Feathered Dinosaur Exhibit Raises Doubts
Can you trust those fossils on display in your local museum, the ones showing “Feathered Dinosaurs and the Origin of Flight”? No less than the respected journal Nature1 is concerned they may have been gathered and sold illegally, and are no more trustworthy than the 1999 Archaeoraptor hoax that embarrassed National Geographic magazine.
The same Utah fossil collectors who sold Archaeoraptor to the world press, Stephen and Sylvia Czerkas, now have a traveling exhibit of presumed feathered dinosaur fossils beginning to make the rounds at American museums. The exhibit is currently in a seven-month run at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Other museums, however, like the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, do not want to be involved with questionable specimens, despite Czerkas’ claim that they were obtained legally.
Nature’s concern is concentrated on whether the fossils were smuggled illegally out of China, and that exhibiting them promotes trafficking in illegal specimens. They mention that Archaeoraptor turned out to be a “forged composite from different species … put together in China to resemble a ‘missing link’ between dinosaurs and birds,” but failed to ask whether any of the current Czerkas specimens might be forgeries.
1Rex Dalton, “Feathered fossils cause a flap in museums,” Nature 429, 5 (06 May 2004); doi:10.1038/429005a.
Here are all the enticements necessary for hoaxers: money, fame, and gullible customers. Chinese fossil scavengers know that unusual fossils that look like missing links bring a much higher price on the black market than “more of the same.” There is the lust for fame to be the first to discover a missing link. And there is a scientific clientele convinced that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Add to that the fact that many of these specimens arrived in the west without documentation as to their location and context, and would you believe the exhibit signs?
Both Archaeoraptor and Piltdown Man were good enough to fool the experts. Nature and Science and other reputable journals have already featured artwork of feathered dinosaurs on their covers. It is only a thin ethical line and the memory of past embarrassment that prevents them from jumping for joy over these fossils. Extra caution is certainly in order. These should be considered fakes until proven otherwise. Paleontologists need to consider only specimens found in situ, excavated with full disclosure under carefully-monitored, rigorously followed standard procedures.
We think the Czerkas fossils should be exhibited – in the art museum. “Why look, darling; the detail is wonderful, the colors and textures are magnificent. What an exquisite forgery. The compositing is so fine it is nearly imperceptible. Bravo. It looks so stunning next to the portrait of the red-faced National Geographic editor.”