TRANSITIONING

BY ROD GRAY

Archaeoraptor, by Rod Gray, 2015.

Archaeoraptor, by Rod Gray, 2015.

The infamous Archaeoraptor fossil was revealed to the world in the esteemed popular science journal National Geographic in 1999, in a scoop that quickly turned into a debacle. It is a case study in how layers of expectation and hope can too easily lead to us to believe a fake is real.

The specimen was apparently found by a farmer in Liaoning province, China, in the late 1990s, and subsequently sold (via a dealer) to a small American museum in Utah. About the size of a turkey, Archaeoraptor appeared to possess the tail of a dinosaur and the shoulders and chest of a bird. Could this be more longed-for evidence of the evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds? Ever since the discovery of Archaeopteryx in 1861, two years after Darwin published Origin of the Species, scientists have searched for further such transitional fossils. [1]

The Archaeoraptor promised to be just such a fossil. So, rather than await the (yawn) boring, drawn-out peer-review process that verifies and agrees on the nomenclature for new species, the owners of the fossil and the publishers of National Geographic all worked to rush the exciting find to press. 

However, they quickly had to retract their claims, as doubts about the authenticity of the fossil were raised. In 2000 the magazine published its own investigative report detailing how the hoax evolved, [2] and in 2001 a study published in Nature found that the fossil was a forgery, assembled from at least two (possibly five) separate specimens. 

What motivated the publishers, other than scoop-mania? There had been so many published descriptions and artists' impressions of what a transitional specimen might look like that it was really just a matter of time before someone made one to order, so to speak. The scale of this particular episode was driven by the imaginative need we have to link intriguing unknowns with established scientific phenomena, but science and imagination are often uncomfortable cohabitants. 

When I first thought about painting this piece, I went straight to my first experience of an artist’s impression of a proposed transitional species. When I was growing up, obsessed with dinosaurs, my favourite books to borrow from the library were a series on prehistoric life, written and illustrated by the inspired pairing of Czech palaeontologist and educator ZV Spinar and artist Zdenek Burian. I have combined Burian’s image of the Proavis, a 'proposed species' flying over a ‘proposed’ active volcano, created from my imagination.

Rod Gray is a Melbourne artist. 

  1. Archaeopteryx is a genus of bird-like dinosaurs, transitional between non-avian feathered dinosaurs and modern birds, similar in size to a magpie or raven.
  2. See ‘Archaeoraptor Fossil Trail’, by Lewis M Simons, National Geographic, October 2000. Available online on the Cornell University website.

Next: A cryptozoologist's diary

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