A fossil that has baffled scientists for decades has been unmasked as a partial fake, according to a new study. The fossil, known as Tridentinosaurus antiquus, was discovered in the Italian Alps in 1931 and was considered a crucial specimen for understanding the evolution of early reptiles.

Initially, it was believed that the fossil showed preserved soft tissues, which led to its classification as a type of reptile called a protorosaur. However, new research published in the journal Palaeontology reveals that the soft tissues are actually black paint on a rock surface carved in the shape of a lizard.

Fossilized soft tissues are rare, but when found, they can provide valuable biological information, said Dr. Valentina Rossi, lead researcher on the study from University College Cork in Ireland. The answer to all our questions was right in front of us: we had to study this fossil in detail to reveal its secrets.

Microscopic analysis showed that the texture and composition of the material did not match those of authentic fossilized soft tissues. Further investigation with ultraviolet photography revealed that the entire specimen had been treated with a coating material.

The findings suggest that the body outline of Tridentinosaurus antiquus was artificially created, probably to enhance its appearance. This deception led previous researchers to get it wrong, so caution is now cautioned when using this specimen in future studies.

The peculiar preservation of Tridentinosaurus had puzzled experts for decades, said co-author Professor Evelyn Kustatscher. Now, it all makes sense. What was described as charred skin is just paint.

All is not lost, however. The hindlimb bones, particularly the femurs, appear to be authentic, although poorly preserved.

In addition, new analyses have revealed the presence of small bony scales called osteoderms, similar to crocodile scales, on what may have been the animal’s back.

This study is an example of how rigorous scientific methods and modern analytical paleontology can solve long-standing paleontological enigmas.


University College Cork | Rossi, V., Bernardi, M., Fornasiero, M., Nestola, F., Unitt, R., Castelli, S. and Kustatscher, E. (2024), Forged soft tissues revealed in the oldest fossil reptile from the early Permian of the Alps. Palaeontology, 67: e12690. doi.org/10.1111/pala.12690

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