Author of 4-legged-snake paper defies Brazilian fossil laws

Author of 4-legged-snake paper defies Brazilian fossil laws

David Martill, of the University of Portsmouth, says no country should have exclusive rights to fossils, and he "doesn't care a damn" how the snake specimen left Brazil and ended up in Germany

Herton Escobar

24 de julho de 2015 | 18h39

O fóssil, em excelente estado de preservação. Crédito: David Martill

Main slab of the Tetrapodophis fossil, deposited at the Solnhofen Museum, in Germany. Credit: David Martill/University of Portsmouth

by Herton Escobar / O Estado de S. Paulo

The publication of a paper by researchers in Europe describing a Brazilian four-legged-snake fossil in Science this week has sparked controversy and angered many in the Brazilian paleontological community, who suspect the specimen has been taken illegally from the country. Federal laws, dating back to 1942, require special authorization for digging and say fossils are national property and must be kept in Brazil.

I reached out to the lead author on the Science paper, David Martill, a paleobiologist at the University of Portsmouth, in the UK, who is a well-known critic of the Brazilian fossil laws.  — To read an exchange of letters about this controversy in The Geological Society, click here (Martill’s article: Protect and die) and


(A reply to Martill: The Bearable Heaviness of Liability).

In an email interview, Martill replied that he “doesn’t care a damn how the fossil came from Brazil”, because that is “irrelevant to the scientific significance of the fossil”. According to him and his co-authors, the fossil was in a private collection for “several decades prior to study” and there is no information available on its acquisition or provenance (see Supplementary Online Materials to the paper). The specimen, named Tetrapodophis amplectus, is deposited at the Bürgermeister-Müller-Museum, in Solnhofen, Germany.

“I am critical of all laws that interfere with the science of paleontology; and blanket bans on fossil collecting are indiscriminatory and only hinder science”, Martill says in the email. “They also lead to xenophobia — Brazil fossils for Brazilians, British fossils for Brits. It should be fossils for all. No countries existed when the animals were fossilized.”

Asked if he considered partnering with Brazilian scientists for the research, Martill replied: “But what difference would it make? I mean, do you want me also to have a black person on the team for ethnicity reasons, and a cripple and a woman, and maybe a homosexual too, just for a bit of all round balance?”. He closes with a reference to Sir Richard Owen stealing bodies from graveyards for human anatomy research in the 19th century — apparently, as an analogy to studying fossils from other countries.

Below is a copy of the interview. Several typos have been corrected for clarity.

Is it correct to think of Tetrapodophis as an ancestor of modern snakes and a transitional form between lizards and snakes?

Yes, as near as you could get to a missing link. It has all the attributes of a snake, and yet there it is with four legs.

I have shown the paper to a couple of paleontologists here in Brazil and they expressed concern about the origin of the fossil. They believe it was taken illegally from Brazil. In the supplementary material to the paper, you write that the specimen was in a private collection for several decades, and that “no notes as to its acquisition or provenance are available”. So there is no information about when the fossil was collected, who collected it or how it ended up in Europe? 

Who knows how the fossil came from Brazil. These Brazilian paleontologists can believe what they like. But as scientists they will be well aware that to assert that the fossil has been illegally collected they will need to ascertain when it was collected. There is no label on the specimen that says when or how it was collected. It was only recognized as certainly being from Brazil because I am an expert on the Crato Formation and I recognized the rock it is preserved in, and its preservation style is exactly like that of the Crato Formation. It is undoubtedly from Brazil. But Brazilian fossils have been coming to the rest of the world since they were first discovered in the early 19th century. So its legality presumably depends on when it was collected, when it arrived in Europe and when Brazil implemented its laws to protect fossils. Personally I don’t care a damn how the fossil came from Brazil or when it came from Brazil. These are irrelevant to the scientific significance of the fossil. If you want the fossil to go back to Brazil, I presume you simply ask for it. I am interested only in the paleontology of the specimen.

How and when did you (the authors) come into contact with the fossil to begin with? Was it deposited at the Bürgermeister-Müller-Museum already at that time? When you say it “resided in a private collection for several decades prior to study”, are you referring to the museum collection, or another collection?

I was told that the specimen came from a private collection. I first saw it three years ago when I visited the Solnhofen Museum to show my students the Archaeopteryx specimens. It was in a display case. (And it was labelled unknown fossil vertebrate).

Are you aware that Brazilian federal law prohibits fossils from being taken out of the country without specific authorization since 1942? What is your opinion of that law?

I know that there was a law discussed in 1942. It was my understanding (and I am no expert that it was not ratified until more recently). But this is of no concern to me. Personally, I think the law for protecting fossils in Brazil is poorly thought out. You are able to destroy fossils in Brazil by mining, and you are happy to let them weather away in the ground, but should anyone attempt to collect one for doing science, then you put them in prison. How odd. Before about ten years ago I used to work in Brazil with Brazilian paleontologists. I used to go to the DNPM (the Brazilian National Department of Mineral Production, which oversees fossil excavation activities) in Crato and Fortaleza and get permission to collect fossils for didactic and research purposes. But then all of a sudden the rules changed. Now I don’t work in Brazil. But I still work on Brazilian fossils. There are hundreds of them in museums all over Europe, America and in Japan.

When you came into contact with the fossil, did you consider partnering with a Brazilian scientist or institution for the research effort? Why or why not?

At the time I began working on the fossil I was not aware of a Brazilian snake worker, although I am now aware that there is a guy called Zahler (Hussam Zaher, a paleoherpetologist at the University of Sao Paulo Museum of Zoology). But what difference would it make? I mean, do you want me also to have a black person on the team for ethnicity reasons, and a cripple and a woman, and maybe a homosexual too just for a bit of all round balance? I chose to work with Nick Longrich because I know him to be the best phylogeneticist in the business. Hi is an American (USA) citizen. For me nationality (or sexuality) is not an issue. If you invite people because they are Brazilian then people will think that every Brazilian author on a scientific paper is there because he is Brazilian and not because he is a clever scientist. The token Brazilian.

One researcher here also raised questions about the classification of the fossil as a snake. He says there is no conclusive evidence presented that this animal is a snake, neither morphological nor phylogenetic, and that it’s more likely a “snake-like lizard” than a true snake. Can you give a rebuttal to that?

Well, it is a sort of snake lizard, because it has legs. But it is more snake than lizard. The body is longer than the tail, it has a single row of belly scales, it has backward directed teeth, and it was a carnivore. How cool is that?

Sir Richard Owen, one of the greatest anatomist/paleontologists of the 19th century used to steal bodies from graveyards. Because of that we got a four-volume text book on human anatomy. This was used to teach doctors and surgeons through most of latter half of the 1800s.

Now, can we please address the science of Tetrapodophis? It is much more exciting that the legality of its collection.

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