False fossil rewrites history of Indian subcontinent for second time

What at first glance looked like a Dickinsonia fossil (left) had decayed within a few years and started to delaminate from the rock (right), a sign that it was something much more modern. Credit: Gregory Retallack/Joe Meert

In 2020, amid the first pandemic lockdowns, a scientific conference scheduled to take place in India never took place.

But a group of geologists who were already there decided to make the most of their time and visited the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters, a series of caves with ancient cave art near Bhopal, India. There they discovered the fossil of Dickinsonia¬ł, a flat, elongated, and primitive animal from before the evolution of complex animals. It was the very first discovery of Dickinsonia in India.

The animal lived 550 million years ago, and the find seemed to settle once and for all the surprisingly controversial age of the rocks that make up much of the Indian subcontinent. The find caught the attention of The New York Times, The Weather Channel and The Journal Nature as well as many Indian newspapers.

Only the “fossil” turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. The real culprit? bees.

Researchers from the University of Florida traveled to the site last year and found that the object appeared to have deteriorated badly – quite unusual for a fossil. Additionally, giant bee nests populate the site, and the marker discovered by the scientists in 2020 closely resembled the remains of these large beehives.

False fossil rewrites history of Indian subcontinent for second time

The caves near Bhopal, India house prehistoric cave art. Since they have no fossils, they are difficult to date. Photo credit: Joseph Meert

“As soon as I looked at it, I thought something was wrong here,” said Joseph Meert, a UF professor of geology and an expert on the region’s geology. “The fossil detached from the rock.”

The former fossil was also lying almost vertically against the walls of the caves, which made no sense. Instead, Meert says, fossils in this area should only be visible flat on the floor or ceiling of the cave structures.

Meert collaborated on the study with his doctoral students Samuel Kwafo and Ananya Singha, and Professor Manoj Pandit from the University of Rajasthan. They documented the object’s rapid decay and photographed similar remains from nearby beehives. The team published their findings on the mistaken identity in the journal on Jan. 19 Gondwana Researchwho previously published the report of the lucky find of Dickinsonia fossils.

Gregory Retallack, professor emeritus at the University of Oregon and lead author of the original paper, says he and his co-authors agree with Meert’s findings that the object is really just a beehive. You submit a comment in support of the new paper to the journal.

This kind of self-correction is a fundamental principle of the scientific method. But the reality is that scientists find it hard to admit mistakes, and it doesn’t happen often.

False fossil rewrites history of Indian subcontinent for second time

Large beehives characterize the terrain. After being abandoned and rotting, they briefly resemble fossils of the primordial animal Dickinsonia. Photo credit: Joseph Meert

“It’s rare but important for scientists to admit error when new evidence is uncovered,” Retallack said in an email.

Correcting the fossil record again puts the ages of the rocks in question. Because the rock formation contains no fossils from a known period, dating can be difficult.

Meert says the evidence continues to point to the rocks being closer to a billion years old. His team has used the radioactive decay of tiny crystals called zircons to date the rocks to this time period. And the rocks’ magnetic signature, which captures information about the Earth’s magnetic field when the rocks were forming, matches exactly the signatures of formations that are reliably dated to a billion years.

Other scientists have reported results supporting a younger age. It is important to understand the period as it has implications for the evolution of life in the region and the emergence of the Indian subcontinent.

“You might say, ‘Okay, what’s the big deal if they’re 550 million or a billion years old?’ Well, there are a lot of implications,” Meert said. “You have to do with the paleogeography of the time, what happened to the continents, where the continents were, how they were put together. And it was a time when life was going through a big shift went through, from very simple fossils to more complex fossils.”

“That’s why it’s very, very important to find out the paleogeography of that time. And to figure out the paleogeography, we need to know the age of the rocks,” he said.

More information:
Joseph G. Meert et al., Stinging News: “Dickinsonia” Discovered in the Upper Vindhyan of India, Not Worth Exciting, Gondwana Research (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.gr.2023.01.003

Provided by the University of Florida

Citation: Mistaken fossil rewrites history of Indian subcontinent for second time (2023 February 1) retrieved February 1, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-02-mistaken-fossil-rewrites-history- indian.html

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