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That Fossil is a Fake!

That Fossil is a Fake!


Have you ever wished that you could rewrite an event in your life? It happens to all of us once in a while, of course. However the results are a little worse when something has been published. It’s harder to imagine that the event never happened. Thus it was in 1999 that some palaeontologists positioned themselves far out on a limb (metaphorically speaking), and in early 2000 somebody cut the branch off. Oooops……

It all began with rumours. Some scientists in the United States heard during the fall of 1998 that an exciting bird fossil was available on the private market. Then the following February, there it was for sale in Tucson, Arizona, at the largest annual gathering of fossil dealers in the world. Stephen Czerkas, an artist and self-educated dinosaur enthusiast, managed to purchase the artifact for his non-profit Dinosaur Museum in Blanding, Utah. His supporters provided $80,000 for this fossil. Incidentally no one knows who collected it nor where, precisely, it was found. That is a lot of money for a fossil without a pedigree. It is believed to have originated in China, in the Liaoning region in northeastern China. Moreover nobody knows how the fossil was transported to the United States, but many people suspect that it was illegally smuggled there. The Chinese authorities want it back.

Mr. Czerkas has helped many major museums to create dinosaur displays. With his contacts he was able to recruit as collaborators Dr. Philip Currie of the Royal Tyrrell Museum (Drumheller, Alberta); Xu Xing, a graduate student from Beijing and Dr. Timothy Rowe from the University of Texas. During the summer of 1999, Mr. Czerkas worked on a scientific paper which would be submitted to the Journal Nature, and he collaborated with National Geographic Magazine on an article which was supposed to follow hard on the heels of the technical paper. Dr. Rowe meanwhile was conducting CT scans on the fossil and he noticed problems with the connection of the tail to the rest of the specimen. Nevertheless Mr. Czerkas submitted his article to Nature. It was rejected. This was most unexpected. He then submitted it to Science, the other major scientific publication. Here too it was rejected. This was by now the first week of September. The publication deadline for the National Geographic article was now past. However that magazine was never fully informed of the pitfalls awaiting their November issue. One scientist did warn them, but they ignored him since they did not like his point of view about bird origins.

In mid-October at a press conference staged by National Geographic, Dr. Currie was present to confer scientific respectability on the proceedings. Soon the November issue appeared. It featured a diagram of theropod dinosaur ancestors and bird descendants. The theropod dinosaurs were all drawn with feather coverings. The final specimen in the line of descent (the bird Archaeopteryx) actually appears in the rocks far sooner than the supposed ancestors, but you would never guess that from the diagram. The new fossil so prominently featured, Archaeoraptor liaoningensis, was reported to have a bird-like body but a dinosaur’s tail. The article highlighted two statements in connection with this fossil: “It’s a missing link between terrestrial dinosaurs and birds that could actually fly.” and “We can now say that BIRDS ARE THEROPODS just as confidently as we say that humans are mammals.” (emphasis theirs). Wow! That sounded pretty confident. Some scientists were annoyed that National Geographic had published a name for the specimen before a technical article had appeared. That, of course, was an eventuality which had not been planned.

All this was bad enough Then the whole situation really fell apart. On December 20, Mr. Xu notified National Geographic that the tail of Archaeoraptor did not belong to the body of that fossil. This graduate student had found an identical tail in a private collection in China. It belonged to a real dinosaur. If the specimen under question was indeed a composite (two entirely different fossils made to look like one), how did this happen? The joining of the two pieces of stone had to be very skillfully done to fool the experts. This artifact is either an honest mistake or an extremely skillful forgery. Dr. Zhonge Zhou, from the Institute of Paleontology in Beijing, tells of a farmer, in the fossil bearing region of China, who has a collection of fossil tails. According to Tim Friend in USA Today (Feb. 1, 2000), that farmer added a tail to a pterosaur fossil which was subsequently sold. An article on this specimen, taken at face value, was apparently published last April in the journal Nature. In the present case, on January 21, 2000, National Geographic announced the composite nature of the Archaeoraptor fossil. By that time, more than 100,000 people, mostly youngsters, had viewed the fossil in National Geographic‘s Explorer Hall. So what is the fallout from this event? Dr. Currie confided to Jay Ingram of Canada’s Discovery Channel (January 25, 2000) that his response to the news was “one of those great sinking feelings one hopes never to have in one’s career …. ” Hindsight of course is wonderful. It is obvious that the scientists should have been a lot more careful. This isn’t however the first time that supporters of the supposed dinosaur-bird link have made public announcements in advance of technical publication. Dr. Currie spoke publicly in 1996 about a new fossil named Sinosauropteryx prima from China. It was his view that this small dinosaur had downy feathers along its backbone. That suggestion attracted a lot of media attention as it was the first supposed evidence in favour of feathers on dinosaurs. Again, this announcement was well in advance of a technical paper. That appeared in Nature (January 8, 1998 pp. 147-152). Concerning the supposed feather down along the backbone, the article says “much more work needs to be done to prove that the integumentary structures of Sinosauropteryx have any structural relationship to feathers …” (p. 152) Nevertheless, by labeling these artifacts as feathers or protofeathers, Dr. Currie and others had already conveyed the impression that some dinosaurs had feathers. The events of January 2000 with Archaeoraptor were a similar unfortunate outcome of the rush to public pronouncements. It is a fact that fossilized feathers have been found in these Chinese deposits, but when they occur, it in association with true birds, not dinosaurs.

Despite the absence of any evidence, the public has nevertheless been thoroughly exposed to the idea that some dinosaurs bore feathers. It is to be hoped that in future the public will examine such suggestions a lot more critically.

Margaret Helder
April 2000

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