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Thursday, 12 March 2020

The ugly truth behind Oculudentavis

Fig. 1
The beautiful tiny fossil skull of Oculudentavis khaungraae in its amber tomb and reconstructed state, as figured by Xing et al. (2020). Behind this beauty, however, lies an ugly, seemingly under-known truth about where these amazing amber specimens come from.
Yesterday, the description of an exciting new fossil bird was published in the world's leading scientific journal, Nature. The discovery concerns the complete but tiny skull and lower jaw of an archaic bird trapped in amber, called Oculudentavis khaungraae by the describers. News of this fossil has rippled around the world, and understandably so. It is, after all, among the smallest dinosaurs of all time with a skull length comparable to diminutive modern hummingbirds, and it gives us a lot to think about as goes avian evolution and the composition of Mesozoic ecosystems. Scientifically speaking, it's undoubtedly an amazing discovery. Social media is awash with discussion about the details of the paper, and palaeoartists are already sketching and painting speculative takes on this new smallest Mesozoic dinosaur

But while Oculudentavis is small, it can't hide an enormous elephant in the room: where it came from. Oculudentavis is one of many spectacular specimens to be described in recent years from the Early Cretaceous amber mines of Myanmar. The amber from this site, for whatever reason, is especially rich in all sorts of biological inclusions: bits of plant, whole insects, spiders, lizards, and even parts of dinosaurs. It's undeniably a fossil locality of tremendous global importance that promises to tell us much about Mesozoic life. It's also, however, a humanitarian nightmare which poses a significant ethical dilemma to anyone working on the biota from this site. These conditions have been the subject of numerous news articles in the last year (see New Scientist, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Science) and yet many of us - journalists included - are only talking about the cool science of Oculudentavis and other Myanmar amber specimens, and not the far more important ethical complications they are associated with.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves: what, exactly, are these issues? To get the best idea, please read the articles linked to above, but I will attempt a short summary here. The Myanmar amber mines are a series of hazardous, narrow tunnels dug by thousands of people under duress - one hesitates to use the word 'slave', but the comparison has been brought up in some reports. The richest amber horizons are about 100 m below the surface, so the tunnels to reach them are long and treacherous. Much of the mining is performed by teenagers because younger people tend to be thin, and the mines are so narrow that only slender people can navigate them. Hundreds of miners are injured or killed each month by tunnel collapses and flooding, and there is no compensation or healthcare for injury or death for the workers or their families. If that's not dangerous enough, the mines are situated in a zone of conflict between Kachin separatists and the Burmese army, so the surrounding area is littered with landmines. Much of the conflict in these areas - which has lasted now for several generations - stems from rival political factions fighting over the amber and other natural resources. Thousands of people have died in the fighting since the resumption of hostilities in 2011, and the conflict is associated with displacement of civilians, genocide, child soldiers, systematic rape and torture. Burmese amber stems from a region of harrowing, terrifying violence.

For a little over two years, this conflict has seen the deepest amber mines closed as the Burmese military occupies important mining sites, but with 10 tonnes of amber being recovered each year for the last few decades, there is no shortage of new and stockpiled specimens to sell. Most of the amber goes to markets in southern China, where it's converted into jewellery to contribute to a $1 billion dollar Chinese amber industry. But a minority - those with interesting inclusions - are sold to scientists. These transactions are not illegal in China, but their initial transference from Burma to China often is - they are frequently smuggled over the border. In at least some instances, these transactions are not carried out through officious museum administration departments, but rather in hotel rooms at palaeontological conferences. Katherine Gammon's Atlantic article describes scientists leaving these rooms with bagfuls of specimens for study having paid serious money for their wares. A well-preserved and unusual invertebrate inclusion will retail at over ten thousand dollars, and you could buy a luxury car for the cost of a Myanmar vertebrate. These fees are paid despite the provenance of the fossils often being unclear. It's thought that the Burmese mines could represent several millions of years of deposition but the amber horizons are not logged in detail, creating ambiguity about how old the specimens are and their ages relative to one another. What's clearer is that the money from these sales funds the various factions fighting over Burmese resources, which in turn spurs the Myanmar government to retaliate and violently suppress this insurgency. Make no mistake: Myanmar amber is big business and, from discovery to sale, they are conflict resources - the palaeontological equivalent of blood diamonds.

A lot of these details have only come to light in the last 12 months, and the palaeontological community is still working out how to process the news. It goes without saying that, even within the narrow scope of academia, the Myanmar specimens create a slew of ethical questions. Is it OK to buy and work on this material? Should museums feel comfortable archiving it? Should journals accept papers describing it? Should referees feel comfortable reviewing those papers? These are questions for academic palaeontology to address - hopefully with a sense of urgency - in due course. In the meantime, several palaeontologists are already refusing to associate with Myanmar amber in any way. This includes individuals who were previously working on Myanmar specimens. They won't research it, won't review papers on it, and won't comment on it to the press, other than to highlight the ethical issues behind it. Some are even calling for a total boycott of research on these specimens, with the hope that it will cut off a source of revenue for the ongoing Kachin conflict.

Other palaeontologists, however, are producing a huge amount of research, maybe even building careers, on Myanmar specimens. It's reported that that dozens of papers on Burmese amber are published every month, equating to hundreds a year. And do not think that this work is produced in ignorance: a lot of the details of the mining conditions of Burmese amber come from the same palaeontologists who publish on the specimens. Against the obvious question of whether this constitutes sound ethical practise, one of the authors behind Oculudentavis is quoted as saying "are we really going to turn our backs on this priceless scientific data?" in the New York Times. At time of writing, professional palaeontological and geological associations do not have official stances or guidelines on this issue.

It's against this backdrop that I've found it increasingly hard to stomach the growing hype around Oculudentavis. Seeing a new discovery being shared, discussed and restored is ordinarily fun, but, in this case, it seems criminal that this is occurring without wider recognition for the very real and great human cost these fossils are associated with. I appreciate that a lot of our joyful reaction to Oculudentavis stems from naivety about the history of the Myanmar amber - it's not like the conditions of the mines and their relevance to the Kachin conflict is mainstream news - but it's such a big part of what these fossils are about that we're almost being lied when authorities neglect to mention it. The story of a tiny Mesozoic bird isn't cute or fun when you know people have been dying in their hundreds in the place where it was found.

I figure the best thing we can do is make sure the context of Myanmar fossils is shared as widely as possible, so people can make their own judgement about the ethics and morals of sharing and promoting this story. For me, I can't celebrate Oculudentavis as a scientific achievement. For all its beauty and untapped knowledge, I just can't look at Myanmar amber with a normal sense of intrigue and wonder, because I can't stop thinking about how many kids might have died in a mine to obtain them, or how many guns were bought from their sale. These are not fun new fossil discoveries, but harrowing artefacts of a national crisis.

There is nothing we can now do to remove Oculudentavis or other published Myanmar specimens from our collective knowledge: they're out there, archived in scientific literature, and we have to engage and work with them in the way we do all fossils. But please, if you're going to write about or share the news of these discoveries, or are producing restorations of them, please treat them with due gravitas. The excitement of a new fossil discovery can be intoxicating, especially when they're as intriguing as the excellently preserved Myanmar material, but we should not forget that these specimens come at the direct expense of hundreds of poorly treated people, and contribute to the suffering of thousands more. Behind these beautiful and fascinating fossils is an ugly truth, and presenting them without due context omits important information that challenges how we conduct our science, and trivialises a very real crisis being faced by our fellow humans in a forgotten part of the planet.

Reference

  • Xing, L., O’Connor, J.K., Schmitz, L. et al. (2020). Hummingbird-sized dinosaur from the Cretaceous period of Myanmar. Nature 579, 245–249. 

13 comments:

  1. I have seen some make the point that boycotting it will not impact anything, since they will just go off to all manner of non-scientific buyers nonetheless. Which would mean that refusing to work with them does not actually do anything to hurt the practice. I cant say I disagree - what do you think of this argument? Related, is it not the publishing of such finds that is most effective at bringing attention to this? This find going to the scientific literature is the entire reason that this conversation has sweeped across palaeontology circles the past few days. Is that not better than it just going to some jewel maker who will pay the industry just as much?

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  2. As much as they may sell for these fossils are barely a novelty to the people doing this stuff. These mines are for the jewelry industry, a demand for fossil specimens alone, even at the described prices, is a drop in the bucket and would not on its own be creating these conflicts.

    The idea that research on these specimens should be banned or even protested feels not only like an overreaction but a placement of blame in the wrong place.

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  3. With all said and done in regards to the human rights atrocities in regards to Myanmar, boycotting the fossils is not the correct way to go. It is arguably even a sign of desperation since it is the only suggestion to stop the genocides and shitty working conditions.

    Spread awareness. Call human rights organisations and volunteer for work for this cause. Send letters to the UN to shame it for not recognising the actions of Myanmar as genocide and slavery.

    Hell, even cast all manner of spells.

    But do not boycott the fossils. If you do, everyone except the jewel industry loses.

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  4. The subject of avoiding/boycotting Myanmar amber came up on Facebook earlier, so I'm going to repost my comment from that thread here.

    "Our moral compasses are all slightly differently tuned and we all have to make our peace with the impact we have in the world. This is challenging for Westerners in particular, who's basic day-to-day lives have rippling effects around the planet, many of which disadvantage other people.

    But for me, the value of these fossils against the suffering and loss of life they bring is not open to debate. It's way beyond acceptable, and no amount of data or specimen novelty can change that. When you drill into it, this is a pretty black and white situation: buying Burmese amber = vast human suffering. You can complicate that with other factors, but reduced to its core, that's what we're left with. It's probably accurate to say that scientists are only minor contributors to this issue, but isn't _any_ contribution to this situation pretty deplorable? And remember that scientists are paying absolutely large sums of money for these specimens, enough to finance some pretty terrible things on their own. Even inverts are > $10K a piece. These aren't Moroccan fish or trilobites going for a few dollars a pop, but big business.

    Consider what we actually get out of these fossils. It's not like studying these specimens is for the greater good of humanity, and that Burmese people are making a sacrifice that will benefit us all in the long run. We're not curing cancer or combating climate change with this amber. We're studying it because we want to, and because it's sexy enough to get high impact papers. And the science is pretty weak, too: we don't even have decent provenance data for them - we're taking the dealers' word that they are what they are, which is never a good idea. I'm an advocate for knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and have built my career around the study of extinct life, but I still view these as callous and selfish reasons to disregard the human cost of these specimens. Our interest in this amber should not trump the human rights violations of the people mining it. Again, let's reduce it down: people are literally dying so a few people can say "oh, that's interesting". We need to get some perspective here.

    I also don't think we should dress up scientists as 'salvaging' these specimens. They're paying top dollar from dealers to get these things, and know exactly what the working conditions are like. By buying and working on this stuff they're making a conscious, knowing decision to say "I'm OK with this" or, at least, "I'm going to ignore where this came from". Again, this is pretty binary: you either support this industry and the atrocities associated with it, or you don't. It's not like there isn't tonnes of other stuff to study out there."

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    Replies
    1. Not BUYING them is very different from boycotting research on them, blocking them from databases, or refusing papers based on them. Buying them is bad, obviously, and worth calling out. But to go so far as to invalidate these fossils because of their origins is incredibly unusual given this has never been a serious suggestion for other fossils of unethical origin.

      It's disappointing to have nothing better to offer than to say "what's done is done", but we aren't blocking fossils stolen from poor nations, or gathered unintentionally by exploited and abused workers all over the world in decades/centuries past. Heck there are fossils that were gathered in the USA during all sorts of unethical mining practices and many of them are still held up on pedestals of "the glory age(s) of the field".

      In 30 years future enthusiasts and paleontologists would look back and curse at us for throwing these things away or loosing them in backlogs by refusing to publish on them, after we already had them at hand. Just as we curse at events like the destruction of Raphus specimens.

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    2. "...to go so far as to invalidate these fossils because of their origins is incredibly unusual given this has never been a serious suggestion for other fossils of unethical origin."

      That's not what I'm advocating in this comment or the article above. To the contrary, I wrote:

      "There is nothing we can now do to remove Oculudentavis or other published Myanmar specimens from our collective knowledge: they're out there, archived in scientific literature, and we have to engage and work with them in the way we do all fossils."

      The question raised in this article and comment is whether we should continue to work with these fossils, just as there are questions raised about working with other specimens where ethics and morals are dubious. Myanmar is an extreme example of this conversation, but it's far from the only ethical quandary facing modern palaeontology. The fact there are lots of these issues to work out doesn't mean Myanmar is OK.

      "In 30 years future enthusiasts and paleontologists would look back and curse at us for throwing these things away or loosing them in backlogs by refusing to publish on them, after we already had them at hand."

      Or they might wonder how we could be so cold to the humanitarian crisis behind them. Palaeontologists are people too, many of whom do not think we should prioritise science over suffering.

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    3. Obtaining specimens through unethical means is wrong and should not be allowed to continue, however, once these specimens have already been obtained refusing to describe it, let alone refusing to allow others to describe it, is also not ethical.

      How would the researchers doing this be any better than the "professional" fossil hunters who hoard valuable fossils? Reasons be damned keeping fossils out of public access is in itself an unethical act, and two wrongs don't make something right.

      Once they're outside of Myanmar the damage has long been done. Letting these fossils already obtained sit in warehouses, let alone destroying them or selling them into private collections, is a truly disgusting act of waste.

      This also seems like an unreasonable situation for the paleontology community to be expected to self moderate in. If conditions are so deplorable than purchasing these resources (be they fossils or general minerals) should be illegal. Catch the people buying and selling in Myanmar amber, confiscate the materials, and have them sent to national institutions in the country of arrival/arrest.

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  5. Thanks for the well written and sobering article. For the sake of balance, as most comments up at time of writing are doubting the use of boycotting, I think it is absolutely clear cut; of course scientists shouldn't be buying this stuff. Saying that if they didn't buy it someone else would, and the profits would remain the same, is completely missing the point. You should make a moral choice regardless of whether you know it will change anything other than your own behaviour. Saying 'boycotting is pointless' is like saying 'oh well, I might as well buy this poached ivory, because if I don't someone else will'. Even if you're right, you're wrong.

    Ivan Kay

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  6. Very interesting article and response. I absolutely agree that pretending the fossils don't exist isn't necessarily the best idea, but discussing them without bringing attention to these very real issues is an issue. I for one didn't know anything about this problem before reading your post, so thank you for that.

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  7. I partially agree. It is important to know about these underlying humanitarian problems regarding Myanmar amber, however, these have been known for many years (at least in invertebrate paleontologist circles), and for some reason, everybody suddenly woke up last year? Well, the bombastic media coverage of this particular little dinosaur certainly helps to bring these issues to attention and creates an opportunity for sharing a more balanced picture. The fossils do exist and will be there for some time to unearth (whether they do it with child workers, or not/whether they finance conflicts with it or not) and it will be the personal responsibility of the paleontologist how (and if) to study them. I believe the practical and moral aspects of the problem disentangle at a certain point (like in the case of Oculudentavis). We are in a reverted situation, where we do not and cannot solve the problem, neither by boycotting fossils, or reporting the country's conduct in this case, as these two are counterproductive in my opinion. Again, measuring human lives and fossils on the same scale is misleading, as all fossils in the world are not worth a single human life. If I recall correctly, fossil collection in China was quite similar 20-25 years ago in certain localities, however, they changed it gradually along more ethical guidelines. Myanmar's political situation is different, so this will not happen as fast, as in China. I think, when focus shifts, or the financial situation changes, the issue will resolve itself. To summarize, in my opinion, this is a case of responsibility, in which the paleontologist is the least important piece of the puzzle, and the paleontologist, in general, should not try to bear all of the burden, even if the others are (seemingly) not bothered. Also, we presume everyone in action is perfectly aware of what they are doing, just don't think of it in the terms we might think of. A complex view of the issue is needed, and the article is perfect in this regard, ie. it presents a complex narrative. My last point: way too much emotion is put into this issue, it clouds judgment.

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  8. The parallels between the Myanmar's amber fossils and those from the Jehol biota are pretty striking. Ironically, it was the Chinese academics who played the victims when others tried to describe commercially tainted Jehol birds, yet now Chinese scientists are the shady aggressors. For gosh sake, some of the amber bad guys built their personal careers in the Jehol dustup. Yet there are, encouraging smuggling and paying thousands of dollars per transaction, then rationalizing their shady dealings. Irony? Hypocrisy? Whatever...

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  9. I agree that we cannot close our eyes top this horrible trade, but we should also not blame the paleontologists for creating this situation, or even contributing more than fractionally to financing it. I just don't believe that the trade in fossil inclusions is more than a tiny fraction of the value of the trade. What we can do as a community of scientists and science enthusiasts, is use the global attention that these extraordinary fossils have ignited to bring attention to the trade and try and influence the way the workers are treated. Refusing to buy or publish on these fossils will not make the problem go away: the ability of the international community to influence what happens in Myanmar depends on the bright spotlight that these fossils have begun to shine on the dark amber trade. Get organised, be vocal, and exert influence: we are not powerless.

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  10. I gotta agree with the majority here. Even thousands of dollars is a tiny percentage of "what might be a billion dollar industry", which has been going on for thousands of year before anyone knew what the Mesozoic was. An ethical position without a physical consequence is a pointless one to act on.

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