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The illegal export of fossils is a bigger issue for the Global South than just an Irritator.


Un modelo de fósil de dinosaurio completo colgado de cable

This is a legally approved Spanish translation of an article from Eos.

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In 1995, British paleontologist David Martill and his German colleague Eberhard “Dino” Frey closely examined the skull of a 110 million-year-old dinosaur fossil found in northern Brazil. They noticed something curious. A computed tomography (CT) scan revealed that the animal’s snout had been elongated by fossil traders, presumably to fetch a higher price.

Frustrated by the situation, Martill and Frey named the new species Irritator challengeri.

However, the frustration with the fossil, which is now part of the collection of the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, did not end there.

Today, over 2,000 paleontologists and other supporters have signed an open letter requesting the repatriation of the fossil to Brazil. A few weeks ago, they sent the letter to Petra Olschowski, Minister of Science, Research and Art for the State of Baden-Württemberg, where the museum is located.

Unfortunately, there is a widespread impression that countries in the Global South are like amusement parks for researchers from the Global North.

“El Irritator es uno de los fósiles más importantes de Brasil, ya que es el esqueleto mejor conservado de un grupo de dinosaurios poco común en todo el mundo”, declaró Aline Ghilardi, paleontóloga de la Universidad Federal de Rio Grande do Norte (Brasil), que colabora en el esfuerzo de repatriación.

The request for restitution is based on Brazilian legislation enacted in 1942, which states that fossils found in the country are property of the state and cannot be commercialized or exported without authorization. A 1990 law also requires that all holotypes (fossils representing a new species) remain in the country.

Ghilardi stated, “Simply put, we want Brazilian law to be respected.” He continued, “Unfortunately, there is a widespread impression that countries in the Global South are like amusement parks for researchers from the North who can come here, take our fossils, and display them in their museums for academic prestige. This is neocolonialism.”

Declaración ética

The academic world was intrigued by Irritator in May of this year, following the publication of a new skull analysis in Palaeontologia Electronica.

Fotos en primer plano de una mandíbula de dinosaurio

The fossil of Irritator challengeri has been analyzed by multiple researchers. Credit: Sales and Schultz, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0187070, CC BY 4.0

The post included an ethical statement acknowledging the “potentially problematic condition” of the fossil, which sparked significant criticism about the museum’s acquisition. According to the authors, it is likely that a German merchant bought the fossil from local collectors and removed it from Brazil before 1990. The museum purchased the specimen from the merchant in 1991.

The lead author of the study, paleontologist Serjoscha Evers from the University of Freiburg, admitted in an email to Eos that he and his colleagues had done “a poor job with the statement”, by labeling it as an ethical statement when, according to him, the issue with the fossil is more of a legal claim.

Just because a fossil is in a museum and therefore available for study, it is not always fair or ethical to work on it.

Evers, who has signed the letter supporting the repatriation of the Irritator, has decided to stop working on other Brazilian fossils until there is legal clarification about their origins or unless the research is conducted under the guidance of a Brazilian colleague.

“I am now more aware of issues of provenance than before: just because a fossil is in a museum and therefore available for study, it is not always fair or ethical to work on it”, wrote Evers. “I believe that anything proven to be illegal should, of course, be returned.”

The Evers article on the Irritator was withdrawn for two days while Palaeontologia Electronica evaluated the matter. The director of the magazine, Matúš Hyžný, wrote in an email to Eos that the editorial board of the magazine had decided to keep the article available as they found no violations by the authors.

Michael Rasser, the subdirector of the Department of Paleontology at the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, stated in an email that the institution is taking the open letter and demand for the fossil’s return seriously. They are currently working with the Ministry of Science, Research, and Art of Baden-Württemberg to clarify all the facts and reach a legal assessment.

This is not an isolated case.

The case of Irritator took place after a successful campaign by Latin American paleontologists who petitioned another German museum in Baden-Württemberg to return a dinosaur fossil to Brazil. The fossil of Ubirajara jubatus was illegally taken out of the country sometime between the 1990s and 2000s and was described by Martill and Frey in an article published in 2020 in Cretaceous Research.

In June, the Ubirajara fossil became the first dinosaur fossil to be repatriated to Brazil. The editors retracted the article from Cretaceous Research, and the director of the State Museum of Natural History in Karlsruhe, where the fossil was kept, resigned.

These occurrences are not isolated, but rather the result of a persistent scientific colonialism that continues in the field of paleontology to this day.

Juan Cisneros, a paleontologist from the Federal University of Piauí (Brazil) and one of the leaders of repatriation campaigns, stated that these cases are not isolated, but rather the result of a systematic scientific colonialism that continues to persist in the field of paleontology today.

In a 2022 study, Cisneiros, Ghilardi, and their colleagues examined all published research on new fossil species from two significant geological formations in northeastern Brazil and Mexico over the past three decades. They found that in 80% of the studies, there was no mention of whether the authors had permission to collect or export the specimens, a requirement by both nations. In the Brazilian case, nearly 90% of the specimens were described by foreign researchers, despite the country’s prohibition on exporting holotypes.

Currently, Ghilardi and his colleagues are gathering a list of more than 500 fossil holotypes from museums in Germany, Japan, and the United States that may have been illegally extracted from Brazil.

Dibujo de un dinosaurio marrón y naranja con brazos cortos y cabeza alargada que se sostiene sobre dos patas.

This artistic depiction of Irritator challengeri, a theropod that lived over 110 million years ago, illustrates the posture of the animal. Credit: Fred Wierun/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0

Recognizing the issue, paleontological societies in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru formed a consortium to collaborate on future repatriation cases and help combat scientific colonialism. One of their initial actions was to publish an article in PaleoAmerica suggesting that journals require authors to disclose the origin of fossils and include permits for fossils in the “materials and methods” sections of academic works.

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

According to Martill, a paleontologist from the University of Portsmouth (United Kingdom), it is justified for museums to purchase pieces from sellers who acquired them illegally if the purchase helps preserve the fossil for academic study. He stated, “All paleontologists around the world should be grateful to the curators who bought these fossils and prevented them from ending up in private collections where they are not accessible to anyone.”

Martill has criticized national laws, such as those in Brazil, that do not allow for this type of sale. However, he stated that he supports the repatriation of the Irritator fossil.

According to Ghilardi, returning fossils is not just a legal matter, but also an ethical imperative. Repatriation can benefit socioeconomically disadvantaged communities in the Global South.

Ghilardi explained that it is also a cultural violence to take these fossils away from these people. He hopes that the return of the Irritator fossil to the Brazilian region of Araripe, where it was found, will help to promote the local economy through paleontological tourism and inspire a new generation of scientists. “Through fossils, we can transform a place.”

—Sofia Moutinho (@sofiamoutinhoBR), Escritora de ciencia

Monica Alejandra Gomez Correa (@Mokasaurus) translated this with the support of Planeteando and GeoLatinas.

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The text is copyrighted in 2023 by the authors and is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

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