Famous 280-million-year-old fossil is partially fake

The reptile specimen reveals its true colors (black paint) after baffling paleontologists for almost a century.
Tridentinosaurus antiquus was discovered in the Italian Alps in 1931 and was believed to be an important specimen for understanding early reptile evolution.
Tridentinosaurus antiquus was discovered in the Italian Alps in 1931 and was believed to be an important specimen for understanding early reptile evolution. Valentina Rossi

Who among us hasn’t had their prized 280-million-year-old fossil eventually be proven to partially be a good fake? A new examination of a specimen first discovered almost 100 years ago reveals that parts of it are a forgery. The detective work is highlighted in a study published February 15 in the journal Palaeontology and urges caution in how this fossil is used in future studies.

[Related: Benjamin Franklin used science to protect his money from counterfeiters.]

The fossil of an extinct reptile called Tridentinosaurus antiquus was first discovered in the Italian Alps in 1931. It was billed as one of the oldest fossils of a backboned creature found in Italy. Its body outline looked dark against the surrounding rock and was initially interpreted as soft tissues that had been preserved over millions of years. Unlike hard bones and teeth, soft tissues mostly disintegrate over time, so specimens uncovered with skin intact are considered a big find. 

“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,” Valentina Rossi, a study co-author and paleobiologist at University College Cork in Ireland, said in a statement

The somewhat strange preservation left many experts uncertain about what group of reptiles this strange lizard-like animal belonged to and more generally its geological history. It was initially classified as a member of the group Protorosauria. These reptiles went extinct towards the Late Triassic era and are known for long necks. The scientists believed it was an important find in understanding the evolution of early reptiles.

The purported fossilized skin had previously been hailed in books and other studies, but had never been studied in great detail. The team on this new study reexamined the fossil and found that the fossil is primarily just black paint on a carved lizard-shaped rock surface.

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

Their microscopic analysis revealed that the texture and composition of the material didn’t match genuine fossilized soft tissues from other specimens. Preliminary investigation using ultraviolet (UV) photography also revealed that the full specimen was treated with some sort of coating material. In the past, coating fossils with varnishes and lacquers was normal and sometimes still is necessary to preserve fossils. 

[Related: A key to lizard evolution was buried in a museum cupboard for 70 years.]

The team hoped that the original soft tissues were beneath the coating so that they could extract solid palaeobiological data. The body outline of Tridentinosaurus antiquus was likely artificially created to enhance the fossil’s appearance. 

“The peculiar preservation of Tridentinosaurus had puzzled experts for decades. Now, it all makes sense,” Evelyn Kustatscher, a study co-author and palaeobotanist at Museum of Nature South Tyrol in Italy, said in a statement. “What was described as carbonized skin, is just paint.”

However, the authors say that the fossil itself is not a complete fake. The bones of the animal’s hindlimbs are genuine, but were poorly preserved. This new analysis also revealed that tiny bony scales called osteoderms are present. These scales similar to that of a crocodile may have lined the back of the animal. 

This study is an example of how nondestructive methods with lasers and micro CT scanners can reexamine specimens found in the past to yield new discoveries.