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Fake fossil not one but two new species

9:13am, April 17, 2001
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The tortuous tale of a forged fossil just keeps getting weirder.

When scientists unveiled Archaeoraptor liaoningensis at a National Geographic Society press conference in October 1999, some researchers hailed the fossil as a missing link between birds and dinosaurs. But the very mixture of features that made the fossil evolutionarily interesting–the flightworthy feathers and advanced wing structure of birds and a tail like that of a small theropod dinosaur–also caused some scientists to doubt its authenticity (SN: 11/20/99, p. 328).

They were right. Further research revealed that the fossil, which had been smuggled out of China, was a fake pieced together from different dinosaurs (SN: 1/15/00, p. 38). Now, scientists who have conducted detailed X-ray analyses of the forgery conclude that the bones of up to five different animals were cobbled together to produce the faux find. The specimens are from at least two species new to science.

To create the fake fossil, forgers assembled more than 88 different pieces of rock, most containing bones, atop an unbroken slab of shale, says Timothy Rowe, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Texas at Austin.

It's unclear whether the tail and the hind legs of the fossil came from the same animal or even from the same species, says Rowe. However, analysis shows that the fake fossil's tail came from Microraptor zhaoianus, a small bipedal dinosaur first described by Chinese scientists in the December 7, 2000 Nature. The forgery's body and wings came from an ancient species of bird whose description hasn't yet been published.

"Sadly, parts of at least two significant new specimens were combined in favour of the higher commercial value of the forgery, and both were nearly lost to science," say Rowe and his colleagues in the March 29 Nature.

Using computerized X-ray scans and other forensic techniques to evaluate fossils may become an important part of paleontology, Rowe told Science News. Such independent analyses would likely be important to museums and commercial collectors who pay top dollar for fossils, he notes.

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