Faulty fossil rewrites the history of the Indian subcontinent for the second time

Faulty fossil rewrites the history of the Indian subcontinent for the second time

Faulty fossil rewrites the history of the Indian subcontinent for the second time

What first looked like a Dickinsonia fossil (left) had decayed and within a few years began to peel off the rock (right), a sign that it was something much more modern. Credits: Gregory Retallack/Joe Meert

In 2020, amid the first pandemic lockdowns, no scientific conference has ever been held in India.


But a group of geologists already on 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 saw the fossil of Dickinsonia¬ł, a flat, elongated and primitive animal from before complex animals evolved. It was the first ever discovery of Dickinsonia in India.

The animal lived 550 million years ago, and the find seemed to put an end once and for all to 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 magazine Nature as well as many Indian newspapers.

Only, it turns out, the “fossil” was a case of mistaken identity. The true culprit? Bees.

Researchers from the University of Florida traveled to the site last year and found that the object had apparently decayed significantly — quite unusual for a fossil. In addition, giant bee nests populate the site, and the mark the scientists saw in 2020 closely resembled the remains of these large hives.

Faulty fossil rewrites the history of the Indian subcontinent for the second time

The caves near Bhopal, India are home to prehistoric cave art. Because they have no fossils, they are difficult to date. Credits: Joseph Meert

“As soon as I looked at it, I thought something wasn’t right here,” said Joseph Meert, a UF professor of geology and an expert in the area’s geology. “The fossil was peeling off the rock.”

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

Meert collaborated on the research with his graduate 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 hives. The team published their findings of the mistaken identity in the journal Jan. 19 Gondwana Researchwho previously published the report of the accidental finding 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. They submit a commentary in support of the new article in the journal.

This kind of self-correction is a basic tenet of the scientific method. But the reality is that admitting mistakes is hard for scientists, and it doesn’t happen very often.

Faulty fossil rewrites the history of the Indian subcontinent for the second time

Large beehives are scattered around the grounds. After being abandoned and decaying, they briefly resemble fossils of the primitive animal Dickinsonia. Credits: Joseph Meert

“It is rare but essential for scientists to admit error when new evidence is discovered,” Retallack said in an email.

Correcting the fossil record puts the age of the rocks back into battle. Because the rock formation has no fossils from a known period, dating can be difficult.

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

Other scientists have reported findings that support a younger age. The time period is essential to understand because of its implications for the evolution of life in the area and how the Indian subcontinent came to be.

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

“So it’s very, very important to figure 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 India’s Upper Vindhyan Not Worthwhile, Gondwana Research (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.gr.2023.01.003

Quote: Erroneous fossil rewrites history of Indian subcontinent for second time (2023, Feb 1) Retrieved Feb 2, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-02-mistaken-fossil-rewrites-history-indian.html

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