Unique 'spear lord' dinosaur to be returned to Brazil

The fossil will be repatriated from a German museum after outcries that it left South America under unethical—and possibly illegal—circumstances.

By Michael Greshko
Published 21 Jul 2022, 09:14 BST
A little feathered dinosaur that lived in Brazil during the Cretaceous period has become the focus ...
A little feathered dinosaur that lived in Brazil during the Cretaceous period has become the focus of a campaign to return important fossils that were taken out of their country of origin.
Photograph by Illustration by Bob Nicholls, Paleocreations.com

In what may prove to be a landmark decision for palaeontology, German officials announced this week that they will be returning a one-of-a-kind feathered dinosaur to Brazil, the country where the fossil was discovered.

Known as Ubirajara jubatus, the dinosaur lived more than 100 million years ago. Unlike any other prehistoric creature, Ubirajara had long, spear-like feathers jutting out of its shoulders, which it most likely used in displays to jockey for social status or woo mates, just as some modern birds do. The prominent feathers gave the dinosaur its name: Ubirajara means “lord of the spear” in Brazil’s indigenous Tupi language.

The find was lauded when it was formally described in a scientific paper in late 2020. But almost as soon as the news broke, experts raised concerns that the fossil’s export from Brazil to Germany’s State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe (SMNK), where it currently resides, was unethical–and possibly illegal.

Over the past year and a half, a committed group of Brazilian palaeontologists has led a growing global movement to repatriate fossils and call out colonialism’s long shadow over modern palaeontology. Ubirajara, the first feathered, non-avian dinosaur discovered in South America, has become one of the primary fossils in such debates about repatriation.

On Tuesday, the cabinet for the German state of Baden-Württemberg, where SMNK is located, approved a proposal from the state’s science minister Theresia Bauer to return Ubirajara to Brazil. In its decision, the government cites doubts over how the fossil was imported into Germany and whether the fossil was legally acquired.

“We have a clear stance, which is expressed in consistent actions: If there are objects in the collections of our museums that were acquired under legally or ethically unacceptable conditions, a return must be considered,” Bauer said in a statement emailed to National Geographic. “The Ubirajara, in view of its great importance and the questionable circumstances of its acquisition, should therefore be returned to where it belongs—to Brazil.”

Beyond clarifying Ubirajara’s fate, the decision marks a new chapter for the movement that Ubirajara helped to inspire.

Since controversy broke out over the fossil’s legal status, a steady stream of academic papers has started to put numbers to the inequalities baked into palaeontology, a trend often influenced by the history of colonialism. One 2021 study found that a full 97 percent of the data in a key palaeontology database had been entered by scientists in wealthy and upper-middle-income countries—a source of bias in the fossil record created by economic inequality. Another 2021 study documented dozens of species-defining Brazilian fossils within the museums of Germany alone, with additional fossils in other wealthy countries.

“With this, we send a powerful message to the world that we want a different science, free from the attitudes of the last century,” Aline Ghilardi, a palaeontologist at Brazil’s Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte who helped run the repatriation campaign, says in an email. “May a new era of more equitable collaborations open up, in which fair exchanges occur between researchers around the world.”

The campaign is also spurring more global action to return other Brazilian fossils. Last year, the University of Kansas voluntarily returned 36 Brazilian fossils it had in its collections, including a new species of fossil spider named for famous Brazilian drag queen Pabllo Vittar. In May 2022, French customs officials returned 998 poached Brazilian fossils that had been seized from traffickers in 2013.

Ubirajara has turned into a flag for Brazil fossils’ cause,” says palaeontologist Allysson Pinheiro, director of the Plácido Cidade Nuvens Palaeontological Museum in Santana do Cariri, Brazil.

A singular fossil

Fossil exports from Brazil have been regulated since 1942 via a presidential decree that named fossils “property of the Nation.” The decree requires domestic and foreign museums’ work in the country to be approved by mining regulators. In 1990, Brazil issued rules that require foreign scientists to return exported specimens to Brazil—including fossils—if they are later used to define a new species. These rules also require that fossil exports be approved by Brazilian science officials and that foreign scientists collaborate with Brazilian academics.

The study that described Ubirajara, which had no Brazilian co-authors, was published in December 2020 in the journal Cretaceous Research. In it, researchers claimed that a Brazilian mining regulator had signed off on the export of two crates of fossils, including the remains of Ubirajara, in 1995.

In September 2021—after a months-long social media campaign—the journal formally retracted the Ubirajara study amid concerns surrounding the fossil’s legal status, an extreme rarity within palaeontology. In Science article at the time, SMNK palaeontologist Eberhard Frey, a study co-author, decried the move as a “second extinction” for the species. Frey, who retired in February 2022, declined to comment for this story. Representatives of SMNK also declined to comment.

“It’s the first time they [will] repatriate a fossil from Brazil, and this case is also the first time that we managed to retract a publication based on these arguments,” says Juan Carlos Cisneros, a palaeontologist at the Federal University of Piauí in Teresina, Brazil, and one of the leaders of the Ubirajara repatriation campaign. “It will become a symbol.”

Correcting the record

In its initial statements, the government of Baden-Württemberg echoed SMNK’s claims that the fossil had been legally obtained, based on the 1995 import date. But in a September 2021 article, a spokesperson for the state’s science ministry told Science reporter Rodrigo Pérez Ortega that the fossil had been imported in 2006 and was acquired by SMNK in 2009.

In its new statement to National Geographic, the Baden-Württemberg science ministry said that the 2020 study that described Ubirajara “contains demonstrably false information about the date of import of the fossil.” The ministry also confirmed that SMNK acquired the fossil in 2009. However, it has not been able to verify the fossil’s 2006 import into Germany. “In this respect, the statement made to Science at that time must be revised,” the ministry said.

That uncertainty has had major legal implications for Ubirajara. Under German cultural property law, if Germany imports certain kinds of artefacts—such as fossils—from a country that forbids those artefacts’ export, those objects must be returned to the country of origin if the import date was after April 26, 2007. If an artefact's import date is unclear, German law errs on the side of a later import date and the artefact’s return to its country of origin.

“It is important that with the return, we send a clear signal about the correct handling of collection items, their provenance, and scientific honesty,” Bauer said.

The decision to repatriate Ubirajara also may solve an unusual scientific conundrum: When Cretaceous Research retracted the original paper, it meant that no published study underpinned the name Ubirajara, possibly thrusting it into taxonomic limboNow that the fossil is going home, Pinheiro says, it’s possible that the original study could simply be republished.

“Maybe the name just comes back,” Pinheiro says. “This is a question that could be—should be—resolved by the journal.”

A cultural treasure

Brazilian scientists are now keen to seek the return of additional fossils held in Germany and elsewhere. SMNK, for instance, houses other species-defining examples dug up in Brazil, including the first known fossils of the pterosaurs Unwindia and Arthurdactylus, the ancient crocodile relative Susisuchus, and the dinosaur Mirischia.

But while the diplomatic gears are turning for Ubirajara’s return, the fossil’s permanent home remains uncertain.

Baden-Württemberg said in its statement that Brazil’s National Museum, based in Rio de Janeiro, is “being considered as a possible future location for the presentation of the fossil.” The National Museum is actively rebuilding its collections after devastating fire broke out there in 2018.

However, Cisneros and Pinheiro say that of all the places in Brazil to house Ubirajara, it should go to the Plácido Cidade Nuvens Palaeontological Museum, which Pinheiro directs. This museum is closest to the site in northeastern Brazil where Ubirajara was found, a fossil-rich rock formation and UNESCO “global geopark” called the Araripe Basin.

“Brazil is not a small country—it is a continental country,” Cisneros says. “If they go to a museum in a city far away from a local community … it is better, of course; it’s closer than Germany. But you’re still alienating 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 the people who now live where Ubirajara once trod.

“We are working … to make the community know what [it] has. It has a treasure,” Pinheiro says. “These treasures, firstly, belong to them. These treasures have the power to change their lives—to make their lives better.”

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