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Ancient reptile fossil was forged with paint, new study says

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While researcher Valentina Rossi was studying a fossil long believed to be a 280 million-year-old outline of a novel reptile species, she noticed something odd about the reptile’s skin — it was black paint.

The fossil, which was found in 1931 in the Italian Alps, was believed to contain preserved soft tissues from the early days of the Permian period — a time before dinosaurs, when the supercontinent Pangea swarmed with bizarre and terrifying creatures. Scientists named the new species and spent years guessing which type of reptile it was. They pondered how it lived at a time when many reptile species weren’t known to exist in the area.

During her research a few years ago, however, Rossi discovered there were no soft tissues on the rock. Instead, what was believed to be the reptile’s body was mostly paint that may have been applied at some point to preserve a few bones embedded in the rock, she said. The origins of the forgery are unknown, but Rossi hopes to continue her research to learn what animal is actually preserved under the paint.

In a study published last week in the journal Paleontology, Rossi and other European researchers revealed their discovery.

“This was totally unexpected,” Rossi, the study’s lead author, told The Washington Post. “Nobody ever thought even to propose that the skin was potentially a paint.”

Around 2020, researchers started studying the history of rocks and animals in the Italian Alps. One of the lone reptile fossils from that area had been discovered about 90 years earlier by an engineer, though it’s unclear if he originally applied the paint. The reptile on the rock had a slim body that was nearly eight inches long, as well as toes, fingers and a small head.

In the mid-1900s, scientists named the reptile Tridentinosaurus antiquus. Those researchers believed the reptile’s soft tissues were coated with varnishes or lacquers — materials scientists previously used to preserve fossils. The fossil was dated to roughly 280 million years old because it was found among other rocks from that time period. It was stored at a museum in Padua, Italy, where it has remained.

Scientists debated for years to which reptile group T. antiquus belonged, but they ultimately settled on Protorosauria, an extinct group that lived during the Permian period.

Rossi said she learned about the fossil while studying geological sciences at the Sapienza University of Rome around 2010. While researchers had mentioned T. antiquus in studies, Rossi said the technology to safely examine soft tissues only became accessible in the past decade.

Using microscopes and ultraviolet light, researchers began studying the fossil near the start of 2021 in hopes of uncovering the reptile’s appearance, habitat and relatives.

“We all started this project thinking that the fossil was real,” said Rossi, a postdoctoral researcher at Ireland’s University College Cork.

But further research suggested there might not be much to study. Fossils typically are flat, researchers said, but the body of the reptile was carved into the rock. While fossils typically don’t emit colors under ultraviolet light, Rossi said the reptile’s body appeared yellow — a color often associated with paint.

After more than a year of examinations, researchers identified the material on the body as bone black paint, which is produced from charred animal bones and was used in historical paintings before the 20th century.

“I was a little bit sad,” said Rossi, 34.

While fossil misidentifications and forgeries are rare, this isn’t the first time scientists have encountered an overhyped rock.

In 2019, a fossil believed to be a new spider species was discovered to be a crayfish. In a similar incident, a fossil found in 1999 that scientists believed was an undiscovered dinosaur species was later revealed to be a combination of body parts from two known species.

Rossi doesn’t believe the reptile fossil was intentionally forged. She said someone might have tried to preserve what was left of an ancient fossil — because there were some salvageable parts.

Researchers discovered six poorly preserved hindlimb bones, as well as about a dozen tiny bony scales called osteoderms, which are similar to crocodile scales. They’re investigating what animal might have possessed those bones, and how old it might be.

Rossi still thinks they came from a reptile.

“It could be the ancestor of many, many groups of reptiles,” Rossi said. “But it would be interesting not to have just a hypothesis, but to actually have a pin of exactly where this animal is from.”

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