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Fossil Friday: Piltdown Lizard Was Too Good to Check

Photo: Tridentinosaurus, by Dr. Valentina Rossi, no usage restrictions; https://www.eurekalert.org/multimedia/1015121.

This Fossil Friday features Tridentinosaurus antiquus, which was discovered in 1931 and described by Leonardi (1959) from the Early Permian (ca. 280 million years old) sandstone of the Italian Alps. The 10-inch-long fossil animal looks like a dark imprint of an Anolis lizard. It was attributed by Dalla Veccia (1997) to the extinct Protorosauria (= Prolacertiformes) and considered to be “one of the oldest fossil reptiles and one of the very few skeletal specimens with evidence of soft tissue preservation” (Rossi et al. 2024), interpreted as carbonized skin showing the whole body outline like a photograph. Only the bones of the hind limbs were clearly visible.

The 90-year-old fossil find remained unique, as nothing similar was ever discovered again in the Permian of the Italian Alps (Starr 2024). This should have raised some red flags. However, why question a fossil that was “thought to be an important specimen for understanding early reptile evolution” (University College Cork 2024)? As journalists would say, it was too good to check. Instead the find was “celebrated in articles and books but never studied in detail” (University College Cork 2024).

Bombshell and Headlines

Now a new study (Rossi et al. 2024) of the famous fossil has turned out to be a bombshell, making global media headlines (University College Cork 2024). The scientists used sophisticated methods including ultraviolet light photography, 3D surface modeling, scanning electronic microscopy, and Fourier transformed infrared spectroscopy to analyze the apparent soft tissue of the fossil reptile. To their great surprise they discovered that “the material forming the body outline is not fossilized soft tissues but a manufactured pigment indicating that the body outline is a forgery,” which of course also throws into doubt the “validity of this enigmatic taxon.”

The study concludes that “The putative soft tissues of T. antiquus, one of the oldest known reptiles from the Alps, are fake and thus this specimen is not an exceptionally preserved fossil. Despite this, the poorly preserved long bones of the hindlimbs seem to be genuine.” But in the absence of novel information about the preserved skeleton, the authors “suggest caution in using T. antiquus in phylogenetic studies.”

Who Did It, and Why?

It is not known who perpetrated the forgery or why, but probably it was just a way to embellish the poor remains of the leg bones with some fancy painting (Starr 2024), coating it with varnish as a protective layer to hide the forgery from easy discovery (University College Cork 2024).

Italian paleontologist Valentina Rossi, the lead scientist of the study that uncovered the forgery, said in an article at The Conversation (Rossi 2024a) that “fake fossils are among us, passing almost undetected under the eye of experts all over the world. This is a serious problem — counterfeited specimens can mislead palaeontologists into studying an ancient past that never existed.” The reprinted article in Scientific American (Rossi 2024b) even admits in the subtitle, “Paleontology is rife with fake fossils that are made to cash in on illegal trade but end up interfering with science.” Let that sink in, and remember it when Darwinists try to ridicule Darwin critics, who bring up forgeries such as Piltdown Man or ArchaeoraptorDon’t let them get away with (despite knowing better) claiming that such forgeries are not a real problem in evolutionary biology.

Therefore, in loving memory of the Piltdown Man forgery, and the Piltdown Fly (Bechly 2022), we may in the future call this specimen the Piltdown Lizard.