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The Dinosaur that Fooled the World
First shown: BBC Two 9.00pm Thursday 21 February 2002

Scans reveal how the fossil was glued together Click for programme summary
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Transcript

NARRATOR (DILLY BARLOW): When this small and broken fossil first appeared it was hailed as one of the most important finds of the decade.

PETE LARSON (Fossil dealer): It's very, very hard to describe that feeling of discovery. It's, it's like walking to the top of Mount Everest.

NARRATOR: Scientists said it was the missing link that supported one of the most controversial theories in modern palaeontology.

LEWIS SIMONS (Journalist): This is enormous. I mean for anybody who has devoted their, their life to this science it's hard to imagine anything that could be more important.

NARRATOR: Yet when they examined it they found, buried within it, something they had never expected.

BILL ALLEN (Editor, National Geographic Magazine): My first reaction was not necessarily disbelief, but... Wait a minute. It was disbelief, it was total disbelief.

NARRATOR: This is the story of a mysterious fossil that fooled some of the best scientific brains in the world. In Spring 1999 a small wooden box arrived in America. It came in as hand baggage labelled fragile after a six thousand mile journey from China. Inside was a new and unknown fossil. It was destined for one of the biggest and most important fossil fairs in the world. Here thousands of fossils go on display. Most are bought and sold by local dealers and small, private collectors, but the new Chinese specimen was different. It was headed for a quiet and exclusive part of the fair, a small, private room on an upper floor away from the public gaze. Only a few privileged dealers with big money to spend would be invited to see it. One of them was Florence McGovern.

FLORENCE McGOVERN (Fossil dealer): We worked with a network of people and within that network there are fossils that are shared, behind closed doors often, because they're very special fossils.

PETE LARSON: As soon as I came in the door he said Pete, you've got to see something, I've got something really special to show you and he opened up the drawer and he pulled out the most unbelievable fossil that I've ever seen.

FLORENCE McGOVERN: I carried it out to the, the light of, of the sunlight so that I could see it cross lit and there were a number of beautiful teeth in this skull and that was very exciting and then we studied also the tail that was a dinosaur, very dinosaur-like tail.

PETE LARSON: I got this incredible high feeling like climbing to the top of Mount Everest. It is the, the feeling of discovery, that wonderful time when everything clicks into position.

NARRATOR: Both McGovern and Larson thought they could be looking at one of the most important fossils ever found, a specimen that would prove, beyond doubt, one of the most controversial theories in all of evolution: that dinosaurs had evolved into birds. The idea that something as graceful and slight as a bird could have come from a dinosaur is one of the most extraordinary ideas in evolution. Dinosaurs didn't have feathers, they didn't have wings and they couldn't fly. The theory goes back to the mid-1800s when Thomas Huxley, one of Darwin's most fervent disciples, examined a strange looking fossil called Archaeopteryx. It looked to him like a dinosaur, but it had one feature never seen on a dinosaur before: feathers.

DR PHILIP CURRIE (Royal Tyrell Museum, Canada): Clearly looking at the skeleton we have a dinosaur. it had a long tail, it had teeth in the jaws, it had three clawed fingers, it had three toes. The only thing that identified it as a bird were the feathers.

NARRATOR: But this was good enough for Huxley. Basing his ideas heavily on the existence of the feathers, he argued that Archaeopteryx was a half bird, half dinosaur. He then advanced an extraordinary theory: birds must have evolved from dinosaurs. To many in the field it seemed to show one of the great wonders of evolution.

PHILIP CURRIE: As far as I'm concerned Archaeopteryx is one of the most important scientific discoveries ever made. When it was discovered it was quite clear right from the beginning that you had this combination of characters and it showed a bridge between birds and dinosaurs.

NARRATOR: Yet the theory is very controversial and many scientists think Huxley simply got it wrong. One of them is leading bird palaeontologist Professor Larry Martin.

PROF LARRY MARTIN (University of Kansas): The evidence for bird dinosaurs and this just isn't my conclusion alone. There are a number of people, in fact almost all the people who work on fossil birds agree with me, is that when we look at these characters closely we find the evidence that birds are related to dinosaurs is not very solid. It's sort of like someone should say that you or I are related because my big toe looks a little bit like your nose.

NARRATOR: The objectors returned again and again to the same point: how could such a huge, lumbering creature as a dinosaur have ever sprouted wings and taken to the air? Huxley's supporters needed to answer two critical questions. First, how could a dinosaur have started to fly, but above all they needed to find what palaeontologists call a transitional form, a fossil that is half bird, half dinosaur and which shows the process of change from one into the other actually taking place. It's become one of the most sought after fossils in palaeontology. At the fossil fair Pete Larson couldn't believe his luck. It looked as though he was holding the very fossil palaeontologists had been hoping to find for so long.

PETE LARSON: This fossil, this clearly cross between a bird and a dinosaur, was, was what everybody had been looking for and here it was, right there, right in front of my eyes and I was one of the first people to see it. I looked it over very carefully, literally under a magnifying glass, and I was looking for any telltale features, particularly on the tail. I wanted to look at that tail very carefully because it was clearly, clearly a dinosaur tail.

NARRATOR: In front of him, scarcely visible among the fractures in the rock, was an animal nobody had ever seen before. It had the unmistakeable head and body of a primitive bird, it had bird-like legs and what looked like feathers, but it had a very clear dinosaur-like tail. Here was the transitional animal, half bird, half dinosaur, palaeontologists had been searching for for 150 years. It sold for $80,000. Within weeks news of the new fossil reached Washington and the offices of the National Geographic Society. It's one of the most venerable and influential learned societies in America. Its magazine is the most widely read educational journal in the world. A new evolutionary missing link was just the sort of story it specialises in.

BILL ALLEN: Dinosaurs themselves are inherently interesting to almost everyone from whether you're four years old, or 104 years old and anything that, that promises to have such an interest as gee whiz, you mean crows in my backyard may be a direct descendant of dinosaurs. Well of course that's something that people are going to be interested in.

NARRATOR: The magazine was already planning an article on the evolution of birds. Now it had a major scoop. The new fossil provided fresh and powerful evidence which would turn the story into a ground breaking report.

LEWIS SIMONS: As more and more information came in about this specimen and, and people began to recognise that this might indeed be the missing link and a very important element in the history of palaeontology, in the history of the world, there was a great deal of excitement.

LEWIS SIMONS: This is enormous. I mean for anybody who has devoted their, their life to this science it's hard to imagine anything that could be more important.

NARRATOR: But excitement was not enough. If the fossil really did answer one of the biggest riddles in evolution the magazine had to be 100% sure of its facts.

BILL ALLEN: It's not all that unusual for us to go to extraordinary lengths to verify things that we have in the magazine, but when there is something that is also has the potential of being such a ground-breaking fossil you want to make sure, so you try and get the best people that you can and have, have the work done.

NARRATOR: The magazine agreed to fund the scientific analysis of the fossil in return for exclusive press coverage. It turned to some of the best people in the business. The fossil was about to undergo the most thorough investigation modern science could throw at it. Dr Philip Currie is one of the world's top palaeontologists. He's spent a lifetime scouring remote corners of the world in search of dinosaur remains. For him the new fossil promised the end of a lifelong search for Huxley's missing link and the opportunity to learn more about one of the most intriguing groups of animals ever to roam the earth.

PHILIP CURRIE: People like dinosaurs. I mean you get fascinated by them when you're very young, you think they're wonderful animals. Kids I think love dinosaurs because they represent so many superlatives. They're the biggest animals, the heaviest animals, the most bizarre animals and they ruled the world for so long.

NARRATOR: Currie now became the most influential member of the investigative team. Every fossil find is normally accompanied by a set of explanatory notes listing where and how it was collected, information which will help date and authenticate it, but the new fossil had none of this.

PHILIP CURRIE: The scientific process includes not just the collection of specimens, but also the collection of data and that data collection is very, very important to scientists. Sometimes the data is more important than the specimen itself, so when you acquire a specimen where you don't have information on who collected it, where it was collected exactly, how it was collected, there's no photographs, there's no field sketches, then you have to be a little bit more suspicious.

NARRATOR: Without the usual background notes this was going to be an unusually difficult specimen to interpret. All they had to go on was the fossil itself. To make it easier to see specialists were employed to cut away the background rock and expose the skeleton. Currie needed to know the shape and size of the bones and how they all fitted together. Only then would it be possible to judge what sort of animal this really was.

PHILIP CURRIE: We felt that we had to know what was going on and so we examined all the different pieces of the specimen to see how they went together and whether in fact we had contact between the front and the back of each bone.

NARRATOR: The work was made more difficult because the fossil had been badly fractured when it was taken out of the earth. The examination took several months, but as they slowly peeled away the surrounding rock the ghost of the pieces of the skeleton began to emerge. There was a bird-like head, the body and arms were also unmistakeably those of a bird, but the legs looked as though they belonged to a dinosaur-like creature and the bones of the tail were fused together to form the short, rigid tail typical of a ground living dinosaur. Their best guess suggested it was a bird-like creature from the pelvis up and a dinosaur from the pelvis down. They called it Archaeoraptor, or ancient hunter. In Washington the deadline for the article was approaching, yet with the scientists still uncertain exactly how the different parts of the skeleton fitted together National Geographic agreed to fund further research.

LEWIS SIMONS: I can tell you as, as a journalist who's done other stories for the magazine that the, the fact checking at National Geographic is absolutely the most rigorous I've ever been put through. They go to the most extraordinary lengths to check out the authenticity of virtually every word that appears in the magazine.

NARRATOR: With only weeks before publication, the Archaeoraptor was booked in for one of the most sophisticated examinations currently available to palaeontology. In August 1999 it arrived at the CAT scan laboratory of the University of Texas. It's arguably the best equipped palaeontology laboratory in the world. Here equipment used for probing the human body has been adapted for use on fossils. It's run by Professor Tim Rowe who has built a pioneering reputation for his work. The technology allows him to build a digital model of a fossil so that each and every bone can be clearly seen.

PROF TIM ROWE (University of Texas): It's as if you had a loaf of bread and you stacked the loaf of bread up and one by one by one you were slicing it up, so we can see the specimen from inside out as if we'd physically cut it open, but the process is entirely non-destructive.

NARRATOR: The first thing Rowe produced was an overall image of the fossil, a hazy ghost-like picture. He then digitally enhanced it so that the skeleton was clearly visible.

TIM ROWE: What we have here is a very interesting specimen. Here's the skull. This is the tip of the snout here and the brain case is here and the skull is twisted back in a rigor mortis posture. This means is that the top is here, the bottom is here and here is the neck. It's twisted back in this characteristic death posture that many fossils exhibit and it's lying on its back with one arm over itself, the other arm off to the side. Here's the shoulder, here's the elbow, here's the wrist. The wrist is cocked, looks like this animal had wings and yet we see a little, tiny claw on the end of this finger. Very strange thing to see in a bird. Here's the thigh bone, the knee, there's the shin, here's the ankle, here's the foot and the various toes have slightly come apart down here and then finally juxtaposed against that is this tail unlike any other bird tail, tail that had only been seen in a non-flying dinosaur. That was startling, it was very unusual to see this combination of characters and we wondered well, what's going on here.

NARRATOR: Rowe was keen to find out more about this curious creature, but the investigation, as far as National Geographic was concerned, suggested the Archaeoraptor was everything that was claimed for it. In Autumn 1999 National Geographic published its article in a blaze of publicity.

BILL ALLEN: The fossil of Archaeoraptor found its way from China to Utah and fortunately it did end up in the care of people whose knowledge of dinosaurs helped them quickly realise what a find it is. It is a true missing link between dinosaurs and birds that could fly.

LEWIS SIMONS: Here was the missing link. There's, there's no better term for it. This was going to, to rewrite palaeontology, was going to rewrite history, it was going to, it was going to say to the few sceptics out there that all your doubt about birds evolving from land-bound dinosaurs are now worth nothing.

NARRATOR: A 150 year old riddle seemed to have been solved. Yet on the other side of the world something even more extraordinary was about to unfold. Xu Xing is a Chinese palaeontologist who specialises in dinosaurs. He'd been at the National Geographic press conference in America and been fascinated by what he saw.

XU XING (Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology, Beijing): When I came back from the US I was very excited because I'd seen an important fossil that had come from China. It was a very significant specimen and I wanted to know a lot more about it.

NARRATOR: Xu Xing knew that if he could find another specimen he might be able to learn more about this mysterious creature. It had come from the Liaoning region in Northern China, one of the richest fossil areas in the world. The rock here is formed by layers of volcanic ash which over 130 million years ago buried a wetland that had teemed with wildlife. It's created perfect conditions for preserving even the most delicate creatures.

XU XING: We've discovered a huge number of fossils: dinosaurs, birds and others. They are very common in Liaoning province. They are all fantastically well preserved. Some have got skin on them still. In some cases even the intestines and internal organs have been preserved. These are incredibly precious and rare specimens, saved by the unique nature of the rock here. There are a large number of them.

NARRATOR: Xu Xing now began to search the area. It's peppered with dig sites. The search dragged on for two months. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack, but nobody had seen anything like the Archaeoraptor. One of the best sources of information is local farmers who are paid by China's geological institutions to spend up to six months of the year digging and sifting rock.

XU XING: I contacted farmers and asked if they'd seen anything with the body of a bird and a tail of a dinosaur. A lot of them have got private stores of fossils and I thought maybe we'll be lucky and somebody will have something similar.

NARRATOR: But again nobody had seen anything. Xu Xing kept moving. He even scoured some of the disused dig sites. The search was going nowhere, but then he got a message.

XU XING: I heard from a farmer that he'd found something similar to Archaeoraptor, so I went to his house. It was very exciting.

NARRATOR: Life in the region's villages is harsh and many farmers don't just dig for fossils, they've become amateur dealers. They've been responsible for bringing to light a number of important finds. Xu Xing was directed to a small house. Here, in a dark room, on a pile of wooden boxes, the farmer had laid out a small and cracked specimen. There was no head and upper body and yet it seemed to look similar to the Archaeoraptor. As far as he could see with the naked eye it had the same dinosaur-like tail. He could just about make out the trace of a feather. It looked very promising, but it would need more detailed examination. Back in Beijing Xu Xing headed for his laboratory. Here he compared his new find with photographs of the Archaeoraptor specimen in America. The more he looked, the more the two specimens looked alike. The new fossil was very incomplete, but what there was suggested he really had found another Archaeoraptor.

XU XING: This is a picture of the Archaeoraptor. When I compared it with the tail of the new fossil they were a very similar length. The new fossil had a slightly longer tail than the Archaeoraptor's, but we knew something was missing from it. When you allow for this the tails looked very similar.

NARRATOR: In fact the tails were virtually identical except for the missing piece from the National Geographic specimen. The more he looked the more uncanny the match appeared to be.

XU XING: There is a crack along the tail of the new fossil. You can see that there is a very similar crack along the Archaeoraptor's tail.

NARRATOR: The crack ran beside both tails in exactly the same place and for exactly the same distance. It was even the same width. There was something else, too.

XU XING: Both the slabs have also got an identical yellow dotted line running beside the tail.

NARRATOR: It was the same yellow stain on both fossils and it was in the same place. Xu Xing realised he'd almost certainly stumbled on something much more than mere coincidence. The rock in this region of China is made up of hundreds of layers of tightly compressed sediment. As it's dug up it splits apart. When this happens fossils trapped in the sediment can split down the middle, some bones sticking to one side of the fracture, some to the other. Some even split in half attaching to both sides of the fracture. The two pieces are known as the slab and the counterslab of the fossil.

XU XING: There are a series of small and even holes along the two sides of the tail. Some are concave, some are convex. They are the results of the rock splitting in two and if you put them together you will find they are a perfect match.

NARRATOR: It seemed an extraordinary piece of luck. The two tails didn't just look the same, they were the same. It was one tail split down the middle.

XU XING: The evidence was overwhelming. I was now 100% sure that the two tails had come from the same fossil.

NARRATOR: By an almost unbelievable coincidence Xu Xing had found not another Archaeoraptor, but the counterslab of the National Geographic specimen. Yet as he moved up from the tail to the pelvic region there was something very mysterious. The pelvises of the two fossils should have been identical, but they were completely different. The Archaeoraptor's was small and damaged. The new fossil's was large and intact and showed two hind legs which were very different from the Archaeoraptor's. It made no sense. He compared them again. The photos of the Archaeoraptor showed a clear fracture between the tail and the pelvis which didn't exist on the new fossil. As Xu Xing studied the two specimens an awful realisation dawned on him. There could only be one explanation. Somebody had glued a different head and upper body onto the tail of the National Geographic specimen. It was a fake. Xu Xing emailed National Geographic in Washington.

XU XING: I'm very sorry to tell you that I am now 100% certain that the fossil you have is a composite made from more than one specimen.

NARRATOR: The news of the fake came as a thunderbolt to National Geographic. Could it be that the most popular educational magazine in the world had got its facts wrong? The magazine had never faced such humiliation in its 113 year history.

BILL ALLEN: My first reaction was not necessarily disbelief, but... Wait a minute. It was disbelief, it was total disbelief.

LEWIS SIMONS: Allen was beside himself. He was furious, he was livid, he was hurt, he was angry in ways that, that are almost unimaginable because it wasn't as though they just buried this somewhere in the back of the publication. It was a big, important story and now he's been told you've been had.

NARRATOR: Allen's first instinct was to question whether Xu Xing could possibly be right. How could the magazine, after so much costly checking by some of the best brains in the business, have made such a mistake? He asked the magazine's advisers to urgently recheck their research. At the University of Texas Tim Rowe had continued to examine his data. The fossil had always puzzled him and the CAT scan had thrown up some serious questions about how the fossil fitted together.

TIM ROWE: I'm going to show you two slices. The first is this slice here through the skull and these other elements here and the second slice would be back through the ankle and through the tail, through this critical region here, through one of the legs and when we go to these slices here's what we see. Here's the skull and you can see the skull is part of this upper layer of shale and with this you can see the fracture pattern here. Here's a very tight fractures that fit together, here a pair of curved fractures, one fitting against the next. A straight fracture, the pieces on either side are the same thickness, they're the same density, but when we get out here to the very edge of the block this piece is a little bit thicker than the piece it's glued against. It's also a little denser than the piece it's glued against. Now as we move down to the tail, to the critical area, we can see that it's completely surrounded by grout and that there are no natural ties between the tail piece and this piece to the right or this piece to the left. In fact it's just swimming in this ocean of grout here and as we map through the entire specimen we found that there were no verifiable fits between the tail and any of the other parts anywhere else in the specimen.

NARRATOR: The scan clearly showed what the naked eye couldn't see. There was no natural skeletal link between the all important tail and the rest of the fossil. It had simply been glued on with grout. Rowe says that he'd long suspected the fossil was a fake, but for reasons that are not clear to this day, the message had never got through to National Geographic. Rowe now put all his data together. It wasn't just the tail that had been tacked on to the fossil.

TIM ROWE: We saw that the thigh bone had been glued in. Then the two shin bones, or the tibias, had been glued in and as we looked at these more carefully we could see that one was a slab and the other was the counterslab of the same specimen. It was a single, it was a single leg bone that had been split and both halves had been glued in to make it look as though right and lefts were naturally present and the same was also true of the feet. The feet are mirror images of one another. They'd been split and glued in. It's a single foot, but it had been glued in to make it look as if it were right and left feet and there was a boundary almost like the San Andreas Fault line running through this specimen where pieces that fit very tightly together were juxtaposed against pieces that didn't fit very well together.

NARRATOR: Scientists now constructed a model of how the fake had been put together. The head and upper body were from an unknown bird-like creature. The tail came from a small, unidentified dinosaur and the shin bones were almost certainly from yet another animal, again unidentified, and the feet were probably from a fourth. The scans had confirmed Xu Xing's finding. The Archaeoraptor was indeed a fake. Across America National Geographic faced a very public barrage of embarrassing headlines. The magazine blamed its advisers for letting it down.

BILL ALLEN: It's a question of betrayed trust in many ways. When you have scientists who are considered the best in the world in their field, you work with them in a collegial fashion you expect straight answers. We had had no indication of any problem from the scanning. We'd had no indication of any problem from anyone who had looked at the preparation and we had no indication of any problem from the scientists that we were relying on as well.

NARRATOR: Currie remembers things slightly differently.

PHILIP CURRIE: Clearly there was a bit of a problem with communication where we were saying things that weren't always picked up and yet we thought they were being picked up.

NARRATOR: But one thing Currie did make clear was his regret at ever getting involved in the project.

BILL ALLEN: Phil Currie wrote me a personal; letter of apology and said this was the worst mistake of his career.

LEWIS SIMONS: Everybody involved was, was trying to make up for mistakes, to shift blame and, and to, to make themselves look as good as possible under a very uncomfortable and disconcerting set of circumstances. In the end, as far as I'm concerned, nobody looked good.

NARRATOR: The scientists faced a double embarrassment. The fake had thrown into question the whole idea of a relationship between birds and dinosaurs. An important evolutionary theory had been rocked to its core.

PHILIP CURRIE: The whole debate about the origin of birds from dinosaurs has reached monumental levels in recent years and the amount of publicity for it has been quite amazing and I think that when this mistake, so called mistake, was realised of course people who didn't want birds to come from dinosaurs were able to exploit that and say they'd finally got victory.

LARRY MARTIN: The effect of Archaeoraptor has largely been just simply to demonstrate that people that believe strongly in an idea can be easily fooled and as a result of that it becomes far more credible that they have made a lot of mistakes. That has a huge effect on the credibility of people who say that birds are dinosaurs.

NARRATOR: One of the grandest theories in evolution was firmly back in the file marked 'unsolved'. Questions like how dinosaurs had evolved into creatures that could fly seemed as unanswerable as ever, but the story was about to take another new turn. In the aftermath it became clear that the Liaoning region of China is not just famous for its fabulous fossils. It's also home to a highly developed faking industry. Dr Zhonge Zhou, a scientist at Beijing's Institute of Palaeontology, has been monitoring it.

DR ZHONGE ZHOU (Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology, Beijing): Farmers or dealers can make a much bigger profit if they've got the fossil of a complete animal. They take a damaged specimen and add the parts from other animals to make a new one which looks complete. In one place I saw them putting all the bits from a dinosaur's leg into a box, just like a box of machine spare parts so that they could add them to different fossils.

NARRATOR: A whole fossil, even one put together from different creatures, sells for far more than a genuine but damaged specimen.

ZHONGE ZHOU: A damaged fossil might sell for a few hundred yuan, but when broken bits are used to make a complete one it can sell for several thousand.

NARRATOR: It was from these murky origins that the Archaeoraptor had emerged. Somewhere an expert had put together a fake that had fooled the world. Rowe believes it could only have been made by a mastermind who knew exactly what he was doing.

TIM ROWE: I don't believe this was built by a, a humble Chinese farmer, I believe that this passed through hands of someone in a very privileged scientific position. The specimen was glued together in such a way that there are no duplications of parts and it's done in a very convincing way, so this is a person that has anatomical knowledge and that knew how to build a skeleton that looked like a real skeleton, so it's someone that has an academic background and that knew how to construct a clever transitional form.

NARRATOR: It was a complex and clever fraud, but in his urge to make a quick profit the faker, for all his skill, had completely missed the real value of what he had. In Beijing Xu Xing had begun to examine the counterslab of the National Geographic specimen's tail. He was curious to know what he'd got. It was incomplete and damaged, but he could clearly see the short, rigid tail of a dinosaur, but there was something very surprising. The remains of the pelvis suggested it was the smallest dinosaur ever found. Even more unusually, it showed signs of having the feathers of a bird and the light and spindly legs suggested a creature adapted to climbing and perching rather than running along the ground. To Xu Xing this looked like the first dinosaur ever found that could live in trees.

XU XING: This is the original artist's impression based on the initial research. You can see this was a dinosaur with a very small bird-like body, but there's also something else very important about the skeleton. The hind legs suggests that this may have been a dinosaur that lived in trees.

NARRATOR: This was a new and completely unknown creature and contained within it evolutionary data never found before. Here was an animal that had evolved into something more like a bird than any dinosaur previously known about.

XU XING: The interesting thing is that this fossil is not only the closest to a bird-dinosaur ever found, it also provides the first fossil evidence that some dinosaurs may have lived in trees.

NARRATOR: It even seemed to offer a clue to one of the most difficult questions thrown up by the bird-dinosaur theory: how had dinosaurs turned into creatures that could fly? If they had lived in trees then it wasn't such a big evolutionary hop to developing a mechanism for flight. Xu Xing's specimen had a number of very significant indicators which marked it as a missing link between dinosaurs and birds. It may turn out to be one of the most significant finds of recent years. In America, something equally astonishing was coming to light. The other half of the fake fossil was throwing up more fascinating and unexpected results. As Tim Rowe studied the head and body he could see that it was clearly the skeleton of a bird.

TIM ROWE: These bones all go together. This is a natural, verifiable new skeleton. It's a unique combination of characters with a big breast bone, a big wishbone, a flight capable wing and yet it retains claws and moving up to the skull up here we find that it still has teeth.

NARRATOR: This was an extraordinary combination of features. Birds don't have teeth or hands, yet this creature had the hands of a dinosaur and the wings of a bird. It also had the teeth of a dinosaur but the beak of a bird. It was another brand new animal scientists had never heard of or seen before.

TIM ROWE: This was the most powerful flyer ever found in early Cretaceous rocks and yet this is an animal that had teeth. Interesting combination of characters that we'd never seen before in a bird, so it was startling, it was, it was interesting to see these strange combinations of characters and it's, it's possible that this could have been a transitional form.

NARRATOR: In other words the head and upper body of the forged fossil was another remarkable specimen. Extraordinarily here was another creature in transition between dinosaurs and birds, a second link in the chain between the two species.

TIM ROWE: We haven't found anything like this yet. It shows us the antiquity of the modern flight device. I, I predict that this specimen will play an important role in understanding the history of modern birds.

NARRATOR: The fake fossil was a commercial fraud but a scientific goldmine. The upper portion was a bird with dinosaur features and the tail was a dinosaur with bird-like characteristics. It was not one, but two creatures showing all the evolutionary characteristics of a missing link.

TIM ROWE: Both of these specimens are scientifically significant and they were nearly lost to science and two scientifically significant specimens were combined into one deceptive whole in the favour of the greater commercial value of that whole.

NARRATOR: It may be that we really can now say that dinosaurs evolved into birds and that one of the most important theories in evolution has finally been proved. If that's true it radically alters our perception of the fate of the dinosaur family.

PHILIP CURRIE: What it means is that dinosaurs in the end were not failures. Dinosaurs were animals that did give rise to another group of animals: birds. They're still incredibly successful animals today and in fact under modern biological or palaeontological classification we would consider birds as part of the dinosauria.

NARRATOR: The faked fossil sold in 1999 for $80,000. It seemed at the time an enormous sum of money. Today it's back in China and valued at over $1m. A fossil that once fooled the world is now helping science unravel one of the biggest mysteries in evolution.

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