Why Smuggled Fossils Are Hurting Paleontology

Parachute science and lingering colonialism in fossil studies have negatively impacted the discipline

Tetrapodophis
An illustration of Tetrapodophis, a lizard that was named based on a fossil likely smuggled out of Brazil to Germany Julius Csotonyi

For a creature about the length of a banana, Tetrapodophis created a big stir. Part of the fossil’s controversial nature was tied to its identity and classification. Originally described in 2015, the squiggly little fossil vertebrate was heralded as a possible relative of the earliest snakes, a sinuous reptile that still had legs. A second study published late last year overturned that claim–the fossil reptile is a lizard belonging to an extinct group called dolichosaurs–but that’s hardly the end of the story. The fossil highlighted a major problem that paleontology is only just beginning to reckon with. Originally found in Brazil, Tetrapodophis somehow found its way to a private fossil collection in Germany. The murky story suggests that the fossil was illegally smuggled out of Brazil, one of many extracted in violation of the country’s natural history heritage laws.

Paleontology thrives on new fossil discoveries, and, for much of its history, the field’s practitioners have been experts in North America and western Europe who travel elsewhere to uncover and collect new fossils. The explorations of western paleontologists into Patagonia, Mongolia, Tanzania and other countries are often celebrated in the history of the discipline. But as the science has taken hold around the planet, a distressing trend has emerged. It’s not uncommon to see fossils taken or even smuggled from their country of origin in scientific journals, often with no involvement from researchers who reside in the countries where the fossils are from. The practice, some experts note, is nothing less than continuing scientific colonialism. “We have to show quantitatively how these colonialist attitudes harm our science as a whole,” says Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte paleontologist Aline Ghilardi, “and how they especially harm minorities.”

The most prominent lightning rod for the ongoing argument about fossil smuggling and colonialist science is a dinosaur from Brazil. In 2020, some of the same paleontologists who described Tetrapodophis attempted to name a new species of dinosaur based on a fossil from Brazil that also wound up in Germany. Called “Ubirajara jubatus,” the dinosaur caused immediate backlash as it was likely also exported against Brazil’s fossil heritage laws. The controversy sparked the #UbirajarabelongstoBR tag on social media and led to the withdrawal of the paper from publication. Even so, the fossil remains in Germany and its return to Brazil remains uncertain because the museum has asserted that they believe the dinosaur was acquired legally and is now the property of German state the fossil resides in. Given that the paper describing the fossil has been retracted, the dinosaur is in scientific limbo—known to experts but unable to be studied until the ethical tangle is sorted out.

Tetrapodophis and “Ubirajara jubatus” are among the most notorious cases of fossils likely extracted illegally, but they were not the first or only examples. The Araripe Basin of Brazil is one place where many fossils had been smuggled. Limestone quarrying in the area uncovered fossils of dinosaurs, fish, plants and more, notes Universidade Federal do Piauí paleontologist Juan Carlos Cisneros, and the trade in fossils being exported from the area peaked in the 1990s. Police investigations and Brazil’s greater investment in scientists within the country helped stop the flow, but at the same time many of the previously-smuggled fossils began to show up overseas, Cisneros says. “Brazil’s paleontological community is bigger and stronger now,” he adds, with a focus on discovering, studying and preserving fossils from within the country.

Given that many fossils may wait in collections for years or decades before being described, the whole number of fossils exported from their country of origin is likely much greater than what can be discerned from published specimens.

Irritator Challengeri Mount
Irritator is a dinosaur from Brazil that was illegally collected by poachers and sold to a museum in Stuttgart, Germany. Angaturama – 01 via Wikimedia Commons under CC By 2.0

Brazil isn’t the only country affected by such practices. Within the past two years, there have been multiple controversies about illegally smuggled fossils and the ethics around their collection. A shark fossil found in Mexico caused concern after the fossil was illegally purchased by a private collector and said to be placed in a museum that is not yet open. In early 2020, a paper purporting to describe a small dinosaur—actually a small lizard—drew criticism because the fossil may have been encased in “blood amber.” That term refers to fossils encased in amber extracted from Myanmar and sold in China to fuel violent conflict in the country. In April of 2020, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, the largest professional body of paleontologists in the world, called for a moratorium on publication of fossils that could have been sold to fuel the genocide in Myanmar.

Smuggled fossils are just the tip of the iceberg. The standard practices of paleontology have also come under scrutiny. Paleontology often relies on researchers from North America and western Europe building their reputations on fossils from other parts of the world without involving local researchers or giving back to local communities. And while the paleontological community has casually discussed this issue before, notes Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg data scientist Nussaïbah Raja, the recent controversies and the ability of researchers to voice their concerns on social media have brought the conversation to the forefront. Still, when it comes to ethics, notes colleague Emma Dunne, “paleontology is definitely late to the party.”

Flaming Cliffs of the Gobi Desert
American paleontologists have a long tradition of extracting fossils from localities in other countries, such as Mongolia's Flaming Cliffs. Richard Mortel via Wikimedia Commons under CC By 2.0

Using data on where fossils were collected and their publication record in the Paleobiology Database, Raja and colleagues found that 97 percent of fossil locality and publication data were based on papers written by authors in North America and western Europe. Meanwhile, countries such as the Dominican Republic, Myanmar and Namibia are the most common “research destinations” that foreign researchers visit without involving local experts. The United States, Germany and the United Kingdom, in particular, carry out the greatest amount of research on fossils from other countries without involving local scientists. The disparity has a great deal to do with funding—some researchers have more opportunities to apply for financial backing and other forms of support to carry out their science. “Researchers in more affluent countries have become very accustomed to getting their way over centuries of colonialism and plunder,” Dunne says, and these values get passed down through generations of students.

The skew distorts what paleontologists hope to understand about the past, Raja notes. The fossil record isn’t sampled evenly, but rather experts go searching for fossils relevant to their particular interests—be that a scientific question or a fossil that will bring them prestige. On that point, Raja notes, what paleontological studies receive funding or not is often altered according to western ideas of what is significant enough to merit support. “Because of that,” Raja says, “certain research areas or geographical regions might be neglected because they are deemed of being no importance at all.” This creates blank spots in the fossil record that hinder what scientists are hoping to explore. Transnational funding partnerships and developing new ways for researchers in underfunded countries to get support for research, Raja and Dunne write, can help provide broader global support for fossil research into places and time periods that may otherwise be overlooked.

“I think we are slowly creating a general perception that the colonialist, Indiana Jones attitude that some researchers in wealthy countries maintain towards countries in the Global South is harmful,” Cisneros says. While fossils have traditionally been treated as objects that can offer insights into the past, a growing number of scientists recognize they are also a part of a country’s heritage and are relevant to the residents who live where the fossils are found. “It is very difficult to step out of one’s comfort zone and put oneself in the other group’s shoes to see a different point of view,” Ghilardi says, but opening up to the possibility of changing how science is done—and who benefits from it—is essential. The reach of social media and the efforts of researchers in the Global South are helping to change the conversation.

While laws regarding who can excavate, export and study fossils vary from country to country, the remedy for the long-simmering issue is not simply a matter of stricter laws. “The fact that paleontologists are not trained to think about ethics and laws in general has created a black market for scientists,” Raja says. Paleontologists must take an active role in changing the situation. “The magic word here is cooperation,” Cisneros says, with visiting researchers from well-funded countries making more of an effort to work with local experts instead of simply removing the fossils back to the United States or elsewhere. Any fossil only makes sense in terms of its context, its place and time, and requires a global view of the past. “Publishing data is not enough,” Ghilardi says, “We need to talk about these issues widely, to understand all points of view and confront what needs to be confronted.”