This article cropped up online this week and has been followed up with various online discussions about the legitimacy of at least some Chinese fossils, and with Tianyulong being a big surprise and the unfortunate history of ‘Archaeoraptor’* there have been questions asked about how we can tell if these are real or not. Some of the discussion has been helpful, but I think much of it has been based on unrealistic expectations of researchers and museums, and a misunderstanding of how you can tell fakes from non-fakes apart. Given my knowledge of Chinese material and work with Helmut Tischlinger on UV lighting I thought I should probably pitch in on this and try and add some more information.
First off, are there fakes in Chinese museums?
Yes, certainly. But then there are probably fakes or chimeras in a great many museums that have been described at some point and not all of them have been found, or will ever be. Science is self correcting and we are still finding fakes and chimeras in our collections but no-one seems to be too worried about that. There are plenty of fossils that have at least been ‘tweaked’ at some point (the ‘Zittel wing’ springs to mind) to make them ‘better’. Provided you can identify them, it’s not really a problem, you just have to be careful in what you say about them. Don’t forget that half of ‘Archaeoraptor’ was a new species that was subsequently described. That’s not to say China does not have a problem, but it is the only one currently taking flack for this and it’s hardly unique in that respect.
Next, how are these fakes getting into collections?
Well first of all we have to decide what a scientific collection is. There are plenty of museums in China that are privately owned, or are callem ‘museums’ but act as shops for selling fossils (generally illegally), or have little or no staff with any scientific training. As a result they buy things that look ‘good’ even if most researchers would spot them as a fake almost instantly. Many institutes probably have no fakes at all – I have yet to see anything in the IVPP that comes under any suspicion (except something we deliberately acquired as a fake) though we collect most of our stuff from the field in any case which obviously eliminates this issue entirely. It is typically (if not exclusively) the fossil dealers who trade fakes, or the farmers who ‘improve’ their material to fetch a higher price.
So how are the fossils faked?
There are two different things going on here, first of all you can see people just carving fake skeletons (or far more often eggs) out of rocks. The second option (as seen with ‘Archaeoraptor’) is to create chimeras by stitching together several specimens to make one ‘good’ one.
How can we detect these fakes?
The carved skeletal ones are usually are pretty easy to spot as there is no difference in the geology of the matrix and the fossil, they lack anatomical details, are carved out of the wrong rock types, contain carving errors and more. The eggs however can be incredibly good with all kinds of details and tricks employed to make them more believable. A small sample taken from either can also conclusively show that it is made of fossilised organic material or otherwise.
Testing the chimeras is another problem entirely. Most are still obvious – I saw a pterosaur not long ago that had the metacarpal block installed as a fib-tib complex and also featured three femora – two in the thighs and a third replacing a humerus, and one wing had 5 phalanges and the other 3. Despite the testing ‘Archaeoraptor’ underwent, it was obvious that the hindlegs were mirror images and a result of a single fragmented leg being used to provide a missing one, and the variation in preservation of the feathers, bones and even the underlying matrix looked wrong. Suspician was raised about it by researchers just from early photos without even needing to get their hands on the actual specimen to examine it in detail.
There are plenty of clues to look for that either indicate a fake, or are sufficient to raise questions about it where it can be examined in much more detail: exceptionally poor preservation, inconsistent rock or bone colours, non-matching parts, variation in preservation, bones or other features not crossing breaks, patterns of ontogentic changes (like the sequence of suture fusion), obvious mismatching of bones (like a pterosaur bone in a theropod body), orientations of the grain of the rock or bone being inconsistent, over zealous use of glue to replace fragments, unlikely claims of providence or discovery and others, all of which can help identify fakes or partial fakes. This may not necessarily make for an absolute diagnosis, but it should certainly reveal which specimens are likely to be problematic and require further investigation, or more careful examination.
Several people have pointed to UV light or X-rays as the solution but this is largely impractical. First of all one does not simply ‘shine UV light’ on the specimen to revela it in all it’s glory. It requires lights of the right wavelength and power and skilled use of filters to show off organic remains. Certainly the bones are likely to fluoresce, but that does not tell you if you have a chimera or not. It *can* show where a fake part has been carved or painted onto a fossil as it will be disjunct in reflectance, but it cannot tell apart one ‘real’ part form another unless the preservation or taphonomy is dramatically different (and that’s probably clear under normal light) and that is typically not the case in the Jehol beds. Obviously our work remains unpublished, but the studies Helmut Tischlinger did here in Beijing on Jehol material suggests that there are at least on occasion remarkable variations in preservation of both bones and soft tissues under UV light even in single specimens or between plates and counter-plates. As a result, even a poorly made chimera would not necessarily be detectable under UV light as it could look like an unusual, but ‘real’ specimen. It’s also impractical for museums or teams of researchers to buy expensive equipment and train people to use it all over China, certainly in the short term. There are very, very few people with this kind of expertise and equipement in the world, and while I know of other teams experiemnting with UV, Helmut is the only person I know of doing extensive work in this field.
X-ray, MRI and CAT scans of specimens can reveal differences in preservation or origination of parts of specimens but these are also impractical. These are expensive to use and rare in China – it’s not like there are several sitting in each small town or city, and most are medical scanners largely unsuited to working on rocks. One simply cannot transport very valuable and often very fragile fossils over huge distance to stick in machines at great cost that may not reveal anything in any case. This situation will improve in the future as funds are made available and more machines are present and owners might be more willing to transport their specimens, but is not practical or even possible at the moment for many fossils.
Ultimately the only way to tell at least some may be to take multiple bone and rock samples of the questionable parts or specimens and test them. Isotopic dating can see if they are all the same age, chemical tests can ensure that all the parts of the matrix are from the same beds (though a fake of two specimens from the same horizon would still show up the same). Examining sections of the bones could tell if all parts of the skeleton were of the same age (was the femur 5 years old and the tibia only 2). That of course is potentially very damaging to the specimen, costly in terms of time and effort, and not even always practical (most specimens are squashed flat or broken so you simply can’t section them).
Despite this pessimistic line I have taken here, in general these things are not hard to spot. The fact that researchers talk about spotting the fakes reveals that they can find them with often only cursory looks. With detailed examination with a lens or microscope when you are specifically checking for faked or reconstructed parts and any signs of them it is better still. One must remember that the people making these things are typically uneducated farmers or fossil dealers. They don’t realise that we have the anatomical and geological knowledge to spot changes that they cannot or do not notice. We can tell when a femur is in the wrong orientation, or when a humerus from another animal has been put in, or that the sacrum has too many vertebrae, that the head on of a different type of rock to the feet, or the bedding planes run in different directions between the left and right sides. The sheer poor quality of some is almost hilarious – animals with three legs, or the head put at the end of the tail. Palaeontologists don’t buy or study these kinds of fakes. Anything so well made and put together it can’t be spotted short of multiple bone samples is probably composed of two specimens of the same species form the same horizon of the same quarry and would be indistinguishable to anyone and would be hardly different to many other probable chimeras in collections worldwide (if you find non-overlapping parts of a skeleton in a quarry that is all of one species you will probably treat is as a single specimen even when it may not be).
The reality is that it comes down to not buying fossils of uncertain provenance, and a good eye for basic anatomical and taphonomic knowledge and experience to spot fakes. The former can be applied through eliminating the illegal trade in fossils, the former through education and training.
There are fakes in Chinese museums. But we must distinguish between research institutes with scientific aims and methods which house few, if any, fakes and those which are vanity collections or of fossil dealers which may be littered with them or even producing them. Do not tar Chinese collections as ‘full of fakes’, nor assume that fakes are either incredibly common or hard to spot – in general they are neither. Mainstream researchers are neither acquiring fakes nor working on them, and are actively looking out for those that might be and have the experience and the knowledge to spot them.
* For those unfamiliar with the story of ‘Archaeoraptor’, in short this was a faked chimera that was presented as a real fossil and ‘published’ in Natural Geographic, but was exposed as a fraud before it was described scientifically in a proper journal.