Renowned Fossil Turns Out To Be Fake

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A 280-million-year-old reptile fossil has puzzled researchers for nearly a century, and now paleontologists understand why. 

Ars Technica explains, “For more than 90 years, scientists have puzzled over an unusual 280 million-year-old reptilian fossil discovered in the Italian Alps. It’s unusual because the skeleton is surrounded by a dark outline, long believed to be rarely preserved soft tissue. Alas, a fresh analysis employing a suite of cutting-edge techniques concluded that the dark outline is actually just bone-black paint. The fossil is a fake, according to a new paper published in the journal Paleontology.

An Italian engineer and museum employee named Gualtiero Adami found the fossil near the village of Piné. The fossil was a small lizard-like creature with a long neck and five-digit limbs. He turned it over to the local museum, and later that year, geologist Giorgio del Piaz announced the discovery of a new genus, dubbed Tridentinosaurus antiquus. The dark-colored body outline was presumed to be the remains of carbonized skin or flesh; fossilized plant material with carbonized leaf and shoot fragments were found in the same geographical area.

The specimen wasn’t officially described scientifically until 1959 when Piero Leonardi declared it to be part of the Protorosauria group. He thought it was especially significant for understanding early reptile evolution because of the preservation of presumed soft tissue surrounding the skeletal remains. Some suggested that T. antiquus had been killed by a pyroclastic surge during a volcanic eruption, which would explain the carbonized skin since the intense heat would have burnt the outer layers almost instantly. It is also the oldest body fossil found in the Alps, at some 280 million years old.

Yet the fossil had never been carefully analyzed using modern analytical techniques, according to co-author Valentina Rossi of University College Cork in Ireland. ‘The fossil is unique, so this poses some challenges, in terms of analysis that we can do when effectively we cannot afford to make any mistakes, i.e., damaging the fossil,” Rossi told Ars. “Previous preliminary studies were carried out in the past but were not conclusive and the results not straightforward to interpret. The incredible technological advancement we are experiencing in paleontology made this study possible, since we can now analyze very small quantities of precious fossil material at the molecular level, without the risk of damaging the whole specimen.'”

After taking a closer look, however. It turns out it’s a fake. 

The new scans revealed the truth: it’s covered in paint. 

Newsweek writes: “New analysis has found, however, that the fossil is actually black paint on a carved piece of stone surrounding a few fossilized bones, according to a paper in the journal Palaeontology.

‘The peculiar preservation of Tridentinosaurus had puzzled experts for decades. Now, it all makes sense. What it was described as carbonized skin, is just paint,’ paper co-author Evelyn Kustatscher, a paleontologist at the Museum of Nature South Tyrol, said in a statement.

Researchers analyzed the black material under a microscope and found that its texture and composition did not match that of genuine fossilized soft tissues and was painted on top of the rock. Ultraviolet light photography found that the entire specimen had been coated in some type of varnish.

The paper reveals that the body outline of the Tridentinosaurus antiquus specimen was likely forged to enhance the fossil’s appearance, which went unnoticed until now, as it had before not been studied in detail.”

Nevertheless, the researchers assert that the fossil is not entirely fraudulent. While the hindlimb bones of the creature are authentic, they suffered from inadequate preservation. The recent analysis further unveiled the existence of minuscule bony scales known as osteoderms. These scales, resembling those found in crocodiles, may have covered the animal’s back.

This research exemplifies the use of nondestructive techniques involving lasers and micro CT scanners to revisit previously discovered specimens, leading to fresh revelations.

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