Was it a bird? Or was it a dinosaur?
Turns out, it was neither.
Or both, perhaps?
The year is 1999. The specimen of a small animal was on display at a fossil show in Tucson, Arizona; a specimen with potentially huge implications for the evolution of birds. The specimen had the distinctive tail of a dinosaur and the arms of primitive birds endemic to its place of discovery in Liaoning province, China. At the time, it seemed that the fossil represented the true in-between evolutionary stage when dinosaurs transitioned to birds. This would have been a ground-breaking discovery. The fossil – later named Archaeoraptor – seemed too good to be true. As paleontologists would find out later, it was.
The fossil was purchased for $80,000 USD by Stephen Czerkas, a noted paleo-artist who hoped to use the fossil as a centerpiece for his museum in Blanding, Utah. As a dinosaur enthusiast, Czerkas wanted the fossil to be studied before going on display and so he enlisted the help of famous paleontologist, Phil Currie. Currie, alongside National Geographic editor Chris Sloan, examined the fossil and proclaimed it to be a remarkable fossil with both dinosaurian and bird-like traits. Sloan and Currie agreed that the fossil would need to be returned to China should their findings be published. The insistence to return the fossil, and in turn the involvement of Chinese paleontologist Xu Xing, is where the trouble started.
I should note that by this point, several red flags had already been raised. X-rays of the fossil had revealed a strange assemblage of bones that seemed to be comprised of multiple different specimens. The concerns were legitimate enough for major academic journals, notably Science and Nature, to decline to publish Archaeoraptor. Currie had raised concerns too, but by then it was too late for Nat Geo, who published an article about Archaeoraptor and the evolution of birds in its November 1999 issue.
Just a few weeks after the article’s release, Xu was able to confirm that Archaeoraptor was indeed a composite fossil. In early 2000, Xu came across a fossil slab identical to the tail of Archaeoraptor – in a Chinese Institute. As you can imagine, this discovery was problematic for Nat Geo, who were forced to retract their article. Nat Geo went one step further and launched an investigation into the mishap. Some paleontologists questioned how such a controversial specimen had made it so far without being flagged down. While I understand the excitement that comes with such a monumental specimen, shortcuts to normal scientific procedures were taken in the case of Archaeoraptor, a mistake that proved costly.
Fake Fossils: More Common Than You’d Think.
It turns out that Archaeoraptor was made up of 88 separate pieces, including (at the time) two species that were new to science. The reason that Archaeoraptor seemed to be a cross between a dinosaur and bird is because it was: one half belonged to an ancient bird, the other to a dromaeosaurid (raptor). In 1999, a fossil made up of numerous species was virtually unheard of. In the years since, composite fossils have become a far more common occurrence, especial in rural China where most fossils are found by poor farmers. To supplement their income, these farmers typically alter fossils by repositioning bones, combining specimens, or creating fossils outright by chiseling rocks. These forged fossils are often crafted with extreme precision and can be difficult to identify unless viewed up close. Often, these fossils cannot be studied properly due to the alterations and thus are left meaningless to science. As the commercial appeal of fossils grows, their forgery will be an ever-growing thorn in the lives of paleontologists.
A Creationists’ Dream…
In the aftermath of the Archaeoraptor controversy, one group found joy in the collective embarrassment of paleontologists: creationists. Creationists have used the Archaeoraptor mishap to denounce evolution and paleontologists, calling it a “fraud” that demonstrates how scientists’ fake evidence to prove their “wacky” evolution theories. Here’s why they are misinformed: first, paleontologists aren’t the ones who made the fossil, nor have they ever done so. Second, Archaeoraptor isn’t a fake fossil: rather it is two fossils of real animals that have been combined. The two animals – the early bird Yanornis and the dromaeosaurid Microraptor – are both valid species and help display the evolutionary connection between dinosaurs and birds. The final problem is that paleontologists agree that the fossil is a fraud and figuratively disowned it when they realised their mistake. It’s not like they use it to prove evolution, as they hate Archaeoraptor as much as creationists do. Yet creationists will still twist the “Piltdown bird” to justify their own hypotheses, regardless of the facts presented to them.
The True Identity of Microraptor?
On top of all the humiliation, another problem arose from the Archaeoraptor conundrum: the identity of the dinosaur tail. The tail belonged to the dromaeosaurid Microraptor, a now well-known dinosaur capable of primitive gliding. Here’s the thing: the tail of Archaeoraptor is technically the original, or “type,” specimen of Microraptor and as such, it has first naming rights. If this is the case, then why do we not refer to Microraptor as Archaeoraptor, beyond the obvious confusion factor? Well, since peer-reviewed journals like Nature refused to publish anything about Archaeoraptor, the name was never formally recognized. Due to this, we can stick to Microraptor without ever having to bring up one of paleontology’s darkest moments.
I do not take credit for any images found in this article.
Header image courtesy of Jonathan Chen, found here
Microraptor takeoff courtesy of the brilliant Emily Willoughby, whose work can be found at her website: https://emilywilloughby.com/art
Dalton, Rex. “Fake Bird Fossil Highlights the Problem of Illegal Trading.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 13 Apr. 2000, http://www.nature.com/articles/35008237.
“Is It a Bird? Is It a Dinosaur? No, It’s a Fake.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 7 Feb. 2000, http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2000/feb/07/features11.g22.
Pickrell, John. Flying Dinosaurs: How Fearsome Reptiles Became Birds. NewSouth, 2014.