Listen, there’s absolutely nothing that we’d like to believe more than the idea that dinosaurs are still out there walking the earth and chomping down on suckers. There’s a reason we’ve been first in line for just about every Jurassic Park movie since the original. And that makes us easy marks for people trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Since the earliest days of paleontology, scammers and crooks have worked up fake fossils and phony finds to make a quick buck. And some of the most storied names in science have fallen for them.
Let’s open up the case files and remember eleven times scammers used prehistory to pull the wool over our eyes. From fraudulent fossils to e-mail hoaxes, these dinosaur stories are too good to be true.
Once hailed as the “biggest dinosaur in history,” it’s looking more and more like Amphicoelias fragillimus might be so small it doesn’t even exist. When a vertebral bone fragment of a massive sauropod was discovered by diggers outside of Cañon City, Colorado in the late 1800s, it was just one of many fossils from the area. But when it was catalogued by paleontologist Edward Cope, he hypothesized that it belonged to the largest reptile to ever walk the Earth, a 150-foot long beast that weighed in at over 100 tons. Only one problem, though: somewhere in transit, the bone fragment was lost and never seen again, leaving many wondering if it had ever existed at all or was simply a hoax, especially as no other bones from a creature of that size have ever been excavated.
No less an authority than National Geographic got suckered by this one. In 1999, they published an article trumpeting a fantastic fossil find in China, a flying dinosaur of a completely new type that could be the “missing link” between birds and theropod reptiles. Unfortunately, other scientists were airing doubts about the animal’s authenticity even before the magazine went to press. Upon further examination, the head and torso were found to be from a fossil bird while the tail came from a winged microraptor. Instead of the missing link, Nat Geo’s paleontologists had just put together a jigsaw puzzle out of pieces that looked like they matched. The scandal brought new attention to the problem of fossil forgery in China, so it wasn’t all bad, but the storied National Geographic certainly came out of it with a black eye.
We’ve managed to clone a few different animals, so what’s stopping us from going full Jurassic Park and pulling some fossil DNA to make new dinosaurs? In 2014 a news article started making the rounds that claimed that a British (or sometimes Chinese) university had pulled it off. The most widely spread article said that geneticists at Liverpool’s John Moore University had successfully created a baby apatosaurus in an ostrich’s womb who they’d named Spot. Unfortunately, the article used an image of a baby kangaroo, not a dinosaur, so it was pretty easy for fact checkers to punch through this one. That didn’t stop it from making the rounds through e-mail forwards from your very gullible aunt.
Paluxy River Tracks
Probably the most enduring dinosaur myth is that humans and the great beasts existed on Earth at the same time, as seen on The Flintstones and numerous low-budget caveman movies. The fossil record proves that to be false, but that doesn’t stop enterprising con men from trying to show otherwise. One of the most notorious efforts came out of the Paluxy River valley in Texas, where what looked like human footprints right alongside dinosaur ones captivated Biblical earth truthers. The Paluxy River tracks are interesting because it’s not the dinosaur ones that are questionable – rather, it’s the human footprints that are fake, in reality just heavily eroded prints left by a three-toed prehistoric lizard.
The Berlin Egg
The worldwide adoption of email has made hoaxes easier to spread than ever, and dinosaurs are a popular topic. One that made the rounds in 2014 courtesy of a site called “World News Daily Report,” which sounds trustworthy to us. In the story, a fossilized dinosaur egg at a Berlin museum was being kept in a storage room next to a heating duct, and when the air system started to malfunction it warmed it enough that it hatched. As anybody who’s kept an egg in the fridge too long knows, they sure as hell don’t last a year, let alone 200 million of them, and the newborn “gasosaurus” was just another hoax from a website famous for them.
One of the biggest problems with paleontology is that you’re always getting a partial picture. Lacking a time machine, we’ll never really know what dinosaurs looked like, so scientists sort of have to make their best guesses. When German digger Gerard Smets dug up some unusual fossils in 1888, he was certain that they came from the jaw of a previously undiscovered duck-billed dinosaur. He reconstructed what he supposed the beast looked like, but was quickly humiliated when another scientist proved that they weren’t even bones, but rather fragments of a fossilized plant.
The Cardiff Ichthyosaurus
Once a fossil gets to a museum display, it’s pretty much set for life. But when the staff at the National Museum of Wales decided to clean up an Ichthyosaurus that had been in their collection for over a hundred years, they discovered that they’d been cheated. After it was removed from the frame and examined more closely, the 200 million-year-old marine reptile was discovered to actually be two different animals fused together, with some artificial bones added to make it look more realistic. All was not lost for the museum, though, as they put the restored fossil on display as an example of Victorian-era forgery.
Here’s another dinosaur hoax that made the rounds by email a few years ago. Certainly this photo looks quite a bit like the well-preserved claw of a dinosaur – in this case, a troodon, a questionable genus of bird-like bipeds from the Cretaceous period. But although this certainly looks prehistoric, it’s not – it’s actually the preserved foot of a moa, a flightless bird native to New Zealand that went extinct around 1300 BC after humans made their way to the islands and ate them. The foot in question is on display at the Natural History Museum of London.
The piecemeal nature of fossil finds creates an environment where enterprising hoaxsters can certainly bend the rules a little bit to make impressive “finds.” One of the most notorious is Hydrarchos, a massive sea serpent dinosaur discovered by Albert Koch in the mid-1800s. On display at the Apollo Saloon in New York City, this great beast stretched 114 feet long and was quickly sold to King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, who exhibited it in Berlin’s Royal Anatomical Museum. Unfortunately for the King, the swimming serpent was actually a jigsaw puzzle of bones harvested from at least six prehistoric Basilosaurus whales, along with some ammonite fossils thrown in for decoration. Amazingly enough, even after the first fraud was discovered Koch tried to manufacture and sell another Hyrdrarchos skeleton!
Beringer’s Lying Stones
One of the most famous fossil frauds of all time had its genesis in a cruel prank played on a trusting professor by his colleagues. Professor Johann Bartholomeus Adam Beringer, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Würzburg, loved to explore Mt. Eibelstadt hunting for fossils. A group of fellow instructors carved a number of false ones from limestone and planted them for him to find, and he took them so seriously that he published an entire book on them, even as the hoaxers frantically tried to convince him they were fake without revealing their part in the deception. When the truth came out, it destroyed Beringer’s academic reputation as well as the careers of the men who had carved the fake fossils.