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Myanmar amber fossils: a legal as well as ethical quagmire

Natural History Museum, London, UK.
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Natural History Museum, London, UK.

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The ethical status of fossil material in Myanmar amber is one of palaeontology’s most contentious issues. In our view, two aspects of the debate over calls for a moratorium on publication of research related to this material warrant further consideration (see M. S. Engel Nature 584, 525; 2020).

First, there is a potential legal problem with many collections of Myanmar amber held outside the country. Myanmar law has forbidden the permanent export of fossils since 1957 (go.nature.com/2fmckea). And, although exporting Myanmar amber is legal under gemstone laws from 1995 (go.nature.com/3djqvdw), it is the fossil content of the amber that has driven purchases by palaeontologists. Amber inclusions therefore fall into a legal grey zone between these statutes — it is unclear which law has precedence. Researchers would be ill-advised to publish on material whose legal status is questionable, whatever its scientific value.

Second, foreign researchers must do more to address the loss of Myanmar’s fossil heritage. We agree that amber palaeontologists should work with colleagues from Myanmar to establish clear ethical guidelines for research on these often-spectacular specimens in full compliance with local law. This would enable Myanmar to benefit from its own scientific patrimony, as has occurred with finds of fossil primates, for example (see J.‑J. Jaeger et al. Nature Commun. 10, 3531; 2019).

Nature 586, 674 (2020)

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