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280-million-year-old fossil of Tridentinosaurus antiquus proven to be a forgery

In an astonishing revelation, a Tridentinosaurus antiquus fossil that has mystified scientists for nearly a century has been partially exposed as a forgery.

This 280-million-year-old specimen was discovered in the Italian Alps in 1931 and has since played a pivotal role in our understanding of early reptile evolution.

The fascination with Tridentinosaurus antiquus

Initially hailed for its remarkable preservation, including what appeared to be soft tissues, the fossil’s true nature has come to light thanks to the meticulous work of Dr. Valentina Rossi and her team at University College Cork, Ireland (UCC).

For decades, Tridentinosaurus antiquus was celebrated in scientific circles as a critical piece of the puzzle in reptile ancestry.

Its dark outline against the rock was thought to represent preserved soft tissues, leading to its classification within the Protorosauria group of reptiles.

Behind the paint: Shocking forgery revelation

However, new research published in the journal Palaeontology has debunked this long-held belief, revealing that the fossil’s “remarkable preservation” was, in fact, the result of black paint on a lizard-shaped rock surface.

Dr. Rossi, from UCC’s School of Biological, Earth, and Environmental Sciences, emphasized the importance of detailed examination in uncovering the truth.

“Fossil soft tissues are rare, but when found in a fossil they can reveal important biological information, for instance, the external coloration, internal anatomy and physiology,” she explained.

“The answer to all our questions was right in front of us, we had to study this fossil specimen in details to reveal its secrets — even those that perhaps we did not want to know.”

Role of modern science in exposing the truth

The team’s microscopic analysis indicated a stark difference in texture and composition between the supposed fossilized soft tissues and genuine specimens.

A preliminary investigation using UV photography further revealed that the entire specimen had been coated, a practice once common for preserving fossils in museums.

This discovery dashed hopes that beneath the coating, original soft tissues might still be intact, offering valuable paleobiological insights.

This revelation has significant implications for the scientific community, prompting a call for caution in future research involving this specimen.

The investigation, which included contributions from Italy’s University of Padua, Museum of Nature South Tyrol, and Museo delle Scienze in Trento, highlights the necessity of skepticism and verification in scientific inquiry.

Cautionary tale: The legacy of Tridentinosaurus antiquus

Despite the forgery, the research team found that not all was lost. The fossil’s hindlimb bones, particularly the femurs, were determined to be genuine, albeit poorly preserved.

Additionally, the team discovered the presence of tiny bony scales, or osteoderms, similar to those of crocodiles, on what is believed to be the animal’s back.

These findings provide a silver lining, offering new avenues for understanding the creature’s biology and evolution.

Co-author Prof. Evelyn Kustatscher, involved in the “Living with the supervolcano” project funded by the Autonomous Province of Bolzano, reflected on the discovery.

“The peculiar preservation of Tridentinosaurus had puzzled experts for decades. Now, it all makes sense. What it was described as carbonized skin, is just paint,” Kustatscher said.

In summary, this study serves as a testament to the power of modern analytical paleontology and rigorous scientific methods in solving long-standing mysteries.

By exposing the Tridentinosaurus antiquus fossil as a forgery, the research team has corrected a historical misconception and reinforced the importance of integrity and thoroughness in scientific exploration.

The full study was published in the journal Paleontology.


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