Exciting news last week for those of us interested in the evolution of snakes: the announcement that a fossil snake with four legs has been discovered (abstract). The 20-cm long fossil of Tetrapodophis amplectus, which dates from the early Cretaceous, has lots of snake-like characteristics despite the legs.
But what’s controversial about the fossil is its murky origins. It came from a private collection with no locality data, but the researchers believe it came from a formation in northeastern Brazil. The problem is that it’s been illegal to export fossils from Brazil since 1942, which means that the Tetrapodophis fossil may have been illegally collected. Which is to say that this is potentially massive discovery may well be tainted.
I can’t help but wonder whether the issue isn’t just legality, but chain of evidence — if you can’t document where the fossil came from, how do you prove that it’s legitimate? That it isn’t another Archaeoraptor or Piltdown Man — two missing-link fossil discoveries that later proved false?