For the controversy topic, I found an article from National Geographic about the controversial transfer of a fossil from Brazil to a museum in Germany. The fossil was of the first feathered dinosaur to be found in the Southern Hemisphere, Ubirajara jubatus. The fossil was initially discovered in a rock quarry in the Araripe Basin, a fossil-rich area known as a “global geopark”. In 1995, the fossil was acquired by the German museum and exported out of Brazil. Since then, the legality of the exporting has come under some debate and the possible repatriation of the fossil has been suggested.

U. jubatus is believed to have been about four and a half feet long and believed to have stood at just over a foot tall. It was a non-avian theropod that had “spear-like” feathers that extended from its shoulder area. The feathers would likely have been quite different from what we see today on birds and would probably have been a more primitive version, or prototype. These feathers, experts believe, could have been used in mating displays

An artist’s imagining of what Ubirajara jubatus could have looked like. Artist: Luis Rey. From: https://luisvrey.wordpress.com/2020/12/15/having-fun-with-the-new-revolutionary-ubirajara-jubatus/

A Brazilian presidential decree was issued in 1942 that declared that any fossil found in the country was to be owned by the State unless under specific approval by Brazilian mining regulators. Then in 1990, Brazil’s Ministry of Science and Technology released a set of regulations that said that if used for research purposes, fossils could be transferred out of the country, but remained owned by Brazil. The German paleontologist and study co-author who maintains the fossil collection in the German museum states that they obtained export documents for the fossil, however apparently the documents mention the 1942 decree but not the newer 1990 regulations that require them to get permission from different agencies. He says that they are in discussion now (as of December 2020) in order to find a solution.

The article highlights that this is not the first time that something like this has happened in Brazil and that in fact, there was an entire underground fossil black market between the 70s and 90s.

This is a very similar controversy to those of Sue and Stan the T. Rexes that we discussed in this module. In this case, some Brazilian paleontologists believe that the illegal trade of fossils outside of the country is detrimental to Brazilian scientific resources. Meanwhile, German paleontologists argue that Brazil does not care for their fossil collections properly, citing a fire that burned down part of the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro. I believe that this is beyond a stretch and a reach. I find this situation very unfortunate, and I hope that repatriation is considered for the sake of Brazilian science.

I really enjoyed learning about Sue and Stan this week. I’ve actually followed Sue the T. Rex on Twitter for almost as long as I’ve had a Twitter (hah), but I never knew about the controversy behind her ownership. I’m looking forward to watching Dinosaur 13 tonight after finishing this blog post. 🙂

Q: Do you think fossils should be owned by the federal government of the country in which they are discovered?

Greshko, M. 2020, December 22. One-of-a-kind dinosaur removed from Brazil sparks backlash, investigation. National Geographic.

One Thought to “Controversy over the ownership of an Ubirajara jubatus fossil”

  1. Angela Linn

    This is a great question Tony and I’m glad you’re learning more about Sue through this class – Dinosaur 13 is a great film and really changed the way I think about the history. I’ve been fascinated about how the Field Museum totally glosses over this history in their online background of the specimen (https://www.fieldmuseum.org/blog/sue-t-rex) and wonder why they want to avoid the discussion.

    Fossil specimen ownership is a weird thing to think about. Unlike archaeological materials where you might have some kind of cultural continuity between the past and contemporary Indigenous residents, the modern configuration of the world and our continents is no where near what it was when dinosaurs lived… so one part of me says why should they have any say over the remains of creatures found there. On the other hand, subsurface rights are determined by governments and are applied pretty consistently regardless of what is found. From the perspective of someone who works at a museum where a lot of paleontological and archaeological fieldwork happens by our staff, our museum relies on tourism associated with those discoveries and our curators depend on the scientific papers they can write about those finds. Fossils might be considered yet another extractive resource, like our oil, gas, or gold… resources that locals don’t necessarily benefit from if taken to other places. So, it’s a tough question for sure!

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