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Tail of confusion

It is a tale of a small fossil found in China. It is also a tale of secrecy and egotism, of human error, stubbornness, backbiting, lying, corruption, and, most of all, abysmal communication. So concluded journalist Lewis M Simons at the end of his investigation into how the respectable National Geographic magazine got itself in a very unrespectable mess.

The 125-million-year-old fossil that caused all the problems was called Archaeoraptor liaoningensis Sloan. For the poor farmer who dug it out of a shale pit in 1997, it represented a good day's work and one he could sell to a fossil dealer for a few dollars.

Two years later those few dollars turned into $80,000 when a couple of American enthusiasts bought Archaeoraptor at a mineral fair in Tucsan. For them, the fossil, which had feather marks, a beak and a tail, was a missing piece of the evolutionary chain that linked birds to dinosaurs. Proving the connection would mean that those terrible lizards were not all extinct.

Some had merely changed shape and were perched in our garden trees today.

The couple contacted a well-known Canadian palaeontologist to ask for help writing a paper about the dino-bird. He in turn contacted his mate on the National Geographic and the magazine decided to run a story about the find.

The palaeontologist and at least two other experts brought in to examine the fossil all subsequently turned out to have had serious misgivings. But for reasons largely of cock-up (along the lines of "I thought someone else would" or "It wasn't my job") no one actually mentioned them to the poor guy writing the story.

So, in November 1999, the National Geographic published "Feathers For T Rex?", an article claiming to have found "a true missing link in the complex chain that connects dinosaurs to birds".

Two months later, it was discovered that the Chinese farmer had not stopped digging after his first discovery. A few yards away he had found another fossil, this one minus feathers but with a tail. When he got home he had simply glued the dino-tail on to the bird-bodyI and thereby hangs the story.

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