F Rosa Rubicondior: How Science Works - Correcting Earlier Mistakes With Modern Technology

Tuesday 20 February 2024

How Science Works - Correcting Earlier Mistakes With Modern Technology

Latest News and Views from University College Cork (Coláiste na hOllscoile Corcaigh)

There are few things that creationist like more than reports of 'soft' tissues being found in ancient fossils, because they imagine this 'proves' the fossils are much younger than palaeontologists claim, and places them well within the 10,000 years they believe Earth has existed for. It's nonsense, of course, because fossilised 'soft' tissues are not the same as actual soft tissues since, under the right circumstances, there is nothing to prevent soft tissue being mineralised by the same processes that hard tissues are mineralised. The results are not soft; they are hard, mineralised fossils. The term 'soft tissue' simply relates to what they started out as, not what they ended up as.

That point is probably too subtle for most creationists to appreciate.

Given the propensity of creationist frauds to misrepresent the science to their dupes, it's perhaps surprising that they don't wave the fossil of Tridentinosaurus antiquus. as 'proof' of a young Earth because it was believed to have its skin preserved and was thought by some to be an example of the rare preservation of soft tissue in a fossil.

However, a paper in Palaeontology a few days ago, not only destroys that notion, but shows how the scientific method eventually corrects mistakes and even deliberate hoaxes, in much the same way that the scientific method eventually exposed the Piltdown hoax as a forgery.

This paper shows that what was interpreted as fossilised skin was actually black paint. Whether this was a deliberate attempt to mislead or simply an attempt to make the fossil stand out from the surrounding rock matrix in which it is embedded may never be known, but one thing of which we can be sure, is that it isn't fossilised skin, so there is no mystery for science too explain.

The fossil is embedded in volcanic rock, so the 'mystery' was how the skin survived the high temperatures involved in the production of the rock, and various theories were proposed for this, including the lizard-like reptile sheltering in a crack in the rock.

How the 'forgery' was exposed is the subject of the paper in Paleontology and a news release from the University of Cork, Ireland:
A 280-million-year-old fossil that has baffled researchers for decades has been shown to be, in part, a forgery following new examination of the remnants.

The discovery has led the team led by Dr Valentina Rossi of University College Cork, Ireland (UCC) to urge caution in how the fossil is used in future research.

Tridentinosaurus antiquus was discovered in the Italian alps in 1931 and was thought to be an important specimen for understanding early reptile evolution.

Its body outline, appearing dark against the surrounding rock, was initially interpreted as preserved soft tissues. This led to its classification as a member of the reptile group Protorosauria.

However, this new research, published in the scientific journal Palaeontology, reveals that the fossil renowned for its remarkable preservation is mostly just black paint on a carved lizard-shaped rock surface.

The purported fossilised skin had been celebrated in articles and books but never studied in detail. The somewhat strange preservation of the fossil had left many experts uncertain about what group of reptiles this strange lizard-like animal belonged to and more generally its geological history.

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

Dr Valentina Rossi, lead author
School of Biology, Earth and Environmental Sciences
University College Cork, Cork, Ireland.
The microscopic analysis showed that the texture and composition of the material did not match that of genuine fossilised soft tissues.

Preliminary investigation using UV photography revealed that the entirety of the specimen was treated with some sort of coating material. Coating fossils with varnishes and/or lacquers was the norm in the past and sometimes is still necessary to preserve a fossil specimen in museum cabinets and exhibits. The team was hoping that beneath the coating layer, the original soft tissues were still in good condition to extract meaningful palaeobiological information.

The findings indicate that the body outline of Tridentinosaurus antiquus was artificially created, likely to enhance the appearance of the fossil. This deception misled previous researchers, and now caution is being urged when using this specimen in future studies.

The team behind this research includes contributors based in Italy at the University of Padua, Museum of Nature South Tyrol, and the Museo delle Scienze in Trento.

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.

Professor Evelyn Kustatscher, co-author
Museum of Nature South Tyrol, Bolzano, Italy.
However all not all is lost, and the fossil is not a complete fake. The bones of the hindlimbs, in particular, the femurs seem genuine, although poorly preserved. Moreover, the new analyses have shown the presence of tiny bony scales called osteoderms - like the scales of crocodiles - on what perhaps was the back of the animal.

This study is an example of how modern analytical palaeontology and rigorous scientific methods can resolve an almost century-old palaeontological enigma.
So there is little for creationists to celebrate here, because they still have 280-million-year-old fossil to explain on a planet they believe is just 10,000 years old, and as it is embedded in rocks of volcanic origin, you can be sure that U-Pb dating of zircon crystals was involved in determining its age.

More technical detail and background is given in the team's paper on Palaeontology:

Tridentinosaurus antiquus represents one of the oldest fossil reptiles and one of the very few skeletal specimens with evidence of soft tissue preservation from the Cisuralian (Early Permian) of the Italian Alps. The preservation and appearance of the fossil have puzzled palaeontologists for decades and its taphonomy and phylogenetic position have remained unresolved. We reanalysed T. antiquus using ultraviolet light (UV), 3D surface modelling, scanning electron microscopy coupled with energy dispersive spectroscopy (SEM-EDS), micro x-ray diffraction (μ-XRD), Raman and attenuated total reflectance Fourier transformed infrared (ATR-FTIR) spectroscopy to determine the origin of the body outline and test whether this represents the remains of organically preserved soft tissues which in turn could reveal important anatomical details about this enigmatic protorosaur. The results reveal, however, that the material forming the body outline is not fossilized soft tissues but a manufactured pigment indicating that the body outline is a forgery. Our discovery poses new questions about the validity of this enigmatic taxon.

The study of the evolution of reptiles is a prominent research field in palaeontology, but the diversity of early reptile-like animals is still poorly understood. The onset of reptiles occurred at the transition from the Carboniferous to the Permian with fossil localities occurring all around the world. In the Alps, Permian fossiliferous sites yield mostly trackways (Leonardi et al. 1974; Conti et al. 1975, 1977; Ceoloni et al. 1988; Bernardi et al. 2017a, 2017.1b) (e.g. in Italian literature Val Gardena Sandstone, in German literature Gröden Formation) and very rare body fossils (i.e. skeletons). A small lizard-like reptile with a slender body, relatively long neck and pentadactyl limbs, however, was found in Trentino-Alto Adige in 1931 in a fine-grained layer of tuffaceous sandstone (estimated age Cisuralian; 298–273 Ma) and was given the name Tridentinosaurus antiquus (Leonardi 1959). Tridentinosaurus antiquus (Fig. 1A) was officially described by Leonardi (1959) as an exceptionally preserved fossil showing a dark-coloured body outline associated with an articulated skeleton contrasting with the surrounding pale-pink coloured tuffaceous sandstone. The body outline was interpreted as the remains of soft tissues preserved via ‘carbonization’ (i.e. organic preservation of soft tissues). Although the overall shape of the fossil is clearly visible, the skeletal elements are not. The long bones of the hindlimbs (i.e. femurs, tibiae and fibulae) are poorly preserved, barely visible on the surface of the rock and no other skeletal elements are recognizable (notably, the skull bones are missing). The description of the taxon and its assignation first to the Araeoscelidae (Leonardi 1959) and then to the polyphyletic group Protorosauria (Dalla Vecchia 1997) were based exclusively on the gross morphology of the body given by the visible dark-coloured body outline. Despite this, the taxon has been reported in other studies (Ronchi et al. 2011; Spindler et al. 2018, 2019) as an exceptionally preserved key specimen for understanding the diversity of early Permian fauna. However, T. antiquus has never been analysed in detail using modern analytical techniques, and its taphonomy and phylogenetic position are unknown. Organically preserved soft tissues can reveal biological information about ancient animals (Vinther 2015; Gabbott et al. 2016; McNamara et al. 2016.1a; Spindler et al. 2018; Manning et al. 2019.1; Rossi et al. 2022; Slater et al. 2023), including phylogenetic affinities (Clements et al. 2016.2; Miyashita et al. 2019.2; Rogers et al. 2019.3), and provide important insights into the taphonomic processes that occurred during fossilization. They are thus important to better constrain the diagenetic history of a fossil (Ma et al. 2015.1; McNamara et al. 2016.3b; Rossi et al. 2020; Rogers et al. 2021).
Tridentinosaurus antiquus. A, photograph of the specimen, including sampling locations S0–S12 and SX (matrix). B, map of the topography of the surface of the specimen, highlighting the superficial topography. C, UV photograph showing that the fluorescence of the whole specimen. D, enlargement of the shoulder region, outlined on A. E, enlargement of the pelvic girdle region, outlined on A. Scale bars represent: 20 mm (A); 5 mm (D); 3 mm (E).
Here, we focus on characterizing the soft tissues via a multi-technique approach using ultraviolet light (UV), 3D surface modelling, scanning electron microscopy coupled with energy dispersive spectroscopy (SEM-EDS), micro x-ray diffraction (μ-XRD), micro-Raman and attenuated total reflectance Fourier transformed infrared (ATR-FTIR) spectroscopy to study the preservation of the body outline at the physical and chemical level. We tested the initial hypothesis (Leonardi 1959) that the body outline represents the remains of organically preserved integument and potentially other soft tissues.


The fossil was collected from near the ‘Stramaiolo’ (Redebus) locality in the Pinè Valley. Here, a several-metre-thick fine-grained pyroclastic succession, part of the Regnana Formation, lies stratigraphically below the Ora Formation (Marocchi et al. 2008; Morelli et al. 2012). The Regnana Formation is generally characterized by a dome of andesitic lava flows (Abbà et al. 2018.1) but locally, distally deposited pyroclastic intercalations are present. The entire succession is part of the southern margin of the Athesian Volcanic Complex (Morelli et al. 2012). From the same geographical area where the T. antiquus was recovered, fossil plant material comprising large shoot and leaf fragments possibly preserved coalified were also reported (Leonardi 1959). The fossil is hypothesized to be late Kungurian in age, since the overlaying Ora Formation has been dated to 274.1 ± 1.6 Ma (Marocchi et al. 2008; Morelli et al. 2012).
Fig. 2
SEM-EDS analysis of samples from the body outline. A–C, micrographs of sample S4. D–F, micrographs of sample S9. G–H, backscatter image of polished surface of sample S8. I, elemental maps of part of the area shown in H for C, Si, Ca and P. All samples show a microgranular texture and absence of typical soft tissue ultrastructure. Scale bars represent: 50 μm (A, D, E); 20 μm (C, H); 5 μm (B, F); 100 μm (G).
Fig. 3
SEM-EDS analysis of thin section of sample S9. A, photograph of sample S9; dashed line represents layers of dark coloured matter forming the ‘body outline’. B, backscattered image of sample S9 showing the irregular thickness and microgranular texture of the ‘body outline’ layer. C, detailed image of the superficial dark-coloured layer, with associated elemental maps of C, Si, Ca, P and Na. D, close-up of the superficial layer with associated elemental maps of C, Si, Ca, P and Na. Scale bars represent: 100 μm (A); 10 μm (C); 5 μm (D).
Fig. 4
Micro-Raman and ATR-FTIR spectroscopy of sample from the abdomen. A, SEM backscatter image of a thin section of sample S8. B, Raman map of the same sample in A showing the presence of mineral crystals from the sediment that are covered by a layer comprising a C-rich compound; * denotes points where single spectra where acquired. C, Raman spectra of unknown compound and apatite. D, ATR-FTIR spectra of samples from the abdomen and rock matrix. Scale bars represent: 100 μm (A); 50 μm (B).

My suspicion is that the only reason to paint a line around the fossil embedded in the rock matrix is not to forge fossilised soft tissue, but simply to make the body of the fossil stand out more clearly from the rock. What would have been the purpose of forging fossilised skin in the 1930s, unless they were trying to discredit Darwinian evolution, and then do it in such a crude fashion?

Then future generations of palaeontologists have assumed that the black outline was fossilised skin and tried to explain how it could have been preserved in pyroclastic rock which would have been expected to burn it away, leaving not so much as carbon residue. Of course, we can now never know the reason the outline was painted in black paint, but we can know that it was, so there is no mystery of 'preserved skin' to explain.

There is still the fact that the rest of the fossil of the lizard-like reptile is embedded in volcanic rocks which can be accurately dated to 280 million years before creationists believe Earth was created. This isn't a problem for science; it is, however a big problem for creationism, since it tells any sane adult that Earth must have originated long before 280 million years for a species as complex as Tridentinosaurus antiquus to have evolved on it.

But no doubt, creationist frauds will ignore the latter, and the fact that it was scientists using the scientific method who discovered the mistake, in their eagerness to present this as evidence that scientists falsify their findings - unless of course they seem to agree with creationism, then they are brilliant scientists who have 'proved' the Bible is the word of an omniscient god, regardless of any protestations that they have done no such thing.

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