The Famous Fossils Scientists Got Incredibly Wrong

Cortez Deacetis

We sort of take for granted the depictions of prehistoric beasties illustrated in the guides of our childhood. But piecing alongside one another Earth’s murky previous is a lot harder than it seems.


Scientists have to count on fragmentary bones, weathered footprints, impressions in rock – these will not always seize the wonderful particulars of the complex, residing, respiration animal that passed by or died there.

From time to time, although accomplishing this painstaking perform, scientists get it erroneous. And not just a little incorrect! Below are some of our favourite fossil flubs, and what we have realized from correcting them.

The snake lizard with four properly ordinary legs

tetrapodophis limbsTetrapodophis’ small very little ft. (Ghedoghedo/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.)

Tetrapodophis amplectus, unveiled in 2015, was a paleontological marvel. A fossil from 110 million yrs ago, the sinuous skeleton was, scientists mentioned, some thing lengthy-sought. The snake-like overall body experienced four little legs, marking the 1st discovery of the missing backlink among snakes and lizards.

It was named appropriately and celebrated, but not everybody was certain. Before in 2021, a distinct workforce of paleontologists discovered the fruits of their long labor re-examining the remains: Tetrapodophis was no snake at all, but a member of an extinct genus of marine lizard named Dolichosaurus.

We assume there is likely to be some discussion about the fossil, but both way, it has something to train us. It is really exceptionally well preserved, and may possibly but reveal something new about dolichosaurs, whose fossil document is patchy and sparse.

Hallucigenia’s head

hallucigenia fossilHallucigenia, the suitable way around. (Caron et al., Proc. Royal Soc. B, 2013)

All through the Cambrian period, from about 541 to 485 million many years in the past, the animals that roamed the Earth have been pretty distinct from the lifetime we see currently. Some quite strange creatures without a doubt could be observed on the seafloor. We know about them for the reason that their continues to be were pressed in lake sediment that later hardened into shale, preserving enigmatic imprints that paleontologists later on tried to interpret.

One particular of these was Hallucigenia, so named simply because it seemed like, nicely, a hallucination. It experienced at the very least 7 pairs of rigid spikes on its again, 7 pairs of weirdly floppy ‘legs’, and what appeared to be a huge, bulbous head at a person stop.


Lots of fossils ended up discovered devoid of this head, which baffled experts. Why have been so quite a few Hallucigenia getting decapitated?

Then, a re-evaluation of the fossil unveiled a thing truly very amusing: tooth. And eyes. On the conclusion we thought was its butt. Which intended that what we imagined was its head had been the contents of its guts, squeezed out as the animal was compressed in the sediment.

The good information is that sorting out Hallucigenia‘s ass from its noggin meant scientists could lastly classify it as a lobopodian, the group that gave increase to velvet worms, arthropods, and our beloved tardigrades.

Dickinsonia: animal, vegetable, fungus?

dickinsonia fossilsDickinsonia fossils from Australia. (College of Oregon)

Dickinsonia has had a single very long identity disaster because it was 1st described in 1947. It hails from the Ediacaran era, prior to the Cambrian, ahead of the emergence of the main phyla we know currently. The Ediacaran biota had been primarily smooth-bodied organisms, and very few of them resemble any residing or extinct organism. So they’ve been extremely hard to contextualize.

Dickinsonia looks a good deal like a surprisingly ribbed oval, and it could be everything, truly. On its discovery, it was labeled as a kind of jellyfish. Scientists have also thought it could be a worm, a polyp, or a mushroom or lichen. It really is even been proposed that Dickinsonia belonged to some unfamiliar, extinct kingdom that was neither animal, plant, nor fungus.


A research a couple many years ago into the way the organism grew would seem to have solved it. According to the scientists’ assessment, Dickinsonia is an animal, belonging either to Placazoa, which are amongst the most straightforward of animal organisms, or Eumetazoa, which are a step up from sponges.

Oh, and… we had its head and butt close to the improper way, far too. Oops.

Iguanodon: nose or thumb?

iguanodon fossil drawingIguanodon fossils, drawn in 1882 as they were identified in Bernissart, Belgium. (G. Lavette/General public Area)

Ah, iguanodon. We enjoy you, and your amusing tiny thumb-horns. But we failed to generally know where they ended up supposed to go.

When iguanodon was 1st explained, way back in 1825 by geologist Gideon Mantell, he had the peculiar spike positioned atop the beast’s nose. This is not an unreasonable assumption – following all, the rhinoceros has a solitary horn adorning its head.

It wouldn’t be right up until about 50 years later that this supposition unraveled. Additional total specimens were being located in Belgium in 1878, with the spiky appendage obviously belonging on the animal’s forelimb, where we primates may have a thumb. And this is exactly where Mantell’s assumption tends to make even much more sense since we just never know what the rigid spike was used for. Social conversation? Protection towards predators? One thing to do with food items?

It really is possible that we’ll in no way know – but even so, iguanodon taught us that we should hardly ever to acquire even the smallest element for granted.


archaeopteryx featherThe controversial fossilized feather. (Museum fur Naturkunde)

Archaeopteryx has very long worn the crown of the earliest acknowledged species of bird. It lived around 150 million decades in the past and is acknowledged from just a dozen specimens from close to the world. Nonetheless the identification has been plagued by controversy.

Some consider that the animal has been miscategorized – that Archaeopteryx was not a hen but a dinosaur. Unique specimens have also been topic to scrutiny.


In 2017, a group of experts analyzed just one Archaeopteryx specimen (which alone had been reclassified, in the beginning imagined to be a pterodactyl) and claimed it was not Archaeopteryx at all, but an totally unidentified species of theropod dinosaur. That assessment appears to be keeping, so far.

Then in 2019, yet another specimen – a single feather – was reanalyzed. These researchers also observed that the specimen in its place belonged to an not known species, in their impression, citing the curv
ature of the quill. This, having said that, created a response in late 2020 a further team of paleontologists observed this curvature was incorrect, and in any circumstance, quill curvature can be extremely variable.

In addition, the feather, they mentioned, was located at a website with other Archaeopteryx specimens, and resembles other Archaeopteryx feathers in both sizing and form.

Whether or not or not this subject is deemed resolved, we can be very danged certain that we have not skilled our final Archaeopteryx drama.

Considering that the animal is so mysterious, whichever way the debate goes, it will give us an astounding possibility to discover a thing new about our entire world – just like each and every scrap of fossil our planet has preserved in its amazing depths.


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