Week of Jan. 15, 2000; Vol. 157, No. 3 All mixed up over birds and dinosaurs
By R. Monastersky
Red-faced and downhearted, paleontologists are growing convinced that they
have been snookered by a bit of fossil fakery from China. The "feathered
dinosaur" specimen that they recently unveiled to much fanfare apparently
combines the tail of a dinosaur with the body of a bird, they say.
"It's the craziest thing I've ever been involved with in my career," says
paleontologist Philip J. Currie of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology
in Drumheller, Alberta.
The fossil, named Archaeoraptor liaoningensis, comes from the northeastern
province of Liaoning, where local farmers have been unearthing many new
dinosaur species, some showing evidence of downlike coats and feathers.
Currie, Stephen Czerkas of the Dinosaur Museum in Blanding, Utah, and Xing
Xu of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in
Beijing announced the discovery of Archaeoraptor at a press conference in
Washington, D.C., at the National Geographic Society last October (SN:
11/20/99, p. 328).
At the time, they called it a missing link between birds and dinosaurs
because it manifested the long bony tail of dromaeosaurid dinosaurs and the
specialized shoulders and chest of birds.
The scientists couldn't be sure of the fossil's history because they had
not excavated it. Spirited out of China, the specimen attracted Czerkas'
attention when he saw it for sale in Utah. His museum arranged its purchase
by a benefactor.
Recently, while examining a dromaeosaurid dinosaur in a private collection
in China, Xu decided that the Archaeoraptor fossil is a chimera. The tail
of that dinosaur is identical to the Archaeoraptor tail, he told Science News.
The two tails are mirror images of each other, derived from the same
individual, says Xu. When rocks containing fossils are split, they often
break into two fossils. Currie suspects that someone sought to enhance the
value of Archaeoraptor by pasting one part of the dinosaur's tail to a bird
Czerkas is reserving judgement until he can view both fossils together.
"I've got all this other evidence suggesting the tail does belong with the
[Archaeoraptor] fossil," he says.
The paleontologists already had concerns about the tail because the bones
connecting it to the body are missing and the slab shows signs of
reworking. They had convinced themselves, however, that the two parts
Other scientists criticize the team and the National Geographic Society for
unveiling the fossil before any detailed article had appeared in a
scientific journal. "There probably has never been a fossil with a sadder
history than this one," says Storrs L. Olson of the Smithsonian
Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
Because National Geographic published an article about Archaeoraptor before
any formal description, credit for the scientific name now goes to the
author of the magazine article, rather than to the scientists, says Olson.
Currie says that the mix-up over this one fossil does not diminish the
evidence suggesting that birds evolved from dinosaurs. It will, however,
cause him to be more tight-lipped in the future about fossil finds until a
journal article appears. "Certainly, I don't recommend to any budding
scientist that they do it this way."
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