Science unearths fossil fakery

A celebrated reptile fossil discovered in the Italian alps in 1931 is mostly fake.

The Tridentinosaurus antiquus was thought to be a significant specimen in understanding reptile evolution because earlier interpretations suggested the rare presence of preserved soft tissues.

Research published in Palaeontology re-analysing the find with modern scientific methods reveals the truth – what was thought to be carbonised skin, is actually black paint.

The findings help explain why the strangely preserved fossil had puzzled many experts.

University of Cork researchers used microscopic analysis finding the texture and composition of the fossil’s black outline did not accord with genuine fossilised soft tissues.

Dr valentina rossi ucc
Dr Valentina Rossi with an image of Tridentinosaurus antiquus / Credit: Zixiao Yang

Author Dr Valentina Rossi says: “fossil soft tissues are rare, but when found in a fossil they can reveal important biological information, for instance, the external colouration, internal anatomy and physiology.

“The answer to all our questions was right in front of us, we had to study this fossil specimen in details to reveal its secrets – even those that perhaps we did not want to know”.

Using UV photography, the research team initially identified the specimen was covered by some sort of coating. Although, this wasn’t necessarily a red flag given varnishing or lacquering fossils was the norm in the past.

However, their further analysis of the material underneath revealed the forgery.

The researchers say the specimen does contain some fossil material, including bones and tiny scales called osteoderms, albeit poorly preserved. 

Please login to favourite this article.