The great dinosaur fossil hoax

National Geographic’s senior editor Christopher Sloan had seen a feathered dinosaur fossil or two. But the specimen he described in the magazine’s November 1999 issue, dubbed Archaeoraptor liaoningensis, took his breath away.

“Its long arms and small body scream ‘bird!’ Its long, stiff tail – which under magnification erupts into a series of tiny support rods paralleling the vertebrae – screams ‘Dinosaur!’,” Sloan wrote. The creature, found in Liaoning Province, China, “is a true missing link in the complex chain that connects dinosaurs to birds”.

Archaeoraptor would later be dubbed “Piltdown chicken”. Like England’s infamous Piltdown man it turned out to be a cut-and-paste fossil made of different species. For National Geographic,  a bastion of scientific publishing,  to have been taken in by the hoax showed the sophistication of the forgery.

The problem of faked fossils in China is serious and growing. Rather than being excavated by palaeontologists on fossil digs, most of the region’s fossils are pulled from the ground by desperately poor farmers and then sold on to dealers and museums.

Liaoning, an impoverished and heavily industrialised province of north-eastern China, has been a centre for paleontological activity since the early 1990s. When Sinosauropyteryx – the first known feathered dinosaur – was discovered there in 1996, it spurred a fossil-hunting gold rush the likes of which had never been seen before.

Cretaceous-era Liaoning was rich with lakes and marshes, which – combined with plenty of volcanic eruptions – made an ideal environment for preserving large numbers of fossils, often in great detail. But that’s not the only reason Liaoning is producing more fossils than any other part of the world today – China can also invest enormous manpower in recovering fossils. “Some of these localities are unquestionably very rich in fossils but … the success is clearly linked to the almost unlimited labour available in China,” says Luis Chiappe, director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. He describes the work being done there as the “paleontological parallel of the construction of the Great Wall of China”.

Thousands of farmers have become “bone diggers” who find fossils and sell them to dealers. Although it is illegal their efforts continually yield new species. High-quality fossils can sell for tens of thousands of dollars, so when your monthly earnings total a few dollars or less finding one is akin to hitting the jackpot.

“Some Chinese museums have their own expeditions and go out to collect … but the bulk of what is collected in China has entirely been dug up by the farmers,” Chiappe explains.

Xu Xing – a professor based at Beijing’s Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology – agrees that many of the specimens from Liaoning have come from farmers and dealers, but adds that fossils he has described from elsewhere, such as Inner Mongolia and Shandong Province, have been excavated by his own team. He doesn’t like to buy fossils and has bought fewer in recent years, but he’s often faced with a difficult decision: if he chooses not to purchase an important fossil it could be lost forever to a private collection, on the other hand if he does purchase it, it encourages farmers to keep on digging.

Having thousands of farmers looking out for fossils is a double-edged sword. Though many more fossils are being discovered, they are collected and prepared in a way that destroys much of the scientific information. If scientists don’t know which location and rock layers the fossils come from, they can’t precisely pinpoint their age and struggle to confirm their veracity.

Knowing which geological layers of rock housed the fossils –the stratigraphy – is the key to dating them. Specimens dug up by farmers and sold on to dealers cannot be classified in this way. Chiappe says a study he is conducting on fossils of the early bird Confuciusornis, one of the most abundant fossils found in Liaoning, exemplifies the problem. His team has studied 180 specimens and have no option but to compare them as though all 180 lived at the same time.

“We treat them as a modern population, but they aren’t a modern population”, he says. “They have lived thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe sometimes even millions of years apart.”

If scientists had data on the precise age of the fossils, they might be able to look into whether the species had changed over time, and with better data on geographic location, they could look at changes between regions. “[But] we don’t know that, because we don’t know exactly where the fossils come from,” Chiappe says.

Another much more serious problem, however, is posed by faked and manipulated specimens. The best-known example is the Archaeoraptor, named by National Geographic. The episode drew public attention to the scale of the problem, and also to the difficulty of identifying a fossil hoax.

The Chinese farmers who dig for fossils are well aware that complete and spectacular specimens are worth far more than the fragments. Some don’t even realise they are faking specimens and combine pieces of different fossils found at the same locale. In the most extreme cases, this manipulation is intentional, involving fossils found at disparate locations. It sounds crude, but even the experts have to look carefully to detect the trickery when master forgers have been at work.

Fossils can be faked in a variety of ways. Sometimes they’re hewn from parts from the same species but come from different individuals, so you might have a Microraptor skull, tail and body all from different individuals. Another method involves combining the parts of different species to make a complete fossil that appears to be a new animal. “Dinosaurs are very similar to birds, so sometimes these fossils combine different birds, different dromaeosaur specimens, or even birds with dinosaurs,” Xu says. But the most extreme kind of forgery takes fragmentary fossils and carves out the missing parts from the stone.

In rare cases fossils are completely manufactured from scratch. Palaeontologist Phil Currie at the University of Alberta in Canada saw one example in China while on a research trip with Xu. “He got a call that a very nice specimen
had been found and it looked like Archaeopteryx,” he says. “And so we flew to another part of China … and when we got there, it took just seconds to realise that it wasn’t a real fossil at all. It had been basically ground-up bone, glued back together in a certain way to look like the Archaeopteryx.”

It’s a significant hurdle to good science, and one that can’t easily be solved.

* * *

As palaeontology has boomed in China so has the museum sector, and new institutions cropping up across the nation have fuelled the market for specimens to fill them. Sometimes these institutions, especially small regional museums, have no trained scientists, and display many fakes alongside real fossils.

In Shandong Province, 100 kilometres south of Beijing, mineral magnate Zheng Xiaoting has used wealth amassed from gold mining to build the largest collection of complete dinosaur fossils anywhere in the world. The Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature has more than 2,300 specimens of early birds (including around 600 examples of Confuciusornis) and more than 1,000 dinosaur fossils, including hundreds of feathered specimens, some described in the top journals Science and Nature. According to Chiappe, however, even wonderful museums such as this are not immune to the problem of fossil fakery. He believes many fossils at Tianyu have been purchased from diggers without documentation or detailed stratigraphic information.

Based on recent trips to China, Chiappe believes around 50% of specimens he’s seen in regional museums have been enhanced. “Sometimes that’s not important. It’s just a little thing that you can highlight and say, ‘Well, the left hand was sculpted … I’m going to exclude this from my study’,” he says. “But sometimes it’s more significant.”

Anyone working with Chinese specimens needs to have their eyes open to the risks. In the past, because of the difficulty of accessing the collections, some scientists analysed Chinese fossils based on photographs alone, but this is no longer good enough. “You need to have them under a microscope,” Chiappe says.

An investigative report published in Science in 2010 revealed that as many as 80% of marine reptile fossils on display in Chinese museums had been altered or manipulated. Unfortunately, there are few solutions to the problem of faked fossils in China. Laws that forbid the sale of fossils have stemmed some of the trade (they have harsh penalties – ranging from significant fines to execution – but are rarely enforced), yet much of it continues on the black market.

Another element to the illegal Chinese fossil trade is the flow of important specimens overseas. In November 2010 the China Daily newspaper reported that, in the preceding three years, China had reclaimed more than 5,000 fossil specimens from foreign countries, including Australia, the US, Canada and Italy. A new law, which came into effect at the start of 2011, levied large fines against any person or organisation moving important fossils overseas without express permission from the authorities. Although there are a few exceptions, most major museums in Europe and the US have strict rules about acquiring looted fossils. Specimens from China and Mongolia (from where it is also illegal to export them) nevertheless routinely turn up for sale overseas.

A number of high-profile cases of illegal fossil trading over the last few years have brought the issue to the attention of the media. There was a blaze of controversy in May 2012 when a largely complete skeleton of a Mongolian T. rex relative, Tarbosaurus bataar, appeared for sale at Heritage Auctions in New York. Before the auction American Museum of Natural History palaeontologist Mark Norell wrote an open letter arguing that the fossil was clearly from Mongolia’s Gobi Desert and must have been obtained illegally. Despite an injunction brought by US lawyers employed by the president of Mongolia – and a restraining order from a district court judge having been delivered to the auction house that day – the fossil was sold for more than $1 million.

Norell is certainly in a position to know the fossil was from Mongolia. He’s been digging up fossils there for two decades, working alongside the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, and has authored more than 75 papers on his findings. Although the auction went ahead, the fossil was taken into custody on 22 June by US authorities, who seized it from a storage facility.

In a strange twist of fate, the leg bone of another Tarbosaurus specimen appeared in the window of London auction house Christie’s at around the same time. Christie’s is just a short stroll from the Natural History Museum, where palaeontologist Paul Barrett works, and he spotted the fossil one day as he was walking past. Immediately suspicious as to its provenance, he wrote to Christie’s expressing his concerns. The auction house communicated this to the buyer and pulled the bone from sale.

Norell isn’t the only one to have noticed an insidious and growing problem. Phil Currie says he first realised that looting of fossils from protected sites was a serious issue in 2000, when specimens vanished from digs he had worked on for many years in Mongolia.

Though the Tarbosaurus skeleton that had been auctioned in New York was seized by US authorities in June 2012, the legal issues weren’t wrangled out until nearly a year later, when the fossil was returned to Mongolian officials. In a ceremony in a hotel across the street from the United Nations complex in New York, the dinosaur was symbolically handed back to Bolortsetseg Minjin, a Mongolian palaeontologist who had been involved in the fight to stop the auction going ahead, and Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, Mongolia’s Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

The pair used the opportunity to announce that the fossil would be used as the founding exhibit for Mongolia’s first dedicated dinosaur museum, the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs, where Bolortsetseg would act as chief palaeontologist.

In a speech, the minister said that before the controversy over the Tarbosaurus remains, Mongolians were vaguely aware of their paleontological heritage, but didn’t have any celebrity dinosaurs to rally around – a situation that was set to change with the fame generated by the skeleton. The creation of a national dinosaur museum and public interest and pride in its exhibits, was at least a silver lining to the cloud of the looting controversy.

Meanwhile, Eric Prokopi, the Florida fossil dealer who had prepared the Tarbosaurus for sale and auctioned it in New York, was jailed for three months in June 2014. He was also reportedly in possession of a number of other illegally trafficked specimens, including duck-billed hadrosaurs, oviraptorids and more Tarbosaurus remains. All of these are to be returned to Mongolia, as are the remains that were on sale at Christie’s in London, which were sourced back to a British fossil dealer.

The significant media interest in the Tarbosaurus cases and the illegal fossil dealing has at least brought the issue to wider public attention and should make it much more difficult to auction this kind of material in the future.

But there’s still a long way to go.

After the Archaeoraptor fiasco that proved so embarrassing for National Geographic, the magazine’s then editor Bill Allen, brought in journalist Lewis M. Simons to investigate. Simons reported in the October 2000 edition that it was: “A tale of misguided secrecy and misplaced confidence, of rampant egos clashing, self-aggrandisement, wishful thinking, naive assumptions, human error, stubbornness, manipulation, backbiting, lying, corruption, and, most of all, abysmal communication.”

The American part of the story began with the smuggling of a fossil from China to the US where it was presented for sale at a major fossil show in Tucson, Arizona, in February 1999. There it was discovered and purchased by Steven and Sylvia Czerkas, well known paleo-artists and dinosaur enthusiasts who run a small museum in Blanding, Utah. They raised the $80,000 required for the specimen from a backer and patron of the museum. The Czerkases were friends of Phil Currie, so they invited him to study the fossil and prepare a publication on it with them in a scientific journal. After an initial glance, palaeontologist Currie, who worked regularly with National Geographic, alerted senior editor for archeology and paleontology Chris Sloan, to the fossil. Sloan decided it was the perfect addition to a story on feathered dinosaurs he was writing.

The Czerkases had hoped to display the fossil in Blanding and that it might be the making of their museum, but Currie and Sloan persuaded them that in order for the fossil to be studied and for anything to be published on it, it must be returned to China after they were finished with it. Once this was agreed, Xu Xing became involved and travelled from Beijing to examine the specimen before its return to China.

Alarm bells started to ring when Timothy Rowe at the University of Texas started to examine the fossil using X-ray CT scans. These allowed the researchers to examine the 3D structure of the fossil. Rowe, an expert at examining such scans, argued the specimen had been made from a number of fossils, and that the tail did not belong to the body. Currie agreed he had some concerns, but the Czerkases refused to believe there was a serious problem and pushed on for publication. Ultimately, both Nature and Science declined to publish a paper announcing a new species. This left National Geographic in the awkward position of officially doing so, as their print cycle and media machine were already too far ahead to pull the story.

In early 2000 Xu proved Archaeoraptor was a fake. He found a counter slab bearing the tail – a mirror image created when a fossil has been split down the middle into two flat slabs of rock –  in an institute in China in early 2000. But it was attached to the legs of a tiny undescribed dinosaur. This proved that the tail belonged to another specimen entirely and had been arranged in a false position in the Archaeoraptor fossil.

Cue a retraction by National Geographic, which was then forced to launch an enquiry and bring Lewis M. Simons on board to carry out an open investigation. Phil Currie would later describe his involvement in this scandal as the “greatest mistake of my life”.

Subsequent detailed CT scans by Rowe revealed that Archaeoraptor was glued together from 88 pieces of different individuals fossils. Mostly they came from two species unknown to science, making the specimens important in their own right. The tail was from Microraptor, then the smallest dinosaur ever discovered, while the front half was a primitive bird subsequently named Yanornis in a 2002 Nature paper entitled “Archaeoraptor’s better half”.

Luis Chiappe says with hindsight it seemed obvious that the animal was a chimera of bird and dinosaur features, but it was put together with great skill.

Xu says that much has changed since then. At the time a forgery such as this was not only unexpected, but also difficult to predict. It’s also likely that, in those early years following the discovery of Sinosauropteryx, the first feathered dinosaur, people were caught up in a wave of excitement and were perhaps less careful than they might otherwise have been.

“If you look at the background, this is a very complicated story”, he says, adding that it’s rare to find completely articulated specimens.

“In most cases when we do fieldwork in Inner Mongolia, in Xinxiang, or other parts of the world, what you find very often is an incomplete skeleton … You see lots of bones on the surface and you collect those bones and go back to the lab. You need to figure out whether those bones are from one individual or from two individuals or from several individuals.”

Experts are much more wary of inconsistencies or anomalies in fossils these days, but 15 years ago scientists assumed honest errors. Perhaps the specimen wasn’t assembled properly or some elements had been attached by mistake.

“At the time, in 1999, we were not really prepared to face the problem of composite or faked specimens,” Xu adds. “Today, if you see a specimen like that – especially if it’s from Liaoning – you will say, ‘Oh yes, this is definitely
a fake specimen’, because you know that this is a really serious problem. ”

China’s new fossil industry has appeared in the blink of an eye and its paleontological community is still finding its feet, but if Chinese authorities and museums are going to maintain their credibility, they will have to tackle the problem of faked fossils and the trafficking of fossils overseas.

A remarkable series of finds has given us a window into a weird and unexpected world, but the trade in faked, manipulated and illegally obtained fossils has tainted what are otherwise spectacular collections.

Extract from  Flying Dinosaurs: How fearsome reptiles  became birds, published by New South.

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