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Palaeontology unmasks fossil forgeries

Valentina Rossi, Modern palaeontology keeps unmasking fossil forgeries – and a new study has uncovered the latest fake, The Conversation, 17 February 2024

Fake fossils are among us, passing almost undetected under the eye of experts all over the world. This is a serious problem – counterfeited specimens can mislead palaeontologists into studying an ancient past that never existed.

The Tridentinosaurus counterfeit Valentina Rossi, CC BY-NC-ND.

In a new study, my colleagues and I reveal a surprising truth about a fossil celebrated for decades as one of the best preserved fossils from the Alps.

The Tridentinosaurus antiquus was a small lizard-like reptile that lived during the Permian period (299-252 million years ago), where the Alps are today. Discovered in 1931, the specimen was prized for what scientists thought were carbonised traces of the skin visible on the surface of the rock. Generations of palaeontologists thought the fossil was genuine, perhaps the oldest animal mummy ever discovered. This is partly because the type of preservation was rare.

The fossil has been reported in books and articles but has never been studied in detail with modern techniques. Experts were unsure about which group of reptiles the fossil belonged to. Our study was hoping to resolve this and other long-running debates among scientists.

But our team discovered that the skin is actually fake. What was thought to be well-preserved carbonised skin was just a carved lizard-shaped body impression covered in black paint.

The fossil is not a complete fake, however. The bones of the hind limbs, in particular the femurs, seem genuine. We also found some tiny, bony scales (called osteoderms, like the scales of crocodiles) preserved on what perhaps was the back of the animal.

It was with our preliminary investigation using ultraviolet photography that we revealed that the dark coloured body outline and all these bones and scales had been treated with some sort of coating material. Coating fossils with varnishes or lacquers used to be normal practice over the past couple of centuries – and is sometimes still necessary to preserve fossil specimens in museum cabinets and exhibits.

We were hoping that, beneath the coating layer, the original soft tissues would still be in good condition. But chemical techniques found the material actually matched a kind of black paint made from animal bones, meaning the skin was indeed totally forged.

Sadly, this means we will never know what the original fossil really looked like.

Two side by side images of ancient reptile
A photo of the specimen next to a UV image showing there isn’t soft tissue beneath the black covering layer. Valentia Rossi, CC BY-NC-ND.

The circumstances behind this forgery are unknown, but we know that it took place before 1959 – the date of the official scientific description of the fossil. However, this discovery is a reminder of how important it is to report such specimens and combat fossil forgeries.

The history of fossil forgeries

The history of fossil forgery goes as far back as the dawn of palaeontology itself, with early reports dating back to the late 18th and 19th centuries.

This was mainly driven by the lucrative market of selling fossil specimens to private collectors and museums. For instance, an original specimen of _Archeopteryx_ (an avian dinosaur) was sold for the current equivalent of £85,000 back in the early 1860s. Some people forged fossils for scientific and social recognition, too.

Famous examples span a range of fossil types, from the Piltdown man (1912), an elaborate fraud involving the construction of a hominid from an amalgamation of human and ape bones, to Archaeoraptor (1990), a chimaera (a fossil reconstructed with elements coming from more than a single species or genus of animal) formed by different dinosaurs’ skeleton parts to form a new specimen that was initially reported in National Geographic magazine as genuine in 1999.

Other examples include cases of partial skulls of extinct mammals that were completed with bones made of plastic. Sometimes a mixture of cement, resins, rock fragments and dust is used for this kind of forgery. Forgers can also use dark brown or black paint to change the appearance of poorly preserved specimens that otherwise would not be of interest to researchers or collectors.

This happened in the case of Mongolarachne chaoyangensis, a supposedly giant spider found in China. It turned out to be a poorly preserved crayfish after palaeontologists took a closer look the same year the first paper about it was published in 2019.

Scientists have discovered that natural history museums around the world have counterfeit specimens in their collections. While new technology is helping to study fossil trilobites, a kind of ancient marine invertebrates in more detail, it is also showing that many specimens are fake.

The same is happening with animal and plant remains fossilised in amber (fossil tree resin), acquired in historical times and only recently analysed in detail with modern techniques.

The market for fake fossils is a huge problem today. This is particularly the case in countries with less regulation. The fossil trade in Morocco alone is worth US$40 million (£32 million) a year and supplies fossil shows all over the world.

Meanwhile, colonialism stifled local expertise in South America – and as a result a high number of studies on fossils from the region are based on specimens illegally transferred to collections in other countries, particularly in Germany and Japan.

We need governments around the world to introduce rigorous laws to protect our world’s palaeontological and geological heritage.

The case of Tridentinosaurus antiquus is a cautionary tale. We believe our research can inform practices of conservation of fossils that are not appropriate any longer, such as painting over fossils, and in turn outline more ethical actions to take when a fossil is discovered.

For instance, the state of a fossil at the moment of discovery should be recorded in detail – along with information about when and where it was found and how it was prepared and conserved. Embellishments should be avoided.

We might not be able to put an end to the making of fake fossils, but we are here and ready to unmask them and protect our marvellous fossil heritage.