Search Results for 'fake fossils'

Fake fossils in China again – a demonstration

In my much read post on faked fossils in China I made mention of some of the more obvious fakes knocking around in China and the lack of a need to worry about people identifying them. Here is one of the worst examples I was able to track down while in Liaoning and I thought it worth bringing some attention to it as a demonstration of what we are dealing with (at least in some cases).IMGP3543

While we can ignore the dodgy matrix for now (which is very different to that these animals are normally found in for starters) two things are pretty clear: 1) The bones are quite simply carved out of the matrix and fairly obviously at that and 2) some do not even have that ‘privilege’ have been simply painted onto the rock. You can if you like criticise the various anatomical issues with this (and there are plenty, like the fact that the vertebrae appear to lie in pairs!) but why bother then it’s so obviously a fake?

Taking a tour of the various fossil shops that abound in the area (and selling things that are not of scientific importance like the ubiquitous small lycopteran fish is legal) I was able to find plenty of similarly judiciously ‘improved’ specimens with the use of paints (see the photo below) and some that were *only* paint on a slab. They were not hard to spot oddly enough, though I doubt this stops people buying them and hence the repetition of the idea that people *want* the ‘best’ specimens when of course researchers want the ‘original’ specimens and hence the ongoing problems.


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Chinese fake fossils

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.
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Microraptor and the feathered dinosaurs are not fakes

Whether by accident or design it’s hard to say, but the Musings has largely been free of creationist madness and incompetence over the (already) years (OK, only two) I’ve been writing. I tend not to delve into that side of things simply because more people do it better than I could, and I have no interest in engaging with people who don’t understand, or want to learn, the first thing about science. Even so, making the odd statement or correcting the more egregious public errors are hardly out of my realm and obviously the title of this post is rather relevant. Both the new UV paper and other recent papers on feather colour add to the general pattern of observations that Microraptor and other Lianoning feathered dinos are not fake so it is perhaps worth collating a few of them here.

Most obviously, these things look exactly like feathers and they appear in places we’d expect feathers to be and arrayed in the same way. This is no chance association. It would be easy to scoff and say that a good faker would go for this pattern, but that’s not actually necessarily true. The presence of different feather types in phylogenetically consistent and meaningful patterns is not the kid of thing one could fake easily, if at all without huge coordination of all those farmers and fossil dealers collecting and selling specimens. Not to mention you know, the actual researchers who go out and collect fossils firsthand themselves. We’re getting into ‘evolution ninja’ levels of conspiracy here to account for protofeathers being found only in earlier taxa and then more specialised and more derived feathers in more derived taxa, so best move on.

Secondly, the feathers are pretty much indistinguishable between the various birds and the feathered dinosaurs. If the dinosaurs truly are faked, then how come the feathers are apparently identical to the supposedly non-faked birds. The feathers are also pretty much identical to the apparently uncontroversial feathers preserved in the Solnhofen of Germany and the Crato of Brazil. And actually, more recent feathers that don’t date from the Mesozoic look the same too, again confounding the supposed difference between bird and dinosaur feathers.

Incidentally, none of these feathers form any of these formations look fake. Stick them under a microscope and they are (in most cases, obviously not all of them are perfectly preserved) very highly detailed (down to the sub-millimeter scale) and could hardly have been painted on. Of course, go a fair bit further with an SEM kit and we can see that these are indeed preserved in incredibly detail. They have the structure of composition of feathers (right down to identifiable melanosomes of different kinds) and are not fakes, the remains of bacteria, or for that matter, degraded collagen fibres.

Finally of course (though less critical than several of these points, but hell, it’s my research) we also see that under UV there is still so signs of fakery or other shenanigans, and of course there are now more feathers (or more accurately more bits of feathers) that could not seen before. Few people would go to the trouble of faking things that cannot be seen or even perhaps even detected using a technology they don’t even know about. These are not faked and there is no possible evidence or reason to suggest that they are or even could be or how on Earth this could be done.

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Pseudofossils are an interesting aspect of palaeontology that crop up from time to time and can make life both interesting and frustrating. I have already commented on the problems of identifying fossil bones in the field but these are a bit more specialised. Of course if you has as many different shapes as are available for all the fossils out there (think of the various shapes of the bones in just the human body, then add to that all other vertebrates and their variations, then add in shells, tracks, eggs and the rest) and the sheer number of rocks and pebbles that have odd shapes and can end up looking like fossils and you can probably see where this is going. Basically there are lots of bits of rock out there that are not fossils, but do look just like them.
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Stolen fossils returned

This story cropped up on the BBC today and I thought it was worth mentioning. Basically a bunch of fossils from Argentina that had been illegally exported were confiscated in the US and sent back (after a ‘slight’ delay).

However, what the story fails to mention is that just repatriating such finds is only the start of the story. Some poor museum now has to sort through the material and try and work out what came from where and when. If there were significant dinosaur fossils in there it is likely that some are chimeras or dodgy fakes. While anything can be used to a limited degree for scientific research, when you do not know the providence of a fossil it greatly limits what you can say about it. You can’t be sure it’s not a mixture of several individuals or even several different species and you do not know where it is from (in time or space). Once a fossil passes out of a scientist it is very hard if not impossible to know its history and that makes it hard to use for research. We should give thanks that this material has been recovered, but how much of it will turn out to be of genuine value is another thing entirely.

It is also worth mentioning just how rare an event this is. While of course these things do not always make the news, I honestly can’t remember the last time it was reported (in the media or professional circles) that a significant amount of fossils had been recovered from an illegal source. Restrictions on fossil dealing are very tight in a number of countries with important fossil beds (including China, Brazil, Argentina and Germany) and yet pieces are often available direct from fossil dealing websites. Despite the obvious origin of some specimens, listed as ‘origin unknown’ or the mere fact that they have already extracted them from the country make them difficult to have seized or sellers banned. This material is lost to science in general as it disappears into private collections or if it is ‘returned’ to public hands it often has to be paid for and again, exact providence is unknown.

In short, it is good that this material is returned, but far better that it was never taken. Laws need to be stepped up and pressure applied to illegal collectors and dealers. There is only one of any fossil and even just taking it from the parent country and reduce it to a fraction of its scientific value.

Casts vs sculptures

A long time ago in the dim and distant past on here I wrote about fossil chimeras and mounting skeletons and have since written about fake fossils of various kinds. In these I rather breezed over some of the different ways that fossils can be produced for display and it seems worth going over in a little greater detail and roughly defining a few terms to make things easier for people to understand and distinguish between the various things out there.

Increasingly, genuine fossils of large animals are not on display in museums. These are expensive and valuable artefacts and scientists need to access them, and the museums need to protect them. Big dinosaur mounts that tower into the air made up of original fossils that are hundreds of millions of years old are therefore rare. They are hard to examine, and difficult to keep clean and if they ever fell over…. However, even the most complete of big dinosaur mounts are often not as they seem and can be completed using a number of different techniques.

Here then are the ways that you can complete your dinosaur fossil:

1. Original material. While these are becoming rarer, there are a significant number of mounted skeletons being produced composed mostly or entirely of original fossil material. Since there are pretty much no *totally* complete dinosaur skeletons in 3-D, the odd part of another specimen may be used to fill in the gaps, effectively creating a chimera.

2. Repaired material. Even if you do have a complete specimen, the odds are there are a few chunks missing – a humerus with the end gone, teeth lost from the jaws, or the neural spines broken from a few vertebrae. These can still be used with the missing parts repaired and completed from plaster or a similar material.

3. Casts. You can of curse simply make a direct physical copy of the bones of your specimen and mount them, or from another specimen to fill in the gaps and these are casts. Most big specimens nowadays are casts of real specimens supplemented by sculptures of missing bits.

4. Sculptures. Finally, you can simply model the missing pieces from scratch and make them to fit the gaps and what you know of the existing anatomy or from close relatives. Sculptured bones run the full length from inept plasticine-like creations that look only vaguely like bones right through to superb ones that can even look better (since they have no breaks or distortions) than the originals.


A selection of casts and sculptures of dinosaur claws and various teeth.

Telling these different ‘bones’ apart is not normally too difficult with a little practice (though across a darkened dinosaur hall it’s not always easy). Typically original material looks organic in a way that even casts do not – natural swells and breaks and just the texture of the bones will look ‘right’. Repairs to original material are often crude, but in any case the instant change in texture and colour between a sculpted piece of plaster and the bone itself should be clear. Sculptures (whether as repairs or as whole replacement bones) often have little texture on their surface beyond a few scratches or dimples and are often a give away as their surface is so smooth. Finally casts often loose a little of the detailed surface texture of the originals from which they are copied but can usually be distinguished by their colours. Real bones generally have a range of colours (if minor) to them when casts are typically made using coloured resin or are pained after production and so are a uniform colour.

That’s quite probably more than enough of casts and sculptures, but this should serve as a guide to what is, and is not, real in museums and how to tell them apart and why this can be important.

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Not quite body modification

Yesterday I talked about my amazing time traveling research in the journal Geological Curator. As you might imagine this focuses on the ‘behind the scenes’ side of museum work – preparing and storing fossils and minerals and all the accompanying aspects of this. While obviously I spend a fair bit of my time in museums, this is a bit of a departure for me, but the paper was fun to do.

In this case it deals with the modifications made to a pair of pterosaur specimens held in the collections at Dublin. Well, sort of. You might think this means that someone went over them and damaged or destroyed the bones, or tried to mend and improve them. In fact the description is about how the two were mounted for sale. In both cases the surfaces of the specimens appear to have been polished to make them very smooth, plaster has been added to cover up cracks, and screws have been sunk through the matrix of the slabs and into a heavy wooden case.

If all of this sounds horrifying then don’t be too alarmed. For a start this was done in the late 1800s and this kind of thing was hardly uncommon (though the screws thing is new to me). Secondly, despite all of this, in some cases fairly drastic, modification it was done with some care. The fossil dealers responsible have done all of this without really affecting the quality of the material at all and that’s quite impressive. What was done was clearly there with the aim of making the material look nicer, but not at the expense of the information it contained.

Modified Rhamphorhynchus plate and counterplate. From Hone, 2010

Given the ongoing issues with chimeras, faked fossils and the like it’s almost refreshing to see that 120 years ago, commercial dealers were actually careful with the scientific information in their material and presumably understood that researchers were interested in that. It’s a lesson a few people could do with now sadly.

Hone, D.W.E. 2010. A short note on modifications to Nineteenth Century pterosaur specimens held in the National Museum of Ireland – Natural history, Dublin. Geological Curator, 9: 261-265.

Latimeria and history repeating

This post is really an excuse to show off a photo of the rather nice coelacanth (Latimeria) we have on display at the IVPP. I rather like these giant lobe-finned fish and this one is both big and in good condition (well, was, before someone killed it and stuck in in a tank of preservative). From the point of view of evolutionary discussions however it has it’s own little role to play which is worth mentioning.

While I generally avoid creationism stuff on here (and after the comments that came last time, it seems like the right choice) there are a few more obvious non-sequiturs that hang around for ever and never seem to die that rather intrigue me. One is the concept that finding a living pterosaur or dinosaur would somehow disprove evolution or the fossil record as a whole. Obviously this would not. What is would mean is that we have a big gap in the fossil record and that somewhere, somehow, something clung onto life in a hidden corner of the world for a long time. Extinction still happens (you could find tens of thousands of supposedly extinct species but there would be hundreds of thousands still only known from the fossil record) and evolution still happens, so the point is moot.

Which of course is where the coelacanth comes in. Until its (re)discovery as a living animal, the group was though long extinct and known only from the fossil record. However, despite the fact that this story is very widely know, it’s pretty obvious that the whole edifice of evolutionary research and biological sciences did not come crashing down as a result of this find. Indeed, it allowed us to look at what changes had happened over the millennia separating the fossils and living specimens to see evolution in action. Why then people persist in thinking that finding  a living hadrosaur will kill evolution is beyond me. Not only would it not do this, but similar occurrences have already happened with no effect at all, so why would this be any different?

Microraptor in UV and feather attachment

Microraptor gui holotype under UV light. Modified from Hone et al., 2010.

Yes, it’s self promotion time again as I have a new paper out in PloS1. The press embargo ends today, hence my posting this up now, but the paper is not officially out till Monday. As ever with PLoS, it’s free online so don’t waste my time or yours asking me for a reprint, download it from here (link should go active on Monday).

The origin of this paper lies with Helmut Tischlinger’s trip to China which involved lots of UV light work. Some of that has already turned up in print via Jeholopterus but constraints in paper length meant we did not get to include everything we would have liked to talk about and that is rectified here, in addition to the new information on the Microraptor holotype. Those keeping up on UV light work and its ability to spot various things (including fakes, on occasion) will know that bones, matrix and especially soft tissues often look very different under UV than under natural light. As a result, with the right techniques and equipment you can find some interesting details and get more information from your fossils.

First off here I will freely admit that the results here are far from Earth shattering, but they are a neat demonstration of a technique that, outside of the pterosaur community, still seems to be very little know. Hopefully this will help make more people aware of what UV can and cannot do and get people using these methods. As hopefully will become clear, this is potentially really quite important.

So, onto Microraptor, or more specifically, the holotype specimen on Microraptor gui. While there are a number of specimens of this and other species, this is probably the best, certainly the most famous and most studied, and thus arguably the most important one. While there are obviously large numbers of well preserved feathers on the slab and that they are both associated with, and structured around, the skeleton something else is also pretty clear: the feathers don’t actually reach the bones. Instead there is a ‘halo’ of space between where the bones are and the feathers start.

Microraptor gui holotype with feathers (white arrows) and 'halo' effect (black arrows). Modified from Hone et al., 2010.

This is actually quite common in Lianoning specimens both in other feathered dinosaurs and also birds, and it’s also problematic. If you look at modern birds, the big flight feathers penetrate deep into the skin and basically reach the bones (hence you get quill knobs, as also now seen even in dromaeosaurs). If the feathers are not replicating this pattern (and they don’t seem to be) then the obvious question is what has happened? In some fossils, the feathers do reach the bones, both in Liaoning stuff and things like Archaeopteryx (and yes, Tianyulong too) so why not here? The obvious answer is that the feathers have moved – they are, after all, preserved next to a corpse and could easily have come free and drifted off from the bones, or perhaps they have not been preserved close in, or were destroyed during preparation or some other reason.

Microraptor gui under UV light with throat feather penetrating the halo under UV (arrows). Modified from Hone et al., 2010.

However, what the UV light study shows is that the feathers were, at least in part, there all along. What has happened is that the soft tissues have decayed and spread out around the specimen. You can see them incredibly clearly under UV where they shine brightly and are very pale. This is likely what is covering the feathers in most cases, but can we be sure? Close in on the legs and it certainly looks it. Several ‘arcs’ of feathers now penetrate the halo and the arc continues into the halo to the bone, though the soft tissues make it hard to see. (I should note here that good though these pictures are, this is of course much clearer when you are looking at the original slides, and better still with the original specimen itself – photos are good, reality is better). Even better are the feathers around the throat / chest where the filaments really are quite clear under UV where they are simply not visible under natural light. But what does this mean for Microraptor?

In short, it means that the feathers as we see them on the slab are very likely in their original and natural positions. They have not decayed, or moved or generally been disturbed: they are simply obscured. Secondly, this means that Microraptor’s feathers are pretty similar to those of birds and other dinosaurs in that they do, in many places, actually reach the bones of the animal. It also means that a number of measurements made of the feathers and associated calculations based on those measurements are likely in error. The feathers are longer than assumed.

All of this is pretty much as expected in a sense. We do have other specimens that suggest the pattern of feathers reaching the bones is normal. We know from modern birds that this is what we might expect. There were a variety of reasons that could plausibly lead to the feathers apparently being absent, but to be able to confirm that they are not and offer an explanation why is quite nice. What is means more generally however is perhaps more important, but you’ll have to wait for the next post for that.

Oh yes, and ReBecca over at Dinochick has an interview with me and a bit more on the methodology and history behind the paper. Edit: further coverage from friends and colleagues at Dracovenator, The Whirlpool of Life, and Dinosaur Tracking. Thanks to all.

Hone DWE, Tischlinger H, Xu X, Zhang F (2010) The Extent of the Preserved Feathers on the Four-Winged Dinosaur Microraptor gui under Ultraviolet Light. PLoS ONE 5(2): e9223. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009223

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One hell of an intermediate – presenting Darwinopterus

The skull of Darwinopterus - courtesy Dave Unwin

The skull of Darwinopterus - courtesy Dave Unwin

I do so dislike the term ‘transitional fossil’, like ‘missing link’ and ‘ancestor’ these words and phrases have been warped by the media (I think) to the point where they seem to be accepted as technical scientific terms for what were largely informal general concepts and the whole things has become a bit of a minefield. When you add to that the willful misuse and manipulation of the terms by some to try to challenge evolution then it gets even worse. However there are times when something is so obvious and clear and simple that it is hard to use any other term. No, I don’t like ‘transitional fossil’, and this is not a ‘transition’ in the sense of an ancestor because, well that’s not how palaeontology works, BUT, if you want an example of ingtwo separate body plans and shunt them together into some kind of 50-50 version, this is it. Yes, today saw the publication of the new pterosaur Darwinopterus and as the title of this post and introductory paragraph gives away, it is a real intermediate between two groups of pterosaurs.

Continue reading ‘One hell of an intermediate – presenting Darwinopterus’

Further adventures in U.V. light

Many readers will by now be aware of the work of Helmut Tischlinger using U.V. light and his ability to find the apparently unfindable in various fossils, most notably from the German Solnhofen fossil beds that yield Archaeopteryx, numerous pterosaurs and plenty of other creatures and plants of all kinds. (If you have missed out, the original post is here).

This work is both interesting and important for several reasons. First of all it genuinely produces new information that otherwise would not be available to researchers, which of course is always valuable. Secondly, it allows us to refine other techniques (most notably preparation and curation) to avoid the loss or obfuscation of other information (they are great for spotting fakes too). Thirdly, the photos often look really cool. Yes, shock, horror, scientists are not emotionless automatons who only see things in terms of practical value or numbers and data, we do have aesthetics too. So, onto the photos:

Continue reading ‘Further adventures in U.V. light’

How not to curate a fossil properly

Going though various collections around the world you do find odds and ends that really are not quite what you had hoped to find. Of course going back through the years palaeontologisats were using primitive methods and did not realise that they were perhaps damaging the fossils long term, and of course information was not traded with anything like the frequency meaning many institutions made the same mistakes as each other. Some were actually necessary – the Tendaguru dinosaurs would never have made it back to Europe if the bones had not been deliberately broken into small enough packages to be carried out of the African bush. Even now, some small provincial places have only basic tools, or commercially available glue to fix their mistakes and lack the resources or knowledge to improve the situation. While of course you can excuse all kinds of what we might now term bad practice there are some real shockers out there and it is worth pointing out a few of them – you never know who might be reading, and in a way it’s fun. The battle scars of the professional palaeontologist are measured in holotypes broken, disaster discovered in drawers and fieldwork tales of woe. Here then are a few of the fallen that one can uncover in the world’s fossil collections:
Continue reading ‘How not to curate a fossil properly’

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