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Fossil Friday: Fake Amber and the Piltdown Fly

Günter Bechly
Photo: Mexican amber forgery of a wasp in artificial resin, coll. SMNS, Bechly 2015.

This Fossil Friday features an apparent fossil wasp in Mexican amber. What it actually shows is a crude forgery, where a modern wasp has been embedded in artificial resin. Such simple forgeries are commonly sold to tourists in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Eastern Europe, and Eastern Asia. They can be easily recognised and hardly any real expert would fall for them (Poinar 1982, Ross 1998, Gröhn 2013). However, there exist much more sophisticated forgeries of amber inclusions that even fooled famous scientists (Grimaldi et al. 1994Eriksson & Poinar 2015). They are crafted by using real pieces of amber.

Fossiliferous amber pieces usually were formed by several successive flows of tree resin and therefore have a layered composition that is called “Schlauben.” Cunning forgers split a piece of amber along these natural surfaces, carve a cavity in which they place a dead recent insect, fill the cavity with resin or Canada balsam, glue the two halves together again, and polish the piece to hide the fissure. Such sophisticated forgeries are hard to detect, because any test of the amber substance only confirms its authenticity. The considerable effort of course only makes sense to a forger in case of very rare inclusions that achieve a high market price among collectors, unless somebody only wants to play a trick on a scientist. Here is an interesting example (McAlister 2012).

The Modern Latrine Fly

Professor Willi Hennig was one of the most famous entomologists and biologists of the 20th century: founder of modern phylogenetic systematics (cladistics), one of the world’s leading experts on Dipteran systematics of his time, and a predecessor of mine as curator for the amber collection of the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart (Germany). In 1966 he described an inclusion of the modern latrine fly species Fannia scalaris in Baltic amber (Hennig 1966). The specimen had already been briefly mentioned by the German collector and dipteran researcher Herrmann Loew in 1850, but was now studied for the first time in detail by Hennig. His discovery seemed quite important because it featured one of the very few fossil representatives of the dipteran family Muscidae, with large implications for the phylogenetic and biogeographic history of flies. It also contributed to the textbook wisdom (e.g., Carpenter 1992) that some species apparently survived unchanged since the Oligocene.

In 1993 the young scientist Andrew Ross, who later became a well-known expert for amber fossils, studied the remarkable specimen at the Natural History Museum in London, where it had been deposited since 1922, after being acquired with other parts of the Loew amber collection. Ross was shocked when the amber piece overheated by the suboptimal microscope lighting and recognized a strange crack appearing above the fly. The supposed mishap turned out to be a lucky circumstance. A closer examination of the crack revealed to his big surprise that the apparent fossil fly was nothing but a clever forgery using a common recent latrine fly (Grimaldi et al. 1994, Ross 1998, Eriksson & Poinar 2015). Ross gave this forged fossil the fitting nickname “Piltdown fly” in his very first scientific publication (Ross 1993), alluding to the infamous Piltdown man hoax. The discovery of this forgery even made headlines in the tabloids (Anonymous 1993, Highfield 1993, Kellaway 1993) as well as popular science media (Palmer 1993).

A Possibility of Forgery

Was Hennig unaware of the possibility of a forgery? Or course not. He even quoted Crowson (1965), who had already suggested that in all cases of apparently recent species in amber the possibility of a forgery should be carefully evaluated and excluded. Hennig (1966)commented that there is zero evidence that any such case ever happened, and categorically dismissed this possibility as “totally unfounded” for his amber fly. That was not just a quite bold statement but actually pretty careless for such a distinguished expert.

Therefore, it was even speculated that Hennig might have been involved in a deliberate joke, because his paper was published on April Fools’ Day 1969, moreover in a non-peer-reviewed journal published by the Stuttgart museum, where he worked as curator. However, this possibility seems highly unlikely considering the serious style and far-reaching scientific conclusions of his manuscript, so that I rather think the publishing date is a mere coincidence, even though a very ironic one.

Unfortunately, forgeries still abound in the international fossil trade, and after some further scandals like the notorious Archaeoraptor case, scientists are nowadays very much aware of the risk. Therefore, important new finds from potentially dubious provenance are very carefully studied with highly sophisticated methods and the most modern technology to make sure the fossils are really authentic before any scientific studies are published on them. Hopefully, this will prevent further Piltdown fossils to make it into scientific literature. Nevertheless, some caution may still be advised.


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