FEATHERED DINO-FORGERIES... A storm in a glass of water?


We all have seen the headlines: "National Geographic's 'Archaeoraptor' forgery casts doubt on the Chinese feathered dinosaurs"...

The popular press coverage of the "Archaeoraptor" case has tried to turn the tide concerning the dinosaur-bird link hypotheses: Archaeoraptor is a clever fossil forgery fabricated in China unfortunately purchased by Stephen Czerkas at a Tucson fossil fair and published with great expectations in National Geographic (November 1999) as a valid new feathered dinosaur genus (since traces of the typical dinosaurian proto-feathery fibrous coverage were all around the specimen) .

The discovery that it was forged has been enough for many people to cast doubt on ALL the feathered dinosaurs coming from China and the general concept of dinosaurs as descendant of birds or birds as living dinosaurs.

Once again the press shows its powers of distortion in ignorant, misleading headlines. This is the problem of making an issue out of poorly understood facts, astoundingly supported by supposed claims (and the convenient silence) of science people that have more of a personal interest in denying the dino-bird link.

The Chinese quarries are extremely rich but the digging and collection is carried out many times in a rather careless way. The remains are too fragmentary and just as there can be many honest mistakes in the process of recombination of specimens, there's another factor that can go against proper research: market economy speculation. With many new feathered specimens making sensational headlines the price paid for them in the markets has skyrocketed, and it was inevitable that forgeries were going to start appearing.

Feathers are all the rage... but everything goes: that is anything that looks strange or saleable. We must admit that the artistry of the forgers is unquestionable! Veritable masterpieces abound. Experts have painstakingly recognised forgeries of feathered lizards and salamanders (with coats of feathers thicker than Confuciusornis!) or chimeras made from combining two or more different animals (a recent pterosaur case is also notorious... this time with a dromaeosaur tail! It seems that there are so many dromaeosaur tails on the loose that they have become a popular item in this swindling word...filling gaps in incomplete specimens.)

And it was just a matter of time that a dinosaur forgery would see its way to the market too. When it came in the shape of 'Archaeoraptor liaoningensis' it unfortunately made it to the Tucson fossil fair (the smuggling of specimens out of China is another nightmare for the Chinese scientific community) and then to a starring role in National Geographic.

Why have the press overlooked all the other forgeries? Because dinosaurs sell! It's always good to smash popular theories. So it was just as good to try to bring the dinosaur-bird link down. That is the press game.

More difficult is to understand the support lent to the sensationalistic coverage of the Archaeoraptor affair by well established authorities like Larry Martin.

It was unfortunate that National Geographic published that article, but I don't believe it was dishonest... just a mistake in the hurry to publish what was considered a really amazing discovery.... but we all need to be much more careful: a mistake in such popular magazine can make waves! They could have waited for a scan...marvels can be done in recent times: At the last SVP meeting a new technique was presented that allowed a computer scan to surgically dissect a specimen of Confuciusornis out of the rock and in three dimensional images, showing every possible bit artificially added to make it more 'complete' and appealing to a dealer or customer ready to carelessly buy it.

Recognising the forged parts, the specimen can be cleaned and restored to its original form for scientific validation, without even having to take it apart or out of the matrix!

Archaeoraptor might be a combination of two specimens... it obviously include one with one of those many stiff dromaeosaur tails on the loose in the Liaoning quarries. For me that makes it doubly interesting... two specimens instead of one. But the case might be more complicated, so it can become even more interesting in the future.

When we saw Archaeoraptor for the first time, Darren Naish and I commented that we could forget the feathers... what was really interesting was the upper part of the skeleton... so incredibly bird-like and at the same time unmistakable dinosaurian. If we consider that indeed the upper part of the skeleton might be complete and that the legs may belong also the same animal (one of the legs seems to be the counter part of the other)... we are left only with only a dubious tail attached to a wrong body. If it's more than two specimens... then there are even more bird-like dinosaurs still to be unearthed from those quarries!

But essentially, this forgery is completely irrelevant to the validity of the other perfectly confirmed feathered dinosaurs and the validity of the dinosaur-bird link.Only proper study and scans can reveal the extent of the forgery and its meaning to the rather complicated Aves evolutionary tree. We'll all be eagerly awaiting for that.

There's much more to the dinosaur-bird link than just feathers. The variety of essentially bird-like dromaeosaurs known to date wonderfully illustrate this (see picture).

And just to put minds at ease: Sinosauropteryx, Beipiaosaurus, Sinornithosaurus, Caudipteryx and Protarchaeopteryx are as solid as ever in our concept of feathery or proto-feathery dinosaurs. Not a trace of forgeries in those specimens. For a more complete picture towards the dinosaur bird link just add Shuvuuia (protofeathery filaments confirmed in this one too), Mononykus, Confuciusornis and of course: Archaeopteryx (there are so many more!).

Not only that: the recent oviraptorosaur with a pygostile shows also evidence (this time at the osteological level) of feather display fans... just as I predicted in my old Oviraptor reconstructions (see pages).

And as if Bambiraptor and its amazing Archaeopteryx-like skeleton wasn't enough there will be a lot more in the future... including what possibly will be the most revolutionary discovery in many years. Keep an eye on these pages!

Luis Rey 3/00.

Raptors Big Family

The Raptors Big Family (work in progress). Including (from left to right all to scale) Bambiraptor, Sinornithosaurus, Rahonavis(flying), Deinonychus, Velociraptor, and on the background the leg and foot of Utahraptor.


Gallery click for Gallery list
MENU click for homepage