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Education Reporter

Crying Fowl:
       Tale of 'Missing Link' Embarrasses Scientists

Last year, the National Geographic Society came across what it believed was a major scientific discovery - the fossil of a birdlike creature with the tail of a meat-eating dinosaur. Dubbed "archaeoraptor," the fossil was smuggled from the remote Liaoning Province of China to the United States, where, according to an article in USA Today (2-01-00), it was originally purchased by an anonymous collector at a gem show in Arizona.

Evolutionists are divided in their opinions of how modern birds evolved. One theory holds that birds evolved from dinosaurs, a notion popularized by the blockbuster Hollywood film Jurassic Park. The theory held by many ornithologists, however, is that birds evolved independently of dinosaurs, though both had "a common ancestor that lived in trees."

In its zeal to find the "missing link" between birds and dinosaurs, the National Geographic Society jumped on the "discovery" of "archaeoraptor." Without obtaining independent scientific corroboration that the find was genuine, Geographic guarded its secret until the fossil was "unveiled" last October. An article in the November National Geographic magazine titled "Feathers for T-Rex?" promoted archaeoraptor as the "missing link" between dinosaurs and birds.

The fossil was displayed at the National Geographic Society's Explorers Hall in Washington, DC, and viewed by 110,000 visitors from October through January, most of them schoolchildren. USA Today noted that, "Whether a deliberate fake or an honest mistake, [this] tale of a tail has children believing in feathered dinosaurs that never existed . . . . "

Meanwhile, scientists including Storrs Olson, the curator of birds at the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of Natural History, tried to persuade Geographic that the fossil could be a fake. Olson's warning fell on deaf ears, primarily because of his contrary beliefs about the evolution of birds.

The hoax was finally uncovered when Geographic circulated clear pictures of the fossil at a meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Scientists for the first time got a good look at the fossil material. What they saw was a composite; an alleged 120-million year old fossil with a tail that had been attached shortly before its departure from China.

Chinese paleontologist Xing Xu, a member of Geographic's scientific team, discovered in December that the dinosaur fossil was a composite, but the magazine story had already been published. Critics told USA Today that the team was so convinced of the fossil's importance that it "jumped the gun" with the National Geographic article.

USA Today also reported that Chinese scientists have discovered a second embarrassing forgery. An enterprising Chinese farmer added a tail to the fossil of a flying pterosaur. That forgery managed to fool a group of scientists, along with the editors of the British journal Nature. Last April, Nature published a paper about the find, which came from the same fossil area as archaeoraptor. The farmer added the tail from his "yard collection" before selling the fossil to a Chinese museum.

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