Paleontologist Paul Selden at the University of Kansas is the Sherlock Holmes of fossils. Selden's sleuthing unmasked a major fossil fake when he determined a giant spider was actually a doctored crayfish.
The Dalian Natural History Museum in China purchased the "spider" from a local who unearthed it, then published a description of the creature as a new species called Mongolarachne chaoyangensis. The strange fossil was not only huge. Its legs, eyes and body segments didn't look quite right.
Selden's colleagues in Beijing arranged for the paleontologist to take a closer look. "I realized what happened was I got a very badly preserved crayfish onto which someone had painted on some legs," Selden said in a release from the University of Kansas on Thursday.
Selden and a team of scientists published the story of how they uncovered the truth in the journal Palaeoentomolgy with this matter-of-fact title: "The supposed giant spider Mongolarachne chaoyangensis, from the Cretaceous Yixian Formation of China, is a crayfish."
The Kansas researchers used an imaging technique called fluorescence microscopy to determine which parts were actual fossil and which parts were paint.
The paint job on the fossil was reasonably well done. Selden said this sort of falsification of fossils is done to make money, but that it's rare for a fake to end up in an academic journal.
"The people who described it are perfectly good paleontologists, they're just not experts on spiders," he said. "So, they were taken in."