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'Blood amber' may be a portal into dinosaur times, but the fossils are an ethical minefield for palaeontologists

September 19, 2020. Summarized by summa-bot.

Fossils in Burmese amber are changing what we know about life in dinosaur times, but they come laden with ethical dilemmas for paleontologists, with some fearing they could be fueling ethnic conflict in Myanmar.

"There is evidence of human rights abuses that are directly linked to the mining of amber, and I would say as paleontologists, but also as people, we have to think of the ethical implications of what we do," said Emily Rayfield, a paleobiology professor at the University of Bristol's School of Earth Sciences in the United Kingdom and president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP), an organization dedicated to the study of vertebrate fossils.

It has also asked more than 300 scientific journals to stop publishing research based on amber fossils found since that date.

The discovery of a dinosaur tail entombed in amber found by Chinese paleontologist Lida Xing at a market in Myanmar near the Chinese border grabbed headlines in 2016, and this, along with other finds, has been a further driver, Rayfield said.

While he doesn't dispute that atrocities have been committed against ethnic minorities in areas where amber mining takes place, Poinar said there's no evidence that "money from the sale of Burmese amber fossils is was being used in acts of aggression against minority groups within the country.

Instead, based on interviews with miners and traders, he said the great majority of Burmese amber containing fossils was and still is smuggled into China where it's sold legally in markets, especially in the city of Tengchong, near the border with Myanmar.

He hopes that journal editors will reconsider the "clause in the SVP paper forbidding papers on Burmese amber fossils from being considered for publication. "

A letter signed by more than 50 scientists published in August said that a boycott will be disruptive, especially to those early in their career, and will do little to remedy the situation in Myanmar or improve the ethics of paleontological research.

While amber containing dinosaurs and other vertebrate fossils is rare and does command high prices, amber containing smaller specimens like plants and insects are often sold for less than $100, according to the authors.

The journal Acta Paleontologica Polonica (APP) will not consider any papers on Burmese amber collected from 2017 onward, while the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology has gone a step further, saying it will no longer publish any research based on Burmese amber fossils.

Rayfield, the SVP president, said her members want to encourage people to think about where the amber they work on comes from and to investigate supply chains and the provenance of the material.

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