All mixed up over birds and dinosaurs

Red-faced and downhearted, paleontologists are growing convinced that they have been snookered by a bit of fossil fakery from China. The “feathered dinosaur” specimen that they recently unveiled to much fanfare apparently combines the tail of a dinosaur with the body of a bird, they say.

Suspect fossil under ultraviolet light. O. Louis Mazzatenta National Geographic Society)

“It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever been involved with in my career,” says paleontologist Philip J. Currie of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, Alberta.

The fossil, named Archaeoraptor liaoningensis, comes from the northeastern province of Liaoning, where local farmers have been unearthing many new dinosaur species, some showing evidence of downlike coats and feathers. Currie, Stephen Czerkas of the Dinosaur Museum in Blanding, Utah, and Xing Xu of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing announced the discovery of Archaeoraptor at a press conference in Washington, D.C., at the National Geographic Society last October (SN: 11/20/99, p. 328).

At the time, they called it a missing link between birds and dinosaurs because it manifested the long bony tail of dromaeosaurid dinosaurs and the specialized shoulders and chest of birds.

The scientists couldn’t be sure of the fossil’s history because they had not excavated it. Spirited out of China, the specimen attracted Czerkas’ attention when he saw it for sale in Utah. His museum arranged its purchase by a benefactor.

Recently, while examining a dromaeosaurid dinosaur in a private collection in China, Xu decided that the Archaeoraptor fossil is a chimera. The tail of that dinosaur is identical to the Archaeoraptor tail, he told Science News.

The two tails are mirror images of each other, derived from the same individual, says Xu. When rocks containing fossils are split, they often break into two fossils. Currie suspects that someone sought to enhance the value of Archaeoraptor by pasting one part of the dinosaur’s tail to a bird fossil.

Czerkas is reserving judgement until he can view both fossils together. “I’ve got all this other evidence suggesting the tail does belong with the [Archaeoraptor] fossil,” he says. The paleontologists already had concerns about the tail because the bones connecting it to the body are missing and the slab shows signs of reworking. They had convinced themselves, however, that the two parts belonged together.

Other scientists criticize the team and the National Geographic Society for unveiling the fossil before any detailed article had appeared in a scientific journal. “There probably has never been a fossil with a sadder history than this one,” says Storrs L. Olson of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Because National Geographic published an article about Archaeoraptor before any formal description, credit for the scientific name now goes to the author of the magazine article, rather than to the scientists, says Olson.

Currie says that the mix-up over this one fossil does not diminish the evidence suggesting that birds evolved from dinosaurs. It will, however, cause him to be more tight-lipped in the future about fossil finds until a journal article appears. “Certainly, I don’t recommend to any budding scientist that they do it this way.”

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