Fake spider fossil passes peer review!

What lessons should be learnt?


Published: 23 April 2020 (GMT+10)
Palaeoentomology, 2019Fake_spider
Photograph and line-drawing of the fossil ‘spider’, Mongolarachne chaoyangensis

At a first glance it looks like a very cool, exceptionally preserved fossilised spider, and that’s what you are meant to think. Unfortunately, despite being published in a peer reviewed secular journal as a fossil spider, it most definitely is not.

Published in Acta Geologica Sinica1 the research team examined it under a microscope, described it in detail, photographed it and drew a diagram of what they thought was a large netted spider. Due to a number of features, including longer legs than other spiders in its supposed genus, the researchers named the new species Mongolarachne chaoyangensis. While the paper gave no details of how the fossil was obtained, they stated it was from the Liaoning Province of China.

The fake discovered!


Thankfully, the ‘spidey senses’ of invertebrate paleontologist Paul Selden of the University of Kansas, started tingling when he saw a picture of the fossil. Selden explained,

“The paper had very few details, so my colleagues in Beijing borrowed the specimen from the people in the Southern University, and I got to look at it. Immediately, I realised there was something wrong with it – it clearly wasn’t a spider. It was missing various parts, had too many segments in its six legs, and huge eyes.”2

Helped by a friend, he discovered that crayfish are found in the same formation that the spider allegedly came from. Selden said,

“I realised what happened … was I got a very badly preserved crayfish onto which someone had painted on some legs.”2

The crayfish was tentatively identified as a Cricoidoscelosus aethus.3

Benefit of the doubt?

However, Paul Seldon did not criticise the team that published the fossil spider. Instead he proposed that,

“These things are dug up by local farmers mostly, and they see what money they can get for them. They obviously picked up this thing and thought, ‘Well, you know, it looks a bit like a spider.’ And so, they thought they’d paint on some legs – but it’s done rather skilfully. So, at first glance, or from a distance, it looks pretty good. It’s not until you get down to the microscope and look in detail that you realise there are clearly things wrong with it. And, of course, the people who described it are perfectly good palaeontologists – they’re just not experts on spiders.”2

However, his well-intended explanation (defence?) is unconvincing. The original paper specifically states that it was examined under an Olympus SZX12 dissecting microscope, and the technical language used clearly shows that the scientists had a good understanding of spider anatomy (unless they were faking it!) so they should have been able to identify the fake. Interestingly Seldon was himself presented with a modified spider fossil earlier in his own career, “Cretadiplura ceara … from the Cretaceous Crato Formation of Brazil, in which additional portions of the right walking legs were added using wax crayon”.4

Fakes all too common!

One important point that this discovery raises is the staggering quantity of fake fossils that have been created in the past and are still being produced. While there are the well-known historic Piltdown Man (1912) and more recent Archaeoraptor (1999) hoaxes, there are many for sale and on display in museums that will never be exposed. Selden was reported as saying:

“I’ve seen lots of forgeries, and in fact I’ve even been taken in by fossils in a very dark room in Brazil. It looks interesting until you get to it in the daylight the next day and realise it’s been enhanced, let’s say, for sale. I have not seen it with Chinese invertebrates before. It’s very common with, you know, really expensive dinosaurs and that sort of stuff… They’re not necessarily going to be bought by scientists, but by tourists.”2

A staggering report by Science (2010) also found that, “One paleontologist estimates that more than 80% of marine reptile specimens now on display in Chinese museums have been, ‘altered or artificially combined to varying degrees’.”5 There are also numerous websites highlighting that:

“… over the last three decades, a thriving side-industry has grown up around trilobites – one where craftsmen often working in rural outposts in far-away lands, basically manufacture their own ‘brand’ of fossils from glue, plastic, rubber … or just about any other reliably pliable compound on which they can lay their artistically inclined hands. Such practices have become an accepted part of some trilobite transactions, especially those stemming from the paleontological hotbed of Morocco”.6

The above information gives cause for concern in the fossil industry. It is a timely reminder to be careful!

This latest fake fossil gives us the opportunity to highlight some useful teaching points:

Palaeoentomology, 2019crayfish
Specimen of Cricoidoscelosus aethus (slab and counterslab) from the YixianFormation preserved in a similar manner to the proven fraud, Mongolarachne chaoyangensis.
  • The peer review process is not foolproof, even when it comes to the simple description and classification of a fossil, never mind the evolutionary worldview that is then normally imposed on top of it.
  • People rarely get to examine fossils first hand. The vast majority of people will never get to examine any of the fossils described in scientific journals, never mind the more controversial reports which push popular evolutionary ideas, such as the popular idea that certain theropod dinosaurs had feathers and evolved into birds.
  • If it seems too good to be true, be cautious. Discovering a large, perfectly preserved fossil spider would be a great find. However, possibly, had more care been taken in the initial examination, the fake legs would have been identified and the research team would not have ended up with egg on their face.
  • Palaeontologists are obviously knowledgeable regarding fossils but they are just ordinary people like the rest of us, subject to prejudices and prone to mistakes. People in every scientific field (indeed, every walk of life) are keen to publish their work and describe something new—and in this particular area, they’re also keen to have the opportunity to name a new species. Sometimes in an effort to do so, they can be too quick to overlook any problems with the original material.

Worldviews matter

Fake fossils are certainly a problem for people wanting to purchase fossils, but even more so for researchers who are looking to study, categorise, and explain fossils within their worldview. Fossils are, and will continue to be, an important weapon in promoting both the evolutionary and biblical creation worldviews. Evolutionists are constantly looking for ‘missing links’ to promote the worldview of evolution and deep time. And biblical creationists will go on pointing to the fact that the production of well-preserved fossils requires their rapid deposition in sediment, which is totally consistent with the conditions found in the Noahic Flood.

Thankfully, Mongolarachne chaoyangensis was identified as a totally bogus arachnid; it just turned out to be a ‘coy’ crayfish underneath. If this fossil’s forgers had read the Bible they would have known that, “be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23).

References and notes

  1. Xiaodong, G., et al., A new species of Mongolarachnidae from the Yixian Formation of Western Liaoning, China, Acta Geologica Sinica 93(1):227–228, 2019. Return to text.
  2. Star, M., A fossil spider discovery just turned out to be a crayfish with some legs painted on, sciencealert.com, 20 December 2019. Return to text.
  3. Seldon, P.A., et al., The supposed giant spider Mongolarachne chaoyangensis, from the Cretaceous Yixian Formation of China, is a crayfish. Palaeoentomology 002(5):515–522, 2019. Return to text.
  4. Seldon, P.A., Casado, F. Da C., Mesquita, M. V., Mygalomorph spiders (Araneae: Dipluridae) from the Lower Cretaceous Crato lagerstätte, Araripe Basin, north-east Brazil, Palaeontology 49(4): 817–826, 2006. Return to text.
  5. Stone, R., Altering the Past: China’s Faked Fossils Problem, Science 330(6012): 1740–1741, 24 December 2010 | doi:10.1126/science.330.6012.1740. Return to text.
  6. American Museum of Natural History, Fake Trilobites, amnh.org, accessed 13 January 2020. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

The Fossil Record
by John D Morris, Frank J Sherwin
US $20.00
Hard Cover
Exploring Geology with Mr Hibb
by Michael Oard, Tara Wolfe, Chris Turbuck
US $16.00
Hard Cover

Readers’ comments

John S.
I wonder if spiders got on the ark on their own and that is why they are the most numerous species on earth.
Andrew J.
The turnaround in the case of this forged spider fossil was less than a year between the forgery being published as authentic, and being discovered and re-published as a forgery. Didn't the Museum of the Bible take longer than that to realize that its supposed Dead Sea Scrolls were forgeries?

I just don't see how it's so bad for scientists to make a mistake, and then quickly retract it once they figure out they were wrong. Instead of covering it up, they published a retraction as soon as they could demonstrate that it was a fake. Shouldn't everybody be held to such high standards?
Philip Robinson
There are a number of differences between this example and the Museum of the Bible Dead Sea Scrolls. In this example it was not the original team that published on the spider that discovered it was a fake, although they very clearly should have known that from their own examination and never published on it on the first place. They also chose not to include where the fossil was found, and under what conditions, nor how the spider fossil was obtained by them. Despite this it still made its way through the peer review process and was published. Only because another expert viewed the spider image, and then was allowed to study it for themselves, was the fraud exposed. If this had not been the case it could have remained in the scientific literature indefinitely. To date I am unable to find any retraction in the original journal, Acta Geologica Sinica, highlighting that it is a fake. If you look at the references you will observe that the fake was outed in a different journal.

With the Dead Sea Scroll fragments that were purchased for the Museum of the Bible the sellers were identified (one known for selling genuine Dead Sea Scrolls fragments in the past), and once any whiff of forgery was suspected they were sent off for examination, which concluded that they were fake. The Museum of the Bible also made sure that this was then made public knowledge. Of course as even National Geographic pointed out, "The new findings don’t cast doubt on the 100,000 real Dead Sea Scroll fragments".

"Shouldn't everybody be held to such high standards?" - Yes, absolutely. There should be no deception, no fraud, and no lies. That is why we look to the ultimate truth - Jesus Christ!
Hattie G.
I just makes you wonder how many false claims have scientists made?
Caleb W.
Interesting write-up; I hadn't heard this story. It seems all too common for researchers, when taking on something outside their area of expertise, to just do a few google searches on the group, read a few related papers, then act like experts by masking it in a bunch of technical language. Perhaps something like that happened here.

It does seem that the frequency of reports like this might begin to cast doubt on some of the "feathered dinosaur" discoveries from the same area. Many of them are probably legitimate, but it tends to make me a bit skeptical. It would be nice if creationists could examine the fossils, but that doesn't seem likely in the foreseeable future, so we really *have* to assume that the fossils are real unless proven a forgery. ...

While this discovery really can't be touted as evidence against evolution, it does cast some reasonable doubt on other Liaoning specimens. Creationists especially should be carefully watching for possible frauds while pointing people to the truth of God's Word.
Vincenzo R.
Interesting, but the trustworthiness of the journal must also be considered. I don't believe this is a reputable journal at all. Would this happen on a high-standard reputable journal?
Philip Bell
True of many journals, but in this case Acta Geologica Sinica is published by the Geological Society of China so no less reputable than others of its kind. Journals are rated by their 'impact factor' within academic circles. This Chinese journal has an impact factor of 2.5 (for the most recent figures I could find) which is comparable to other leading Western geological journals; the leading journal in this field is Geology with an impact factor of 5.0. For single discipline journals, the impact factor of even the leading ones is much less than multidisciplinary ones; that is an IF of 2.5 is decent enough. So, for instance, the 2018 impact factors for three world-leading journals are:
Nature: 43.070, Science: 41.037, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: 9.580.
Hugh B.
With the knowledge that China is flooding the world with fake ... fossils, I would imagine any claims coming from China would be [treated as] highly skeptical and scrutinized. Satan is the father of lies, and loves to try to make forgeries out of the miracles of God, so is it any wonder that people who have been deceived by his lies would also adapt such tactics? ...
Philip Bell
Indeed, sadly there seems to be a trade in fraudulent fossil material from parts of China, some of which CMI has commented on before, such as the now-infamous Archaeoraptor—Phony ‘feathered’ fossil.

An excerpt of a book by John Pickrell, in Scientific Am:erican talks of a: "a growing and serious problem of fraudulent fossils being produced on an industrial scale in China."

See: How fake fossils pervert paleontology: A nebulous trade in forged and illegal fossils is an ever-growing headache for paleontologists, scientificamerican.com, 15 November 2014; excerpted and adapted from: Pickrell, J., Flying Dinosaurs: How Fearsome Reptiles Became Birds, Columbia University Press, 16 September 2014.

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