A famous fossil, exhibited in a famous museum in Europe, turned out to be a fake

A 280-million-year-old fossil thought to be a well-preserved specimen of an ancient reptile is largely a fake, according to new research.

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The fossil, originally discovered in the Italian Alps in 1931, has the scientific name Tridentinosaurus antiquus. Scientists thought that the dark, deep contour of the lizard-like body embedded in the rock was skin and soft tissue, and they considered the fossil a puzzle piece for understanding the early evolution of reptiles, writes news.yahoo.com.

The fossil has appeared in book citations and articles over the decades, but no one has ever studied it in detail. Housed in the collections of the Museum of Nature and Humanity of the University of Padua in Italy, the relic raised many questions about the exact nature of the creature it represented in life when no additional similar specimens could be found.

A detailed new analysis revealed that the dark color of the fossil is not preserved genetic material – it is just black paint covering some bones and carved rock. The researchers behind the study presented their findings February 15 in the journal Paleontology.

“The outline of the body of this fossil specimen is the same color as the genuine fossilized soft tissues of plants and also animals,” said the study's lead author, Dr. Valentina Rossi, a postdoctoral researcher in paleobiology at University College Cork in Ireland, in an email. “Thus, without the use of diagnostic techniques, it was impossible to correctly identify the dark material.”

The revelation highlights the new knowledge that could be gained by re-examining old and previously studied fossil specimens from museum collections using the latest technological methods.

Revealing a fake

Reptiles first appeared between the Carboniferous and Permian, about 310 million to 320 million years ago. But understanding the evolution of these scaly vertebrates depends on what paleontologists discover in the fossil record, and the diversity of the first reptiles is still a knowledge gap that researchers are trying to fill.

Even rarer among ancient finds are fossils containing soft tissue, which has the potential to harbor crucial biological information such as DNA.

When the specimen was discovered, researchers believed the fossil could provide a rare glimpse into the evolution of reptilians.

“The fossil was thought to be unique because there were no other examples from the same geographic area and geological period with such preservation in a fossil vertebrate at that time,” Rossi stated.

But the color of the supposed skin was similar to that seen in fossil plants found in similar rocks, Rossi said.

There were oddities about the discovery, such as the general lack of visible bones, including skull bones, despite the fact that the body did not appear completely flat. So the initial assessment was that the specimen was essentially a mummy of an ancient reptile.

“One plausible explanation was that the bones were hidden under the layer of skin and therefore not visible,” Rossi said. “There are few examples of dinosaur mummies where, quite similar to human mummies, the bones are still wrapped inside the skin, which is preserved in 3D.”

Intrigued by the growing uncertainty surrounding the fossil, Rossi and his colleagues began the study in 2021, examining it with ultraviolet photography. Analysis revealed the specimen was covered in a thick coating, Rossi said.

“Covering fossils with varnish is an ancient method of preservation because, in the past, there were no other suitable methods to protect fossils from natural decay,” study co-author Mariagabriella Fornasiero, curator of paleontology at the Museum of Nature and Humanity, said in a statement.

Hoping to find biological information about the fossil beneath the layer, the team used powerful microscopes to analyze samples of the remains with different wavelengths of light.

Instead, the researchers determined that the outline of the body was carved into the rock and painted with “animal charcoal“, a commercial pigment used about 100 years ago that was obtained by burning animal bones. The sculpture also explained why the specimen seemed to retain such a lifelike shape, instead of appearing flatter like a genuine fossil.

“The answer to all our questions was right in front of us, we had to study this fossil specimen in detail to unlock its secrets – even the ones we may not have wanted to know.” Rossi stated.

The result was unexpected, but it explains why the fossil has puzzled researchers for decades. The latest research confirms that “is not the oldest mummy in the world” study co-author Evelyn Kustatscher, curator of paleontology at the South Tyrolean Nature Museum in Bolzano, Italy, and coordinator of the research project, said in a statement.

Old secrets and new questions

Curiously, there are actual bones inside the fossil. The hind limbs, although in poor condition, are real and there are also traces of osteoderms, or scale-like structures. Now researchers are trying to determine the exact age of the bones and which animal they belonged to. The team is also studying the rock, which may also preserve insightful details from 280 million years ago.

It's not the first time a fossil fake has been discovered, but Rossi said this particular style of forgery is unusual.

The only fossil I know of that was painted on rock is a fossilized crab that was made to look like a giant spider.” Rossi said. “In this particular case, however, the type of paint has not been identified, but I'm betting it's a carbon-based one, similar to what we found on our fossil.”

Given the lack of records accompanying the fossil, including a description of exactly what was found in 1931, Rossi and his team cannot be entirely sure that the fake was intentional.

“We think that since some of the bones are visible, someone tried to expose more of the skeleton by excavating more or less where one would expect to find the rest of the animal,” Rossi stated. “The lack of proper tools for preparing the hard rock didn't help, and applying paint at the end was perhaps a way to embellish the final work. Unfortunately, whether all of this was intentional or not, they have misled many experts into interpreting this fossil as exceptionally well-preserved.”

Using advanced techniques to study fossils can reveal their true nature, Rossi said.

It is of fundamental importance that research uses new methods to examine more closely findings that have already been examined,” study co-author Fabrizio Nestola, professor of mineralogy and president of the University Center for Museums at the University of Padua, said in a statement.

Tridentinosaurus is an example of how science can reveal old secrets – and how new questions can emerge from them.” Nestola added. “It will then be the task of our museum to process the newly acquired knowledge and bring it to the public to lead a scientific and cultural debate.”