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The dinosaur Ubirajara jubatus lived more than 110 million years ago in what is now northeastern Brazil.

© Bob Nicholls/Paleocreations.com

Chicken-size dino with a furlike mane stirs ethics debate

About 110 million years ago in what is now Brazil, a pint-size dinosaur cut a flamboyant figure with a display of filaments resembling mammalian fur and narrow, bladelike structures erupting from its shoulders. Now it’s in the spotlight for another reason: questions about how it fell into the hands of the paleontologists who described it last week and was added to the collection of a museum in southwest Germany.

Some researchers say the specimen may have been exported illegally. The authors say they had permission to take the fossil out of Brazil as part of a shipment of fossils. But under Brazilian law, “There is no legal exportation of fossils. Period,” only loans, says Alexander Kellner, a paleontologist and director of the National Museum at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

The fossil was found in northeastern Brazil, likely by a worker in one of the many limestone quarries in the area. The researchers who prepared and described the specimen named it Ubirajara jubatusUbirajara means “lord of the spear” in Tupi, one of the Indigenous languages spoken in the region. Jubatus is Latin for “maned.” It’s the first dinosaur from the Southern Hemisphere with structures that might be related to early feathers, although the filaments were not branched like modern bird feathers. The creature evidently bore an impressive mane on its neck and its furlike covering was “like a teddy bear”—though with rather fierce claws, says Eberhard Frey, a paleontologist at the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe who helped lead the new study of the fossil.

The researchers also found stiff, bladelike structures up to 15 centimeters long that extended from the animal’s shoulders. They were likely ornamental, perhaps used in a mating display, Frey and colleagues wrote in Cretaceous Research on 13 December. The bladelike structures, which don’t appear to be mineralized like bone, are “the weird and wonderful thing that needs to be understood,” says Michael Benton, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol who wasn’t involved in the work. The creature will help scientists better understand how featherlike structures evolved, he says.

Frey and co-author David Martill, a paleontologist at the University of Portsmouth, say the specimen was exported in 1995 with all necessary permits, based on a 1942 law governing fossil collecting. The editor-in-chief of Cretaceous Research, paleontologist Eduardo Koutsoukos, says the authors have “documentary evidence” for their assertion that they received authorization from a Brazilian official to export the fossil. However, Frey acknowledges the permits were for unspecified samples, so, “It arrived legally, but we can’t prove it properly.”

Other researchers contend that since at least 1990, Brazilian regulations have prohibited the sale or permanent export of fossils from the country. Taissa Rodrigues Marques da Silva, a paleontologist at the Federal University of Espírito Santo, Goiabeiras, says although laws covering fossils in Brazil are complex and haven’t always been enforced, they clearly prohibit permanent export. “It would be great if they could provide more detailed data” about the export permits, she says.

Rodrigues, Kellner, and others have questioned why the researchers waited so long to publish the specimen, wondering whether it has to do with the fossil’s murky history. Frey says it was not initially clear that the fossil was something special, and it took many years of work to recognize the specimen’s importance.

But Kellner is not convinced. “It’s hard to believe that any paleontologist would not have recognized the importance of this specimen and not published it earlier,” he says.

Martill, who has worked with other controversial fossils from Brazil, has said publicly that purchasing fossils can secure them for scientific study. But many paleontologists argue that practice fuels a collectors’ market that can make specimens inaccessible to researchers. Rodrigues says that whereas fossils were commonly purchased in northeastern Brazil in the past, the situation has improved. She says the local paleontology community has built relationships with the mine workers who often find fossils. “The mine workers know that the fossils are important, and they take them to the museum” instead of trying to sell them, she says.

“Fossils have been sold in the past in Brazil,” Kellner says. “But here we have a vibrant paleontology community that is working very hard to keep fossils like this dinosaur in the country. Everyone is welcome to study them, to publish on them—and then give them back.”

Frey told ScienceInsider he wants to reach out to Brazilian colleagues, including Kellner, to find a solution. He could imagine an agreement, he says, that might let the Karlsruhe museum display the specimen for a few years before returning it to Brazil. “We are trying to find a way to solve this in a fair way and a way that makes sense.”