Tetrapodophis: an early four-legged snake?
July 25, 2015 10:13 AM   Subscribe

What were snakes doing before they lost their legs? A new fossil discovery of an early snake with four tiny, stubby legs might shed some light on that question. Assuming it really is a snake, of course. However, the status of this fossil as a specimen from a private collection raises ethical questions. This is likely to be an illegally obtained specimen, like 2012's controversial Tarbosaurus bataar (previously, previously). Is it ethical for Science to promote findings from unethically sourced fossils when these are an increasing problem for paleontology? (Previously, previously.)
posted by sciatrix (22 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
David Martill isn't there to make friends.
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.
posted by sukeban at 10:31 AM on July 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


Wow.

I am perturbed that his blatant disregard of ethical considerations is going to curtail any discussion of hilarious tiny snake legs.
posted by louche mustachio at 11:11 AM on July 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


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.

Gee, I wonder why there aren't more Brazilian paleontologists.
posted by one_bean at 11:19 AM on July 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


Do you think he was drunk when he typed that? I mean, he's obviously a bigoted prick, but you'd think he'd know to hide it just a tiny bit.
posted by howfar at 11:19 AM on July 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


Also why would you need a phylogeneticist if you were examining a fossil? Maybe get a paleoherpetologist on board so you don't have a bunch of people telling you it's not a snake. This guy is a fucking maroon.
posted by one_bean at 11:23 AM on July 25, 2015


Disregard nation-state, gain scientific knowledge. Sounds ethical to me. "Potentially someone violated the Brazilian gov't's export regulations some decades ago so let's suppress this science" is the one that looks unethical.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 12:00 PM on July 25, 2015


Disregard nation-state

Europeans are really good at disregarding nation states in the developing world. The British, in particular, are well known for the British Museum our massive display of plundered goods. SCHOLARSHIP! and SCIENCE! have been misused to justify colonialist pilfering for at least 150 years, and it's utter fucking bullshit.
posted by howfar at 12:42 PM on July 25, 2015 [14 favorites]


I don't think the focus on Martill is helpful, given his outspokenness. The holder of the fossil, Museum Solnhofen, is surely the key player? Were they not to have accepted the loan of a potentially unlawful fossil then it could never have been published. They're the ones with the kind of resources needed to handle the different legal problems of fossils lacking provenance, and also the responsibility to do so. They have forsworn their job as gatekeeper, pushing Martill into a role he clearly doesn't care for.
posted by Thing at 1:04 PM on July 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Were they not to have accepted the loan of a potentially unlawful fossil then it could never have been published.

They could have returned the fossil to Brazil where they also have paleontologists and where people who are not from Brazil can go there and request to research on those fossils. It's not that difficult to both avoid plundering developing countries' natural or historical riches and allowing for open scientific research.
posted by sukeban at 1:08 PM on July 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


Well, the museum isn't the owner of the fossil so it's hard to say what they could have lawfully done to repatriate it.
posted by Thing at 1:13 PM on July 25, 2015


I guess something similar to when someone discovers some painting was actually looted by Nazis or stolen from its owner.
posted by sukeban at 1:24 PM on July 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


one_bean: Also why would you need a phylogeneticist if you were examining a fossil?

Not all of phylogenetics is molecular phylogenetics. The field started with, and still involves (particularly in paleontology, where molecular traits are hard to get at) the quantification of morphological traits, and tree reconstruction based on these characters.
posted by Mitrovarr at 1:47 PM on July 25, 2015


I don't think the focus on Martill is helpful, given his outspokenness.

While I agree with the first part of this sentence, it does seem like you may have mispelled "being a massive bellend".
posted by howfar at 1:52 PM on July 25, 2015


Also, I have to say that the message "Don't you think you should partner with a ________ person?" is how you end up with people who haven't even read the paper on the authors list. It's hard for people to form collaborations, especially productive ones, and the odds of finding a person from a specific background who A. Knows something useful about the topic, B. Has the time and interest to collaborate, and C. Fits into the team and the research flow, is not very high. So bringing them on anyway can easily result in a token collaborator who is only there to contribute a name to the authors list.
posted by Mitrovarr at 2:17 PM on July 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Disregard nation-state, gain scientific knowledge. Sounds ethical to me. "Potentially someone violated the Brazilian gov't's export regulations some decades ago so let's suppress this science" is the one that looks unethical.

If you want to gain scientific knowledge, you increase participation. This dipshit is complaining that Brazil doesn't have enough paleontologists and that fossils aren't treated with care there. The solution to that is not to steal their fossils. The solution is more Brazilian scientists. The advance here was to Martill's career. A true advance for science would have included somebody from Brazil as an active coauthor so that person could go on to advocate for increased funding for paleontology in country. Having a pub in Science would lead to enormous recognition for the snake guy in Brazil, which means he gets to train more students who then get to go on and find more undiscovered or under-explored formations in country. Refusing to collaborate in this way is not (just) insensitive; it is directly harming scientific advancement by preventing increased scientific capacity. This was a lost opportunity to find more transitional fossils in Brazil.

Mitrovarr- right, duh, was mixing up my roots.
posted by one_bean at 2:24 PM on July 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


Also claiming not to know who Zaher is while trying to publish on transitional snake forms is either disingenuous or severely ill-informed. Zaher has papers in Science and Nature on fossilized snakes with limbs. And you can't even get his name right. What the fuck?
posted by one_bean at 2:27 PM on July 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


Also, I have to say that the message "Don't you think you should partner with a ________ person?" is how you end up with people who haven't even read the paper on the authors list.

But that wasn't the whole question.

"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?"

Martill ignored half the question in favour of his spectacularly ill-considered (to be charitable) remarks relating to "black people, cripples, women and homosexuals".
posted by howfar at 2:27 PM on July 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yeah, his response was out of line.
posted by Mitrovarr at 2:39 PM on July 25, 2015


"The point is - the fossil resources of countries like Brazil and Mongolia and China are untapped resources that provide scientific opportunities for the people of those countries. When they are stolen, when local scientists are not brought in to work on their own fossils as collaborators, when academics from rich Western nations suggest that they know better, it is the growing scientific communities of these countries who suffer.

"So when Martill says 'Personally I don't give a damn how the fossil came from Brazil or when,' what he really means is that he doesn't care about strip mining the scientific resources of Brazil to further his own prospects."

nemertea.Tumblr.com
posted by jsnlxndrlv at 2:55 PM on July 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


yes that's true, a snake with legs

Is literally the only thing I can think about when I see that illustration for the Nat' Geo article.
I'll throw myself out now
posted by hap_hazard at 4:37 PM on July 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Thing: "so it's hard to say what they could have lawfully done to repatriate it."

There are laws and international treaties that tell you exactly what should be done to lawfully repatriate illegally obtained cultural patrimony, including fossils, antiquities, and other objects of scientific interest primarily discovered by digging. There are also ethical guidelines for researchers and institutions who may be dealing with objects of unclear legality, which are of scientific or historical value but dubious provenance, that keep those institutions on the right side of the law and discourage the black market and the destruction of priceless artifacts and sites.

It's not so much "hard to say" as "didn't feel like googling."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:44 AM on July 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


Four-Legged Snake Shakes Up Squamate Family Tree – Or Does It? - Christie Wilcox, Science Sushi blog.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 7:08 PM on July 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


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