with short arms and an elongated head standing on two legs

Unable to reword.

In response to the problem, groups of paleontology experts from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru joined forces to collaborate on future repatriation efforts and combat the issue of scientific imperialism. One of their initial steps was to release a publication in PaleoAmerica proposing that authors be required to disclose the source of fossils and include information about fossil permits in the “materials and methods” portion of their scholarly articles.

According to Herminio Araújo Júnior, the president of the Brazilian Society of Paleontology, journals play a crucial role in preventing scientific colonialism.

According to Martill, a paleontologist from the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, purchasing fossils from sellers who obtained them illegally is acceptable for museums if it aids in preserving the fossil for academic research. He believes that paleontologists globally should appreciate the efforts of museum curators who prevent these fossils from ending up in private collections where they would be inaccessible to anyone.

Martill has expressed disapproval of laws in certain countries, including Brazil, that prohibit these types of transactions. However, he also stated that he is in favor of returning the Irritator fossil to its country of origin.

According to Ghilardi, the retrieval of fossils goes beyond a mere legal matter and is also a moral obligation. Returning them can benefit underprivileged communities in the developing world.

According to Ghilardi, it is a form of cultural violence to remove these fossils from their original owners. She believes that returning the Irritator fossil to the Araripe region in Brazil, where it was originally discovered, will boost the local economy through paleontological tourism and inspire future scientists. Ghilardi also believes that fossils have the power to positively impact a location.

—Sofia Moutinho (@sofiamoutinhoBR), Science Writer

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Citation: Moutinho, S. (2023), Illegal fossil export is more than an Irritator to the Global South, Eos, 104, https://doi.org/10.1029/2023EO230342. Published on 14 September 2023.
Text © 2023. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

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