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Fake spider fossil passes peer review!

What lessons should be learnt?

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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!

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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.

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