One-of-a-kind dinosaur removed from Brazil sparks backlash, investigation

The feathered dinosaur fossil’s 1995 export from Brazil may have violated the country’s laws, Brazilian scientists say. Its scientific publication could be halted as a result.

Illustration by BOB NICHOLLS/PALEOCREATIONS.COM
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The dinosaur Ubirajara jubatus is the first known non-avian dinosaur with unusually prominent shoulder feathers. The fossil also has sparked controversy amid concern that the fossil's 1995 export from Brazil may have been illegal.

Illustration by BOB NICHOLLS/PALEOCREATIONS.COM

One-of-a-kind dinosaur removed from Brazil sparks backlash, investigation

The feathered dinosaur fossil’s 1995 export from Brazil may have violated the country’s laws, Brazilian scientists say. Its scientific publication could be halted as a result.

In 1995, a museum in southwestern Germany acquired an unusual fossil from the cream-colored limestone of northeastern Brazil: a 120-million-year-old dinosaur covered in an odd material that one scientist thought might be algae.

Now, 25 years later, scientists have confirmed the predator is one of a kind, the first feathered, non-avian dinosaur found in the Southern Hemisphere—and Brazilian scientists are calling for the fossil to be returned from Germany. Since the dinosaur, named Ubirajara jubatus, was unveiled on December 13 in the journal Cretaceous Research, days of online protests with the hashtag #UbirajaraBelongstoBR have questioned whether the scientifically invaluable fossil was exported legally.

“This need not be happening, as this fossil should never have left Brazil,” says Flaviana Lima, a paleontologist at the Regional University of Cariri in Crato, Brazil.

The Brazilian Society of Paleontology (SBP) announced on December 21 that it will work with Brazil’s National Council for Scientific and Technological Development to investigate the legality of Ubirajara’s export to Germany. In addition, Cretaceous Research told the SBP that it would consider temporarily removing the Ubirajara study from its website, pending the investigation’s results. “The fight is not over yet,” the SBP said in a statement.

Study co-author Eberhard Frey, a paleontologist at the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe, where Ubirajara is being kept, says the samples were transported after receiving authorization from a Brazilian official. He added that he is discussing the Ubirajara situation with colleagues in Brazil. “I am sure we [will] find a solution,” he wrote in an email to National Geographic.

Ubirajara is far from the first specimen to raise concerns about the potentially illegal export of Brazilian fossils. Some countries, such as the United States, allow the sale of fossil material in certain cases. But Brazilian law has held since 1942 that the country’s fossils belong to the state, forbidding their commercial sale. However, spotty enforcement allowed a black market of fossil sales to flourish from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. Even today specimens from the country are openly bought and sold around the world.

Frey oversees many Brazilian fossils at the Karlsruhe museum, which he has studied with paleontologist David Martill at the University of Portsmouth in England, another co-author of the new paper. These include the first known fossils of the pterosaurs Unwindia and Arthurdactylus, the ancient crocodile relative Susisuchus, and the dinosaur Mirischia, a relative of Ubirajara.

For years, Martill has advocated for the legalization of fossil collecting as a pragmatic way of finding scientifically valuable fossils. In Brazil’s specific case, Martill told National Geographic in an email that he “would be happy if all the Brazilian fossils in all of the museums around the world went back to Brazil,” but added that in his view, Brazil’s laws on fossil ownership are needlessly strict and counterproductive.

“Because the trade in fossils was illegal and because there was potentially big money to be made from trading them, it became utterly corrupt,” he wrote.

Brazilian paleontologists have long argued that making excuses for the illegal fossil trade is unethical and depletes Brazil of its scientific resources.

“One sentence that comes to mind: Oh no, not again,” says Brazilian paleontologist Tiago Simões, a Harvard postdoctoral fellow and expert on fossilized snakes and lizards from South America. “Unfortunately, it’s that predictable.”

Dinos of a feather

The fate of the fossil is of particular concern because of the uniqueness of Ubirajara, a predatory dinosaur that likely spanned about 4.5 feet from snout to tail, stood 13 to 14 inches tall at the shoulder, and weighed about as much as a turkey or large chicken. Ubirajara is the first dinosaur discovered with spear-like feathers extending from its shoulders, which likely served as an ostentatious display as it wandered what is now Brazil 120 million years ago, during the Cretaceous period.

The fossil includes the dinosaur’s neck and back bones, some of its ribs, and a complete formelimb, as well as lumps of “grave wax” derived from the creature’s body fats. Ubirajara also has feather impressions, including a “mane” of whiskery hairs that run down the dinosaur’s back.

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Scientists have likened Ubirajara to Indonesia's standardwing bird-of-paradise, whose males have similarly exaggerated shoulder feathers that are used in displays.

The only other known feathered dinosaurs from South America are early birds with modern-looking, flight-ready feathers—not Ubirajara’s more primitive hairs and broad, ribbon-like shoulder feathers. Only a few fossil dinosaurs have been found with similarly broad feathers, and they’re all from either China or North America.

“Up until now, we’ve been missing half of the world, in terms of the evolution of feathers,” says the study’s lead author Robert Smyth, who conducted the research as a master’s student at the University of Portsmouth under Martill’s supervision. “It’s just been a blank space, really.”

The dinosaur’s shoulder feathers may have been used to woo mates or jockey for social status, similar to the conspicuous shoulder feathers on modern Indonesia’s standardwing bird-of-paradise. “You don’t need to evolve complex, modern, bird-like feathers in order to adapt them into elaborate display structures,” Smyth says.

In a nod to these unusual feathers, the scientists who described the dinosaur named it Ubirajara, which means “lord of the spear” in Brazil’s indigenous Tupi language.

Fossils crossing the Atlantic

Like other global fossil hotspots, such as Mongolia and Canada’s Alberta province, Brazil has laws that determine the legal status of fossils and control how they can leave the country.

Under a 1942 presidential decree, Brazil’s fossils belong to the state, and any “exploration and exploitation of fossil deposits” by national museums, state museums, or “similar official establishments” must be approved by Brazilian mining regulators.

A set of regulations issued in 1990 by Brazil’s Ministry of Science and Technology provides a way for scientific samples, including fossils, to legally leave Brazil for research purposes, though the samples are still owned by the state.

For samples to leave Brazil legally, foreign scientists must get prior approval from Brazil’s National Council of Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). These rules also require foreign scientists to return exported specimens to Brazil if they are later classified as type material—or specimens that define a new species, which the Ubirajara fossil now does.

“The issue of type material going back to Brazil is interesting, and I can see no reason why it shouldn’t, provided it is deposited in a secure institution,” Martill wrote.

Frey says that he moved fossils out of Brazil with the country’s permission. “We have a document that permits us to take Crato specimens out to integrate them in the Karlsruhe collections,” he wrote in his email.

That export document, acquired by the online fossil encyclopedia Prehistoric Wiki, was signed by José Betimar Melo Filgueira of Brazil’s National Department of Mineral Production (DNPM). It cites the 1942 law to authorize Frey’s transport of two boxes of fossils to the Karlsruhe museum, but it makes no mention of the 1990 regulations, which require CNPq approval. (Betimar did not respond to National Geographic’s requests for comment.)

The Brazilian Society of Paleontology noted that the newer rules would have applied to the 1995 export of Ubirajara, meaning that moving the fossil would have required permission from both agencies.

Frey said that he and his colleagues are in discussions with Brazilian authorities over the status of Ubirajara, including whether it will be repatriated. “This is an open point to date,” he says.

A global accounting of fossils

The controversy over Ubirajara highlights how government authorities and international scientists have begun paying more attention to the legal status of Brazilian fossils. That has led to increased enforcement of fossil regulations, in Brazil and other countries.

In October, Brazilian federal police executed 19 search warrants in “Operation Santana Raptor,” a multi-year investigation of fossil smuggling in the Araripe Basin—the region where Ubirajara was found. And last year, a French court ruled that 45 Brazilian fossils in the possession of a French company had to be returned to Brazil.

The Araripe Basin was also named a “global geopark” by UNESCO in 2006, a designation aimed at encouraging tourism to the region’s sites and museums. “The fossils of the Araripe Basin are not only important for science, but also for the region’s development,” Lima, the Crato paleontologist, wrote in a WhatsApp message to National Geographic.

The Ubirajara fossil came from a stone quarry in the Araripe Basin’s fossil-rich Crato Formation, according to the study describing it. In his email, Frey said that researchers don’t know precisely where or when the fossil was discovered.

Frey initially responded to a list of questions from National Geographic, but did not respond to follow-up questions, including one about whether the Ubirajara fossil had been purchased. Other fossils housed at the Karlsruhe museum, such as the first known fossils of Unwindia and Susisuchus, were purchased from commercial dealers, according to the studies describing them.

Frey argued in his email that the Karlsruhe museum had been singled out unfairly. “Why not other German institutions, or American ones? What about Japan, Portugal, the U.K.? What if other countries want the same? What if Germany claims back the London specimen of Archaeopteryx?” he wrote. (Learn more about Archaeopteryx, the iconic feathered dinosaur found in Germany in the 1860s.)

In initial responses to criticism about Ubirajara, Frey and Martill implied that Brazil doesn’t take sufficient care of its fossils, pointing to the 2018 fire that destroyed part of Rio de Janeiro’s Museu Nacional as an example of neglect. In a recent email to the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo, Martill said it was fortunate fossils had not been returned to Brazil two years ago “because now they would all be reduced to ashes after the tragic fire.”

That line of argument offends Aline Ghilardi, a paleontologist at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Natal. She notes that many museums in Brazil safely maintain fossil collections. “Brazil does not take care of its fossils because the Museu Nacional burned? Okay, [what about] Notre Dame?” she says. “They are trying to neutralize—normalize—a very sick behavior.”

In his email to National Geographic, Martill conceded that his recent remarks to Folha were “a bit insensitive” and said that he has “no issue” with Brazilian fossils returning to Brazil, especially to rebuild the Museu Nacional’s damaged collections.

“I realize that the following might seem inflammatory, but the inescapable fact is that so many fossils were removed from Brazil in the 1970s, 1980s, and first half of the 1990s,” he wrote. “There are incredibly important collections available to replace those from the Araripe Basin that were destroyed in the fire.”

Perhaps Ubiajara will be one of those fossils to replace what was lost. All three Brazilian paleontologists contacted by National Geographic expressed hope that Ubirajara would be returned so scientists in its home country could study its remarkable plumage up-close. “Brazilian legislation is very clear,” Ghilardi says, “about protecting its paleontological patrimony—its paleontological heritage.”