Volume 10, No. 5 - July/August 2000
IN NOVEMBER 1999, National Geographic hailed a 125-million-year-old fossil as the long-sought missing link between birds and dinosaurs. The specimen "takes my breath away," enthused the magazine's writer. "Its long arms and small body scream 'Bird!' Its long, stiff tail...screams 'Dinosaur!'" Archaeoraptor liaoningensis, he argued, was the most stunning of several recent finds from China's Liaoning Province, and the creature's remains helped confirm the disputed theory that birds evolved from the meat-eating branch of the dinosaur family.
As it turned out, the writer's sense of amazement was all too appropriate. Though he didn't know it at the time, he was in fact examining at least two distinct fossils: a bird and a dino. Someone -- possibly an indigent Chinese farmer trying to make a buck -- had glued a dromaeosaur's tail to the body of a primitive winged animal. And somehow, prominent paleontologists and science journalists fell for it.
The brief, unhappy flight of Archaeoraptor began in February 1999, when Stephen Czerkas, an amateur paleontologist who runs the Dinosaur Museum in Blanding, Utah, spent eighty thousand dollars at a mineral and fossil show in Tucson, Arizona. Czerkas bought what he thought was an important specimen. Shortly thereafter, he asked Philip Currie, a curator at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Alberta, Canada, to assist him in writing a paper on it. Currie agreed. A regular source for National Geographic, Currie also passed along word of the discovery to the magazine.
In the summer, Czerkas and Currie invited two others to join their project: Tim Rowe, a professor of geological science at the University of Texas at Austin, and Xu Xing, a Chinese paleontologist.
Here accounts begin to diverge. Rowe, who today blames Czerkas for "the sordid affair," ran CAT scans on the fossil in his laboratory. He says the scans clearly showed that the specimen was compromised. Czerkas, however, says that Rowe's account is an unseemly display of twenty-twenty hindsight. It was evident even to the naked eye that several parts of the fossil did not fit together cleanly, Czerkas grants. But he argues that pieces of a fossil are often unearthed separately and mounted together later.
Rowe also insists that Czerkas failed to tell him that he had bought the fossil at a commercial show -- an important fact, because it meant that the specimen had almost certainly been removed from China illegally. Czerkas says he has a paper trail showing that the fossil was acquired in an aboveboard manner.
In mid-August a National Geographic spokeswoman contacted the editors of the leading science journal Nature. According to e-mail saved by a participant in the controversy, she asked if Nature would speed up the peer review on a paper about Archaeoraptor (which the authors had not yet submitted) so that National Geographic could write on the discovery. Annoyed at the presumption, Nature rebuffed the spokeswoman.
Czerkas, Rowe, Xu, and Currie then submitted their paper to Science, whose two reviewers were singularly unimpressed. One pointed out that Archaeoraptor was very likely a black-market specimen and, noting the fault lines, raised the possibility that the dinosaur-like tail did not belong with the birdlike body. Czerkas scrambled to find a last-minute publisher -- to no avail.
At this point, National Geographic's editors knew the paper had been rejected, but they did not know the substance of the reviewers' reports, and they elected to keep Archaeoraptor in their article "Feathers for T. Rex?" The piece described Archaeoraptor and three other fossils recently discovered in China and Mongolia. "We can now say that birds are theropods [meat- eating dinosaurs]," the magazine crowed, "just as confidently as we say that humans are mammals." (At the same time, the magazine did recquire Czerkas to return the specimen to Chinese authorities, which he did in April.)
Even before rumors about the fossil's authenticity began to circulate, "Feathers for T. Rex?" caused near aneurysms in the small group of scientists who insist that birds are evolutionarily distinct from dinosaurs. Storrs Olson, the curator of birds at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, fired off a letter to the magazine characterizing its piece as "sensationalistic, unsubstantiated, tabloid journalism." He also blasted the editors for featuring an "illicit" fossil and noted that they had committed a taxonomic faux pas by bestowing a scientific name on a creature in a journalistic forum. (This wasn't the first time National Geographic had angered Olson's camp. After the magazine put a feathered dino on its June 1998 cover, Alan Feduccia, a professor of biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, threw away three decades' worth of National Geographics he had stored in his house.)
It was in December that the fossil discovery crumbled into pieces. After several months of sleuth work, Xu Xing sent back word from China that Archaeoraptor was a faked specimen. The evidence was plain: In a private collection, he had found the dinosaur fossil from which the tail had been taken.
The magazine's critics pounced on the revelation. Olson, for instance, says National Geographic's dogmatism on the bird-dinosaur question has derailed the publication's otherwise cautious editorial system. The magazine's editors "are very much to blame," he says. "They created the climate for this to happen."
In fact, the editors were none too happy. In early January, National Geographic's editor in chief, Bill Allen, sent an e-mail to the scientists involved saying that their "concealment of information" had been "so outrageous as to leave me enraged and virtually speechless." On February 17, Nature called the case "the classic example of the danger to science of amateurs dealing in smuggled specimens." Na tional Geographic defended itself aggressively, arguing that it had made the best possible decisions with the information it had. In early April, the magazine convened a panel of experts to examine the evidence, which confirmed that the specimen was "a composite." The magazine plans to present an account of what happened -- including the committee's conclusions -- in its October issue.
In retrospect, everyone seems to have assumed that someone else had checked what needed checking. Rowe says the only reason he got involved with such a shady fossil was that "it came to us with the National Geographic Society's backing." Meanwhile, Chris Sloan, who wrote the story for the magazine, says, "We really put our trust in the expertise of the scientists examining the specimen."
Amid the furor, it's easy to miss that the system worked, at least as far as the scientific journals go. Na tional Geographic may have dinosaur egg on its face, but peer review kept the Pilt - down chicken out of Science. In some quarters, however, the creature christened by National Geographic is not likely to go away anytime soon. Creationist Web sites, like www.answersingenesis.org, have covered every twist in the controversy -- gleefully holding up Archaeoraptor as evidence that all of modern paleontology is a chimera.
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