Forged fossil is a fish-eating fowl

A fossil creature once thought to be a missing link between dinosaurs and birds actually derives mostly from an ancient fish-eating bird, researchers have found.

Dubbed Archaeoraptor, the purported find was unveiled by the National Geographic Society in October 1999. At that time, some paleontologists proposed that the fossil’s odd mix of features–the tail of a meat-eating dinosaur with the feathers and wing structure of a bird–would have placed the species between dinosaurs and birds on life’s family tree (SN: 11/20/99, p. 328).

Other scientists were wary. Further studies determined the odd specimen was a forgery, smuggled from China and sold at a gem and mineral show in Tucson for $80,000. The chimera was cobbled together from the remains of up to six different species (SN: 1/15/00, p. 38: All mixed up over birds and dinosaurs), including the tail of a small theropod dubbed Microraptor (SN: 4/21/01, p. 253: Fake fossil not one but two new species).

The latest research, published in the Nov. 21 Nature, focuses on Archaeoraptor‘s skull, body, wings, and hind limbs. Results strongly suggest that those bones come from Yanornis martini, a bird that lived between 110 million and 120 million years ago in what is now northeastern China, say the researchers.

Those body parts are shedding new light on the Yanornis species, says Julia A. Clarke, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and a coauthor of the new study. That’s because some intact features of the forgery’s skeleton weren’t preserved in the first Yanornis fossil to be described, she notes.

The stomach contents of a third known Yanornis fossil confirm that the ancient bird ate fish, according to the new report.


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