In what could prove to be a historic decision for paleontology, German officials announced this week that they will return the fossil of a one-of-a-kind feathered dinosaur to Brazil, the country where it was discovered.
Known asUbirajara jubatus, this dinosaur lived more than 100 million years ago. Unlike all other prehistoric creatures, Ubirajara had long, spear-like feathers protruding from its shoulders, which it most likely used to compete for social status or to woo its partners, as some modern birds do. It was its prominent feathers that gave the dinosaur its name: Ubirajara means “lord of the spear” in the native Brazilian Tupi language.
The discovery was hailed when it was officially described in a scientific paper at the end of 2020. But as soon as the news broke, experts expressed concern that the fossil was exported from Brazil to the National Museum of Natural History. of Karlsruhe (SMNK), Germany, where it is currently located, an export that would be unethical or even illegal.
For the past year and a half, a group of committed Brazilian paleontologists have led a global movement to repatriate fossils and expose the long-standing impact of colonialism on modern paleontology. Ubirajarathe first non-avian feathered dinosaur discovered in South America, then became one of the main fossils at the center of these debates.
On Tuesday, the cabinet of the German state of Baden-Württemberg, where the SMNK is located, approved a proposal by Theresia Bauer, Minister of Science of the Land, to restore Ubirajara in Brazil. In its decision, the government invokes doubts about how the fossil was imported into Germany and whether its acquisition was legal.
“We have a clear position, which is expressed through consistent actions: if there are objects in our museum collections that have been acquired under legally or ethically unacceptable conditions, a return must be considered,” said Bauer in an e-mail sent to National Geographic. ” Ubirajara, given its great importance and the dubious circumstances of its acquisition, should therefore be returned to where it belongs: in Brazil. »
In addition to clarifying the fate ofUbirajarathe decision also marks a new chapter for the movement that the strange dinosaur helped inspire.
Since the controversy over the legal status of the fossil erupted, many academic papers put numbers to the inherent inequities in paleontology, a trend often influenced by the history of colonialism. A study carried out in 2021 found that 97% of the data in a major paleontological database was entered by scientists from wealthy and middle-income countries, which is a source of bias in the fossil record created by economic inequality. Another study from 2021 uncovered dozens of major Brazilian fossils in German museums, and other fossils in other wealthy countries.
“With this, we send a powerful message to the world that we want a different science, free from the behaviors of the last century,” says Aline Ghilardi, a paleontologist at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil, who helped lead the repatriation campaign, in an email. “May a new era of more equitable collaborations begin, in which fair exchanges will occur between researchers around the world. »
The campaign is also sparking other global actions for the return of other Brazilian fossils. Last year, the University of Kansas voluntarily returned thirty-six Brazilian fossils that she had in her collections, including a new species of fossil spider named after famous Brazilian drag queen Pabllo Vittar. In May 2022, French customs returned 998 Brazilian fossils stolen that had been seized from traffickers in 2013.
” Ubirajara turned into a symbol of the cause of Brazilian fossils,” according to paleontologist Allysson Pinheiro, director of the Plácido Cidade Nuvens Paleontological Museum in Santana do Cariri, Brazil.
A RARE SITUATION
Exports of fossils from Brazil are regulated since 1942 by a presidential decree designating the fossils as “property of the Nation”. The decree requires the work of domestic and foreign museums conducted in the country to be approved by mining regulatory bodies. In 1990, Brazil issued rules requiring foreign scientists to return exported specimens, including fossils, to Brazil if they are used to define a new species. These rules also require that fossil exports be approved by Brazilian scientific officials, and that foreign scientists collaborate with Brazilian academics.
The study describing Ubirajarawhich had no Brazilian co-authors, was published in December 2020 in the journal Cretaceous Research. The researchers claimed that a Brazilian mining regulator had signed off on the export of two crates of fossils, including the remains ofUbirajarain 1995.
In September 2021, after a campaign lasting several months on social networks, the journal officially retracted the study fromUbirajara due to concerns about the legal status of the fossil, an extremely rare situation in paleontology. In an article published at the time in Science, paleontologist Eberhard Frey of SMNK, co-author of the study, denounced this decision, calling it a “second extinction” for the species. Frey, who retired in February 2022, declined comment for this story, as did representatives for SMNK.
“This is the first time they [vont] repatriate a fossil from Brazil, and it is also the first time that we have managed to retract a publication because of these arguments”, comments Juan Carlos Cisneros, paleontologist at the Federal University of Piauí in Teresina, Brazil, and the ‘one of the leaders of the repatriation campaignUbirajara. “He will become a symbol. »
FIX AN ERROR
In its initial statements, the government of Baden-Württemberg echoed SMNK’s claims that the fossil was obtained legally, based on the 1995 import date. In an article published in September 2021, a door -state Ministry of Science spokesman, however, told Rodrigo Pérez Ortega, journalist of Sciencethat the fossil had been imported in 2006 and that the SMNK had acquired it in 2009.
In his new statement to National Geographicthe Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science revealed that the 2020 study that described Ubirajara contained “obviously false information about the date of importation of the fossil”. The ministry also confirmed that SMNK had acquired the fossil in 2009. However, it was unable to verify the 2006 import of the fossil to Germany. “In this regard, the statement made at Science at the time must be reviewed,” according to the ministry.
This uncertainty has had major legal implications for Ubirajara. According German cultural property lawif Germany imports certain types of artifacts, such as fossils, from a country that prohibits their export, these objects must be returned to the country of origin if the date of import is after April 26, 2007 If the import date of an object is unclear, German law favors a later import date and the return of the object to its country of origin.
“It is important that with this feedback, we send a clear signal about the proper handling of collectibles, their provenance as well as scientific honesty,” comments Bauer.
The decision to repatriate Ubirajara can also solve an unusual scientific enigma: the withdrawal of the original article by Cretaceous Research implied that, as of now, no published studies support the name Ubirajara ; the dinosaur is therefore in a taxonomic vagueness. According to Pinheiro, now that the fossil is coming home, it’s possible the original study will simply be republished.
“Maybe the name will just come back,” says Pinheiro. “This is a question that could, or should, be answered by the journal. »
A CULTURAL TREASURE
Brazilian scientists are now looking to recover other fossils held in Germany and other countries. SMNK, for example, is home to other major species remains unearthed in Brazil, including the earliest known fossils of pterosaurs. Unwindia and Arthurdactylusthe ancient crocodile Susisuchus and the dinosaur mirischia.
But while the diplomatic wheels are activated for the return ofUbirajarathe permanent place of residence of the fossil remains uncertain.
Baden-Württemberg said in its statement that the National Museum of Brazil, located in Rio de Janeiro, is “considered a possible location for the presentation of the fossil”. The latter is in the process of rebuilding its collections following from a devastating fire in 2018.
However, for Cisneros and Pinheiro, it should go to the Plácido Cidade Nuvens Paleontological Museum, run by Pinheiro. This museum is the closest to the site in northeast Brazil where Ubirajara was discovered, a fossil-rich rock formation, which is a UNESCO “Global Geopark” called the Araripe Basin.
“Brazil is not a small country, it’s a continental country”, reminds Cisneros. “If they go to a museum in a town away from the local community…that’s always better, of course; it is closer than Germany. But we are still depriving the local community. »
Pinheiro adds that the Araripe Basin is socioeconomically disadvantaged, and that the region’s fossil sites and museums can encourage tourism, providing jobs and opportunities for people who now live where Ubirajara used to work.
” We work […] so that the community knows what it has. She has a treasure. Above all, these treasures belong to them. These treasures have the power to change their lives, to make them better. »