• View of the cast of Tyranausaurus Rex at the Royal Tyrell Museum in Alberta, Canada. (Photo: Pierre Camateros/Wikimedia Commons)

Most of us are pretty aware of the existence of geological fakes and frauds even if we don’t call them that. These are hoaxes that are undertaken or uncovered using geological materials or common earth science procedures. Things like forged art, salted mine claims, and fake fossils (salting a mine means to make it appear more valuable to potential investors by planting bits of gold, for example).

According to a recent paper in the journal Earth-Science Reviews, the earliest examples of geological fraud occurred in 4000 BC when fake stones were created by melting silt.

More interesting is the 1725 case involving two researchers carving the shapes of lizards, spiders and Hebrew symbols into pieces of limestone trying to deceive an arrogant colleague. They succeeded in the deception, but when the truth came out, all three careers were ruined.

A more recent example involved what was thought to be the missing link between birds and dinosaurs. The fossil was found in China and ended up in the United States in the hands of a dinosaur artist working with National Geographic. The specimen, it turned out, was in fact an amalgamation of two different ones.

Why create a fake?

The most obvious reason to create a fake or fraud is the potential to make money.

But rivalry, career advancement, or the desire to make an idea seem more credible, are other significant reasons to create fakes, according to the paper.

How do you know if it’s a fake fossil?

“First there would have to be some sort of suspicion that something wasn’t what it was,” says Tim Tokaryk, curator of paleontology at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum. “Some of it is just intuition and some of it is based on because the fossil is so unusual in terms of its preservation or occurrence that one would have make doubly sure that it is what it is.”

How do you investigate it?

“Once the Spidey senses are up, there are several methods of inquiry,” says Tokaryk.

One way is to compare the chemical composition of the fossil and any sediment on it to the sediment in the area it came from. Another is to use high-resolution microscopes or even a CT scanner to investigate whether a fossil is partly forged.

“If it was fake in part, one could then see if there’s any structural differences either in the sediment or in the fossil that is not continuous throughout the entire fossil,” says Tokaryk.

Practical jokes

While Tokaryk has never encountered a serious incident comparable to those discussed in the paper involving a geological fake, he has fallen prey to a friendly prank.

“The only ‘fake’ I have been presented with occurred many years ago when I was working with colleagues in east-central Saskatchewan, on the hunt for early birds,” he says.

One day while he was digging along a riverbank he came across the remains of a bird that he says was “colossal by standards that had been found.”

“Grimey, wet, mud-caked, I quickly bagged the specimen and handed it to one of my colleagues,” he says. “Once in a while that afternoon they would snicker as I orated the possibilities of this new discovery, trying to work out what it could mean; a flying toothed bird of this size? Unheard of.”

Later that day Tokaryk was handed back the “specimen,” it was tagged as “Carrot River, kentuckyfriedensis.”

“I realized I had been duped. My colleagues had picked up a chicken bone from the farm yard we pass through every day, colored it black, like the fossils we were discovering, using a Sharpie pen, rolled it in the blackened clays nearby, and planted it in the spot I had been working in. Never intending it to go further than that, I had been, as what is today called, punked,” he says.

The entire prank, he adds, has been faithfully recorded on video.

It’s not all fun and games

On a more serious note, “paleontologists and those that collect fossils for various reasons are human, working in a social structure that tickles our vanity or potentially rewards us monetarily. It would be surprising if someone doesn't try to fake a fossil discovery again,” says Tokaryk.

These fakes can have significant consequences, both academic and economic, as many of the examples in Geological fakes and frauds demonstrate.

But in the end, science and technique trump all.

“Today, by examining the sediments and samples utilizing mass spectrometers and other high-end techniques and tools it does become more difficult to fool the specialist.”