The wrong fossil rewrites the history of the Indian subcontinent for the second time

The wrong fossil rewrites the history of the Indian subcontinent for the second time

What initially looked like a Dickinsonia fossil (left) decomposed and began to peel off the rock in a few short years (right), a sign that it was something more recent. Credit: Gregory Retalak/Joe Mert

In 2020, amidst the first lockdowns of the pandemic, a science conference scheduled for India never happened.

But a group of geologists who were already on the site 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 a fossil of Dickinsonia—a flat, long, primitive animal by complex fauna. It was the first ever discovery of Dickinsonia in India.

The animal lived 550 million years ago, and the discovery appears to have settled once and for all the controversial age of the rocks that make up much of the Indian subcontinent. The discovery caught the attention of The New York Times, Weather Channel, and The Magazine nature As well as many Indian newspapers.

Only, as it turns out, the “fossil” was a case of mistaken identity. The real culprit? bees.

Researchers from the University of Florida traveled to the site last year and discovered that the body appeared to have noticeably faded—uncommon for a fossil. What’s more, giant bee nests inhabit the site, and the mark that scientists spotted in 2020 bears a striking resemblance to the remains of these large hives.

The wrong fossil rewrites the history of the Indian subcontinent for the second time

The caves near Bhopal, India host prehistoric cave art. Since they do not have any fossils, it is difficult to date them. Credit: Joseph Mert

“As soon as I looked at it, I thought something wasn’t there,” said Joseph Mert, a UF geology professor and expert on the area’s geology. “The fossil was peeling off the rock.”

The earlier fossil was also lying almost vertically along the walls of the caves, which was inconsequential. Instead, says Mert, fossils in this area should only be visible on the floor or ceiling of cave structures.

Mert collaborated on the investigation with graduate students Samuel Quavo, Ananya Singha and University of Rajasthan professor Manoj Pandit. They documented the organism’s rapid decomposition and photographed similar remains from nearby hives. The team published their findings on mistaken identity Jan. 19 in the journal Gondwana Researchwhich previously published a report on the serendipitous discovery of a Dickinsonia fossil.

Gregory Retalak, Professor Emeritus at the University of Oregon and lead author of the book The original paperHe says he and his co-authors agree with Mert’s finding that the organism is really just a beehive. They are submitting a comment in support of the new paper to the journal.

This kind of self-correction is one of the basic tenets of the scientific method. But the truth is, admitting mistakes is hard for scientists to do, and it doesn’t happen very often.

The wrong fossil rewrites the history of the Indian subcontinent for the second time

Large beehives dot the site. Abandoned and rotting, they briefly resemble Dickinsonia primitive fossils. Credit: Joseph Mert

“It is rare but necessary for scientists to admit mistakes when new evidence is discovered,” Retalak said in an email.

revision Fossil record The age of the rocks is in dispute. Because of rock formation It does not contain fossils from a known time period, which can be difficult to date.

Mert says the evidence still points to the rocks being close to a billion years old. His team used the radioactive decay of tiny crystals called zircons to date the rocks to that time period. And the rock magnetic signature, which captures information about Earth’s magnetic field when the rocks formed, closely matches signatures of formations dating back a billion years.

Other scientists have reported findings that support a younger age. The time period is essential to understanding because of its implications for the development of life in the region and how the Indian subcontinent was formed.

“You might say, ‘Well, what’s the big deal if they’re 550 million or a billion years old?'” “Well, there are a lot of ramifications,” Mert said. “One has to do with the ancient geography of the time, what was happening to the continents, where the continents were located, and how they were grouped. And that was a period when life was going through a huge change, from very simple fossils to more complex fossils.”

“So trying to find out the ancient geography of that time is very important. And in order to know the ancient geography, we have to know the age of the rocks,” he said.

more information:
Joseph G. Mert et al., Stinging News: ‘Dickinsonia’ discovered in India’s upper Vindhyan isn’t worth the hype, Gondwana Research (2023). DOI: 10.1016/

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