Massive dino from Brazil ate 'like a pelican,' controversial new study finds. Why is it causing an uproar?

An artist's interpretation of Irritator challenegri scooping its extended lower jaw though water. (Image credit: Olof Moleman/Universität Greifswald)

A large predatory dinosaur related to Spinosaurus may have scooped up prey "like a pelican" by extending its lower jaw, European researchers propose in a new study. But the findings have upset some paleontologists who contest that the fossils were illegally taken from Brazil and should be returned to their country of origin.

The dinosaur at the center of the controversy is Irritator challengeri, a member of the family Spinosauridae — a group of bipedal, carnivorous dinosaurs with long, crocodilian-like snouts. The species, which grew to a max length of around 21 feet (6.5 meters), was first described in 1996 from 115 million-year-old fossils uncovered in the Araripe Basin of northeastern Brazil and later shipped to Germany, where they now reside in the Stuttgart Museum of Natural History in the state of Baden-Württemberg. 

In the new study, which was published in the journal Palaeontologia Electronica, researchers digitally reconstructed the skull from the I. challengeri specimen housed in Stuttgart and discovered that the species' lower jaw could spread out to the sides, widening the animal's pharynx, the area behind the nose and mouth. This is similar to how a pelican widens its lower beak to scoop up small fish, suggesting that I. challengeri likely fed in the same way, the researchers wrote in a statement.

The new analysis also revealed that, due to its eye placement, I. challengeri would have naturally inclined its snout at a 45-degree angle and been capable of rapid-yet-weak bites. When combined, these features suggest that the snout would have been well suited to quickly scooping prey out of shallow water, the researchers wrote.

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Fossil controversy 

I. challengeri's journey from Brazil to Germany is a contentious one. The fossils were unearthed by nonscientific commercial diggers and were sold to the Stuttgart Museum before 1990, when Brazil began restricting scientific exports to other countries. As a result, the study's researchers believed that the fossils legally belonged to the Baden-Württemberg state.

However, an older Brazilian law dating to 1942 states that Brazilian fossils are federal property and cannot be sold, meaning that the fossil was technically stolen by the commercial diggers who exported it, Juan Carlos Cisneros, a paleontologist at the Federal University of Piauí in Brazil who was not involved in the new study, told Live Science in an email. "And buying something stolen does not make you its owner," he said.

Cisneros and others believe that this issue is an example of scientific colonialism.

"That dinosaur is Brazilian heritage that was used to advance science in a European country," Cisneros said. "It fits the very definition of colonialism — using valuable resources from other countries to the benefit of a rich country." Publishing studies based on illegally taken fossils helps to validate this colonialism and makes it harder for poorer countries to contribute to science, he added.

A replica of an I. challengeri skeleton on display at the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo. (Image credit: Wikimedia)

Following the new paper's publication, paleontologists and fossil enthusiasts began calling out the researchers and journal on social media, using the hashtag #IrritatorBelongstoBR. The paper was temporarily taken down by Palaeontologia Electronica due to the backlash but has since been reuploaded.

Paul Stewens, a law student at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva who was not involved in the study, told Live Science that the online response is likely a "form of belated outrage" from a culture of scientific colonialism that has been left unchecked in paleontology for decades. Stewens posted a detailed Twitter thread about the ethical issues associated with the study.

In the paper, the European researchers acknowledged the "possibly problematic status" of the fossils in an ethics statement. But Cisneros and Stewens do not think the statement adequately addresses the controversy. 

"We are aware that the fossil is considered illegal by some," study co-author Serjoscha Evers, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany, told Live Science in an email. But this issue requires legal clarification in court that was not available to them before they began the study, which the researchers are more than happy to comply with in the future, he said.

"We added new information to a dinosaur fossil that has been known to science since 1996, and we do not think that fossils such as this one, which are already available in the scientific literature, should be subjected to a publishing moratorium," Evers said.

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However, their critics believe that scientific findings shouldn't be used to justify the use of contentious fossils. "The same findings could have been produced by a team of researchers from Brazil," Cisneros said. 

Similar controversy also surrounded a study on fossils belonging to the meat-eating dinosaur Ubirajara jubatus, which was unearthed in Brazil and sold to the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe in Germany under similar circumstances. The museum has since decided to return the U. jubatus to Brazil.

Cisneros believes that the I. challengeri fossils should "absolutely" be returned to Brazil. And Evers agrees that this is probably the best outcome regardless of any legal rulings because "the most complete spinosaurid from that country deserves to be displayed locally," he said.

It is important to highlight issues like this even if it leads to discord between researchers, Cisneros said. "There is no way to talk nicely about scientific colonialism," he said. "But it needs to be done because it is an open wound that perpetuates social inequalities in the source countries."

Harry Baker
Senior Staff Writer

Harry is a U.K.-based senior staff writer at Live Science. He studied marine biology at the University of Exeter before training to become a journalist. He covers a wide range of topics including space exploration, planetary science, space weather, climate change, animal behavior, evolution and paleontology. His feature on the upcoming solar maximum was shortlisted in the "top scoop" category at the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) Awards for Excellence in 2023.