Research Fee: The Costs of Accessing Holotypes Obtained Through Parachute Science

Indiana Jones movies are set in the early 20th century, after the apex of colonialism over the world. The tropes employed in Indiana Jones have been used to justify colonization and colonialism, such as the inferiority of the colonized natives, the superior knowledge of the colonizer, and the inability of the natives to study and comprehend their own past. Museums all over Europe were built to connect the faraway lands of the Empires with ordinary people, a way to show the cultural and natural wealth of the colonized territories that most people would never see. Therefore, there is more than meets the eye in how Indiana Jones exclaimed, “that belongs in a museum!”. Museums in Mexico, for instance, had a similar purpose after independence when forging the Mexican identity through the years, after the 19th century, plagued by internal conflicts.

King Charles III ordered the Spanish scientific expeditions of the 18th century to study the natural resources with the potential to be exploited. These scientific expeditions saw the dawn of Natural History in the Americas, although the expeditions were meant to provide a catalogue of the flora and fauna of the Americas. The third expedition, carried out in 1787, explored New Spain, the territory that expanded from Oregon in the United States, all the way to Costa Rica. The description of over a thousand species established taxonomy as a science in the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Jose Mariano Mociño led the expedition, a New Spanish naturalist, following the rigor of Alexander von Humboldt, keeping a specimen in New Spain and sending the other one to Spain for reference. It was the beginning of taxonomic science in what would later become Mexico. In 1803, Mociño left New Spain, leaving behind a school of future taxonomists, and joined the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid, where he would compile the expedition results.

As former colonies became independent, the scientific institutions established during colonial times remained in place. In many regards, the colonial practices of sending specimens to the metropolis, where they could be further studied. Although we think science and colonialism were never friends, they were pretty much entangled, mainly in the colonial territories. Between 1807 and 1814, the Peninsular War broke out, which started when Napoleonic France invaded and occupied Portugal after being granted permission to pass through Spanish territory. In 1808, Napoleonic France occupied Spain as well. Mociño sympathized with Joseph Bonaparte, who was imposed as the new King of Spain, probably due to the large contributions that French naturalists had made to understanding the world and how much Mociño looked up to them. After the Peninsular War ended, Mociño was imprisoned for espousing French ideas, like taxonomy. He managed to flee the country and arrived in France. He met the naturalist Augustin Pyramus de Candolle, who helped Mociño to become a professor at the University of Geneva. When I was doing my undergraduate in Biology at the Faculty of Science, UNAM, knowing the story of Mociño encouraged me to keep pursuing a career as a taxonomist; nevertheless, the way science was done in Mexico had much resemblance with the ways done in colonial times.


The resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) was named in honour of Mociño by his student Pablo de Llave y Fernández de Ávila, a naturalist born in Veracruz and who went to Spain to study with Mociño. Pablo de Llave was elected deputy in Spain, but when he became a vocal supporter of the independence movement in Mexico, he was imprisoned. Half of his fortune was used to help finance José María Morelos y Pavón, an insurgent fighting for independence in the Southern part of the country. Pablo de Llave returned to Mexico, and in 1833, he became director of the National Museum of Natural History in Mexico City.

Taxonomists classify species based on a type specimen and information from a peer-reviewed scientific publication. Because the scientific name and formal description of its characteristics are thus permanently associated with this type of specimen, this endeavor serves as the cornerstone of taxonomy. In paleontology, where the fossil record is incomplete, and any finding has the potential to become a type species, this activity is even more crucial, and museums play a vital role in the maintenance and accessibility of the collection. Therefore, the possession of type specimens gives the museums an inherent value and importance. The researchers will travel to the museum to obtain new information from the types, either because of redescriptions, use of new modern techniques, or test hypotheses.

The old colonial practices meet the modern world in what we refer to as parachute science. Parachute science is also called helicopter research or safari study. It consists of researchers from wealthier nations going to a developing country, collecting information, and taking it back to their country. The produced knowledge does not benefit the country the information was collected from in any way, and in many ways uses these countries as living laboratories. Furthermore, the research can then be studied isolated from local issues, increasing the academic wealth only on one side of the transaction. This situation is not different from Charles IV ordering and funding an expedition to New Spain to gather intelligence on the exploitable resources. There are over 2000 plant specimens collected by Mociño and his crew in New Spain all over collections in Europe. However, since the job was to do an inventory of natural resources, there is a lack of geographical reference in all the samples. Mexican researchers have been required to use historiography to make this information useful.

A recent review (Raja et al., 2021, in press) found that roughly 32% of all fossil types are stored at institutions based in the US. Approximately 47% represents material collected abroad, and 23% is foreign research with no local collaboration. According to an inventory of the fossil types collected from Mexico published in 1989 (Carreño et al., 1989), a large bulk of the holotypes are stored in collections in the US, including the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the University of California, Los Angeles, the Museum of Paleontology, UC Berkeley, and the Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University.


Sculpture of Torosaurus at the entrance to Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University. The most complete expedition to the Las Delicias Formation, Chihuahua, yielded several specimens of the marine fauna of the Permian in Mexico in 1944 and is currently housed here. Omar Rafael Regalado Fernández.

While it is worth noting that few institutions in Mexico have the infrastructure to hold extensive collections, this is more a consequence of holotypes collected from Mexico being kept abroad without institutional collaborations that help develop collections in the country. In an interview with the Press Office of the National Council for Science and Technology (Conacyt), Luis Espinosa Arrubarrena, Director of the Museum of Geology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), emphasized that the lack of collections and museums in the country contributes to a lack of encouragement for young people to pursue a career in Palaeontology (Gómez Mayén, 2015). This situation is discouraging when there are Global North researchers actively finding fossils in Mexico from as early as 1886 (Carreño et al., 1989).

In 1944, an American expedition to Las Delicias, Chihuahua, Mexico, yielded a large amount of lower to middle Permian fossils to build a complete stratigraphy of the region. Eleven holotypes of brachiopods were collected, described, and stored at the Peabody Museum of Natural History (Cloud, 1944). Many foraminifera and ammonites were collected to build the stratigraphy of the region (King, 1934, 1944; Miller, 1944). Las Delicias Formation is one of the most critical localities to study the Permian in Mexico. However, most of the Permian research was performed by further foreign-based research projects (Newell, 1957; Cunningham, 1975; Wardlaw et al., 1979; McKee et al., 1988). Until very recently, Mexican researchers started to study the brachiopods of the Las Delicias Formation, describing five new species (Heredia-Jimenez et al., 2019), bridging a hiatus of research of about 28 years. The project was funded by UNAM through their Programa de Apoyo a Proyectos de Investigación e Innovación Tecnológica (PAPIIT). However, the project could not fund a trip of the Mexican team to the YPM to analyze the historical material housed there, and the research was widely restricted to the photographic material published in 1944. During this time, the YPM did not consider the material a priority for it to be digitized or widely available for Mexican researchers. Furthermore, the revision performed by the Mexican team was published in Spanish in a local journal where it will face the challenges of not being used by non-Spanish speakers. This situation obviously decreases the inherent value of the project in the current publication system.

In 1966, an American expedition team from Midwestern University travelled to Cueva del Abra, in the Antiguo Morelos Municipality of Tamaulipas, Mexico (Dalquest and Roth, 1970). There is no mention in the paper of any collaboration needed to access the caves; in the acknowledgements, there is no collaboration with any local researchers despite the work from these researchers, who have visited the cave, being in the reference list. The Cueva del Abra contains Pleistocene sediments, and a new species of pocket-mouse was described therein, Perognathus huastecensis. According to the inventory provided in the paper, all the mammal material was deposited at Midwestern University. Additionally, rich herpetofauna was discovered in Cueva del Abra, including several fossil frogs (Holman, 1969; Holman, 2003). According to Holman (1969), bird remains were identified and sent to the University of Florida. No further research on this Pleistocene fauna has been performed by researchers based in Mexico.

These two examples show that parachute science has prevented Mexico from developing its paleontological research and has added an extra cost for Mexican researchers to build it. If new research projects are to be done in the localities where holotypes have been exported, the funding will need to cover travel costs to those institutions abroad (either in the US or in Europe), making undergraduate and postgraduate research more expensive than their counterparts in those countries. If this funding is not available, the value of the original Mexican research is decreased, making the development of paleontology more expensive. Of course, repatriation cannot be considered the only solution, and advocating for a nationalistic approach to science is in no one’s best interest. Nevertheless, several strategies can help bridge the gap, such as digitization of imported material or funds and grants devoted specifically to local researchers who need access to the material. These are only ideas, but we need to have these conversations to think about affordable and practical solutions. Mociño, for instance, considered that although the Linnaean system was important to understand the organization of the living world, recognized that the knowledge accrued by the Native Americans was important to classify and study the collected material. However, we are primed today to think only the knowledge produced in European-styled academia is the one worth looking at.

Indiana Jones is still used as the icon to represent the study of the sciences of the past, like anthropology, paleontology, or archaeology. Every now and then, National Geographic will pull up an Indiana Jones look-alike on the front page of a new discovery. In a way, The Man in the Panama Hat was not that off in his response when Jones told him, “that belongs in a museum!”… “So do you!”.


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