The early reptile fossil turns out to be largely fake

The early reptile fossil turns out to be largely fake

Photo: Dr. Valentina Rossi

Sample of Ancient Tridentinosaurus It has long been known among paleontologists as an enigmatic fossil. It was found in 1931 in the mountains of the Trentino-Alto Adige region of northern Italy, and is believed to be the remains of an Early Permian reptile, about 280 million years old. The dark parts of the fossil were considered to be fossilized skin and other soft tissue, which is highly unusual considering the fossil's enormous age. On this basis, Tridentinosaurus (literally “Trentino lizard”) was placed in the Protorosauria, an early group of reptiles.


But closer examination of the fossil – this is the first time this has happened – now reveals something completely different. First, ultraviolet analysis indicated that there was some sort of coating on the outside of the fossil. This is not surprising, because in the past fossils were often treated with varnish to protect them, for example. But beneath the paint, the researchers found not the microscopic structures typical of fossilized soft tissue, but those found in ordinary paint. Dark paint was applied to the underlying rocks, which were shaped like a reptile fossil. So the forger could have fooled paleontologists for decades.

However, it turns out that the fossil is not entirely fake. Researchers have found some pieces of fossilized bone, including inside the circumference of the fossil's hind legs. They also found traces of typical leg-like structures located under the skin armor of reptiles such as crocodiles. Although that couldn't save the special status the fossil had all along. On the contrary, it will henceforth be known as a forgery that made paleontologists blush.

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