Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Internal Fights, Looting Hinder Work in the Field.(paleontolgy researchin China).


Harvey 1, originally uploaded by green_trilobite.
ArabicChinese (Simplified)Chinese (Traditional)DeutchEspanolFrenchItalianJapaneseKoreanPortugueseRussian

MAOTIANSHAN, YUNNAN PROVINCE--With its spectacular fossils, a well-trained cadre of researchers, and increasing funding, China could be the ideal place for paleontology in the 21st century. But scientists face a trio of problems: squabbles over access to sites and control of fossils, a lack of cooperation in the community, and widespread fossil looting. "It is a loss not only for China, but for the world," says Chang Mee-Mann, a senior paleontologist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP).

A striking, two-story building down the road from the world-class site here offers mute testimony to what can happen when bureaucracies don't see eye to eye. The Chengjiang Field Station, boasting dorm rooms, work spaces, and a grand exhibition hall, was supposed to be a home away from home for scientists from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology (NIGP), some 2000 kilometers to the northeast. But the 2-year-old facility has remained empty until recently, a victim of disagreement over stewardship of the site.

Local authorities have been reluctant to permit further digging at two of the most famous and productive Chengjiang sites--Maotianshan and Haikou. They want to preserve the site as a tourist attraction and worry, in the words of one scientist, that further digging will leave "nothing for visitors to see." For NIGP scientists, however, closing off the site means leaving valuable fossils in the ground. A compromise is being worked out, says NIGP's Sun Weiguo, that would allow digging under "a long-term program to preserve the sites." Meanwhile, the building is now open and digging at other Chengjiang locations will soon resume.

Although provincial authorities clearly get to decide who digs, ownership of the fossils is unclear. A single sentence in a national law apparently gives authority over vertebrate fossils to the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, but a 1998 government reshuffling apparently shifted control to the Ministry of Land Resources (MLR). Confusion over the extent of its prerogatives can slow down research, however. Last summer, IVPP lost 2 months of work at an exceptionally rich site in western Liaoning Province after local MLR representatives halted digging and demanded the return of fossils previously collected from other sites. Work resumed after negotiations, but who will wind up with the specimens has yet to be clarified. National regulations now being drafted may resolve which agencies control sites and fossils.

Group rivalry

Outside China, one institution typically takes the lead in investigating a site and coordinating research efforts with those of other institutions. In return, the lead institute gives all qualified researchers a chance to study the collected specimens. In China, such coordination is lacking, and some researchers do not respect each other's turf. "We only know what other groups are doing because we all hire the same farmers to do the digging" says Yunnan University's Hou Xianguang about activity at the Chengjiang sites.

This lack of communication has led to embarrassing redundancies. In 1999, Gao Keqin and others from IVPP named a newly discovered aquatic reptile Hyphalosaurus. At the same time, Li Jianjun and colleagues of the Beijing Natural History Museum named its mirror image Sinohydrosaurus, completely unaware that they were working with the counterslab of the same specimen. "This sort of confusion arises because there are so many groups out there not cooperating" says Hou.

"Not cooperating" doesn't begin to describe the friction between IVPP and Ji Qiang, former director of China's National Geological Museum. Relations soured after Ji switched from Paleozoic marine life and plunged into the debate over the origin of birds, a primary research focus at IVPP. Ji says the competition for specimens and scientific recognition "is very good for research, because before 1996 there was only one voice on the origin of birds--IVPP's voice."

Tensions between the two institutions, including the sharing of fossils, reached the breaking point early last year. In an article in a Hong Kong newspaper, Ji criticized IVPP researchers for their work with the now infamous Archaeoraptor fossil, sensationalized in National Geographic but later proved to be a fraud (Science, 22 December 2000, p. 2221). In particular, Ji said that IVPP researchers had studied the specimen even though it had been smuggled out of China, a cardinal sin for Chinese paleontologists.

Not so, says IVPP's Xu Xing, who replied in the Chinese press that he began studying Archaeoraptor only after it was clear it would be returned to China. That explanation is supported by the magazine's account of how it was duped. In the same newspaper article, Xu noted Ji's co-authorship of papers on two allegedly smuggled specimens of the primitive bird Confuciusornis in German and Austrian museums.

Recent developments, however, may have calmed the waters. This month Ji will step down as director of the Geological Museum and return to the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences, which is also under the MLR. Ji says his new post, principal scientist at the Institute of Stratigraphy and Paleontology, will give him a chance "to rejuvenate the paleontological research work" in the academy. Researchers hope the move paves the way toward better relations between the museum and IVPP.

Illegal fruits

A bigger problem than professional spats over jurisdiction may be the fact that many specimens are sold illegally to collectors. Scientists can never fully know what has been lost from looting and smuggling, but there are hints. In the early 1990s, dozens of dinosaur eggs, many with intact embryos, were unearthed in China and soon became hot items at fossil and curio markets worldwide. Today, says IVPP's Zhou Zhonghe, "all the best specimens of eggs with embryos are now outside China."

The immense value of specimens to farmers eager to escape the grinding poverty of rural China almost ensures that the looting will continue, however. Local governments are hard-pressed to protect the widely scattered sites, and police and officials can be bribed. Even the threat of a death sentence, so far levied only against those who have plundered cultural relics, isn't enough to deter the illegal trade.

This presents scientists with hard choices. Although it is illegal to buy specimens with government money, Ji says that the Geological Museum has used a system of indirect payments. "We ask the farmers to donate fossils to the museum," he explains. "Then, the museum gives them awards." The first specimen of Sinosauropteryx, for example, netted the donor $750 in 1996.

Director Zhu Min admits that IVPP reluctantly employs the same tactic, but only as a last resort. Staying above the fray, he notes, means that "scientifically valuable specimens will not be in the hands of genuine researchers." At the same time, IVPP's Chang says that specimens bought from farmers "have lost much scientific information, such as the layer, location, and the association with other fossils." Looters rarely save fossil fragments, which may be valuable to scientists but not to collectors. Indeed, attempts to cement unrelated bits and pieces together are so common that a recent monograph on Confuciusornis included a section on how to spot doctored specimens.

Some localities have gotten serious about protection, with Yunnan officials posting full-time guards at some of the most prominent Chengjiang sites. In 1997, the secretary-general of the local Communist party personally supervised filling the quarry with boulders to protect it during the off-season. And in Guizhou Province, the local government has paid for highway patrols.

But added security doesn't eliminate the problem. "It means peasants now dig less. But they haven't stopped," says IVPP's Li Jinling, flipping through photographs of plundered outcrops. "I feel very sad for Chinese science."

With reporting by Erik Stokstad and Xiong Lei.

Source Citation
NORMILE, DENNIS. "Internal Fights, Looting Hinder Work in the Field." Science 291.5502 (2001): 239. General OneFile. Web. 26 Oct. 2010.
Document URL

Gale Document Number:A69964389

Personalized MY M&M'S® Candies
ArabicChinese (Simplified)Chinese (Traditional)DeutchEspanolFrenchItalianJapaneseKoreanPortugueseRussian
(Web-Page) http://dinosaur.hunter2008.googlepages.comHoliday 2008
Lowest Prices and Hassle Free Returns at WWBW.com(Album / Profile) http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=10031&id=1661531726&l=cf90f7df9cShop the Official Coca-Cola Store!leonard.wilson2009@hotmail.comWal-Mart.com USA, LLC

No comments: