Fossilized treasures buried in golden, glassy amber capture untold stories of ancient woodlands through which dinosaurs roamed. Sometimes these precious fossils are part of a very different story.
One such example is in Myanmar. While embroiled in political turmoil, the country has also dazzled the field of paleontology with impressive amber specimens obtained through unethical or illegal means.
According to a new study – described by scientists not involved in the work as “one of the most important papers in paleontology you’ll read this year” — research into fossils encased in Myanmar amber is booming, a direct result of ongoing violent conflict in parts of the country where the amber is mined.
Amber from Myanmar has in recent years yielded a wealth of dazzling specimens, preserved in exquisite detail. From feathered dinosaur tails to fossilized flowers and metallic insects, the burnt orange blobs of hardened tree resin have trapped life that flourished some 99 million years ago, along with the dinosaurs during the mid-Cretaceous period.
But these findings come at a cost.
As of 2019, reports have emerged that the lucrative trade in amber, and the fossils it often contains, is fueling conflict in Myanmar, representing an “ethical minefield” for paleontologists wishing to study the specimens.
“We already knew the situation was bad through anecdotes and journalistic investigations, but the study finally gives us a perspective of the situation and shows how bad the situation really is,” said paleontologist Nussaïbah Raja of Friedrich Alexander University (FAU) Erlangen- Nuremberg. Germany explains to ScienceAlert in an email.
“Our analysis shows the extent to which scientists are exploiting the legal conundrum that Myanmar amber represents.”
Since 2015, the export of mineral materials from Myanmar has been banned. But because amber can be mined legally, the fossils it contains fall into a legal gray area.
“Where does fossil end and amber begin?” Raja asks in her email.
But research into Myanmar’s amber fossils is roaring, according to new analysis. The researchers reviewed nearly 1,000 scientific papers published over the past 30 years on Myanmar’s amber fossils and found that the explosion in papers since 2014 closely tracks the major political, legal and economic events that occurred during that time in the country.
Some paleontologists have disputed the study’s findings, arguing that the dramatic increase in research into Myanmar’s amber fossils simply reflects growing academic interest.
However, the study’s authors argue that the growing number of fossil documents preserved in the golden gemstone is “expressly linked” to the country’s violent conflict and “severely deficient” enforcement of national laws. And foreign paleontologists are among those who benefit.
“The Myanmar amber represents the most stark case of how loopholes in the law continue to be exploited, resulting in unethical work and exclusion of local researchers,” FAU paleontologist fellow and study co-leader Emma Dunne. he said on Twitter when announcing the team’s new newspaper.
Most of the amber is mined in northern Myanmar’s conflict-torn Kachin state, where rival political factions battle for control of the region and profit from the amber trade.
Gems smuggled across the Chinese border are sold in markets, often to private collectors and paleontologists, meaning local scientists in Myanmar have few opportunities to study the ancient remains, the analysis found.
“Until 2022, there were no Myanmar-based authors who had contributed a scientific paper describing a fossil embedded in Myanmar amber,” explains Raja.
As of 2014, China has published more papers on Myanmar amber fossils than any other country, followed by the United States. This, the researchers say, reflects the influx of Myanmar amber into Chinese markets from 2014 onwards.
“What we observed here is an extreme form of parachute science where instead of field research, amber samples are obtained through commercial channels and apparently not regulated accordingly by national laws related to fossils or gemstones,” write Raja, Dunne and colleagues.
Parachute science – where researchers from rich nations fly in to conduct research without involving local scientists – is a legacy of a dark colonial history that continues to be exploited today and ultimately distorts our view of life on Earth.
Other recent studies analyzing scientific paper writing have similarly exposed how pervasive parachute science is in coral reef research and geoscience. Not surprisingly, paleontology is no exception.
“Documenting who – or more specifically, which countries – are publishing on Myanmar amber allows us to clearly see that this same imbalance is extremely widespread in this area of research,” adds Dunne.
Despite calls by paleontological societies for scientific journals not to publish papers on Myanmar amber fossils, and some journals adopting stricter policies in response, progress to curb unethical or illegal research practices in paleontology has, in general, been slow.
The latest analysis found that only 2 of 222 papers published since 2020 describing fossils in Myanmar amber detailed in their supplementary methods how their sample was obtained legally and ethically.
While tracking this kind of data may be a wake-up call for some researchers, it is a reminder to other paleontologists who are reckoning with the field’s colonial past and how to improve its ethical standards.
“The Myanmar amber is beautiful. The fossils inside are amazing. I have the excitement and desire to study them,” University of Edinburgh palaeontologist Steve Brusatte he tweeted while reading the study. “But to me, while the war still rages, no fossil is worth a single human life.”
The study was published in Communication Biology. It was written by Zin-Maung-Maung-Thein, a paleontologist at Mandalay University in Myanmar.