Dinosaur Bones Crack Open Surprises: Original Tissue

Posted on January 30, 2011 in Dinosaurs, Fossils

Nature is kind.  That’s nice to know; but what was the context of the statement in New Scientist?  “Occasionally, though, nature is kind and fossilisation preserves details of an animal’s soft tissue.”  But has nature been kind for tens of millions of years?  In an article called “Soft-centred fossils reveal dinosaurs’ true colours,” Jeff Hecht spilled the beans that more researchers are finding soft tissue and original material in dinosaur bones said to be over 65 million years old and older – even more than twice as old.
    We’ve seen news about soft tissue before (e.g., 12/22/2010), but this article suggests that scientists are becoming more bold to look for it (cf. 02/22/2006).  Pete Larson, Phil Manning and Roy Wogelius, in particular, have been using synchrotron radiation at Stanford to look for unfossilized remains of dinosaurs.  Hecht suggested that they are not alone; “Their project is one of several challenges to the conventional wisdom that when animals fossilise, all the original organic material, from the bones to the blood, is lost.”  Their work could crack open old bones of contention: “First, however, researchers like Manning must convince other palaeontologists that their fossils really do preserve original material, which won’t be easy.”  Other paleontologists have been skeptical, because “Convincing evidence of original soft tissue older than the Ice Age was lacking.”  That’s because “DNA degrades much faster than proteins and other soft tissue components and nobody thinks it is possible to recover DNA that is older than about a million years.
    Hecht explained that, while soft tissue imprints are exceptional but not unknown, preservation of actual original material has been controversial.  Mary Schweitzer famously announced blood vessels, cells and other material in a T. rex femur in 2005 (03/24/2005), but “Schweitzer’s claim was met with scepticism, in part because of the immense age of the bone.”  She countered skeptics’ arguments that she had only found recent biofilms (07/30/2008) and then announced finding collagen, haemoglobin, elastin and laminin – strengthening her discovery of original material (04/30/2009).  Awaking from their dogmatic slumbers, more paleontologists have started on a soft tissue treasure hunt:

Others have begun to report similar findings, and not just from inside bones.  Manning and Wogelius have reported finding amino acids in the claw and skin of Dakota, the 66-million-year-old Edmontosaurus mummy (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, vol 276, p 3429).  Meanwhile, Orr’s former student Maria McNamara, now splitting her time between Dublin and Yale, claims to have found marrow inside the fossilised bones of 10 million-year old frogs and salamanders preserved in lake-bed deposits from Spain (Geology, vol 34, p 641).  Marrow is normally among the first tissues to decay, but she found organic residues preserved in three dimensions that retained the original colour and texture of the marrow.
    “The fidelity of preservation on a morphological level is remarkable, though it’s very unlikely that the biochemistry would be completely original,” says [Patrick] Orr [University College Dublin].  Preservation of very decay-prone soft tissues is probably more common than we realise, he adds.

So what of the latest test at Stanford?  Manning and Wogelius had been successful finding original pigment in an Archaeopteryx specimen in 2009 (05/10/2010), Hecht recalled; “Nobody had expected soft-tissue chemistry to be preserved in such places” as feathers.  Quoting Wogelius, “It’s amazing that that chemistry is preserved after 150 million years.”  Zinc and copper atoms were also detected with the synchrotron machine.  Others have found “more surprises,” like melanosomes still intact in a bird feather said to be 108 million years old using a scanning electron microscope; ditto by another team in China.

The new techniques have not yet answered any big questions about dinosaurs: researchers like Schweitzer and Manning have devoted much of their effort to persuading sceptics that their results are real.  Eventually they think they will win over the doubters and revolutionise palaeontology, but in the meantime they have the satisfaction that drives on amateur and professional fossil hunters alike.  “It’s quite amazing to discover something that has never been seen before,” says Wogelius.

Unfortunately, Hecht left us hanging on whether Manning’s team found something at Stanford in their latest test.  It sounds, though, like more announcements of original tissue preservation in fossils will be forthcoming, now that the credibility gap has been bridged.  “The claims are controversial, but if true they promise to breathe new life into our understanding of ancient life,” Hecht said.

You can read Hecht’s article and think, if you are intellectually lazy, “Isn’t this nice; science marches on.”  But it means that science was marching in the wrong direction for a long, long time.  The facts are making evolutionary paleontologists and geologists turn about face, with red faces: they didn’t expect to find soft tissue; they weren’t looking for soft tissue; and they couldn’t believe it when it was shown to them.  Schweitzer and Manning are having to act like drill sergeants, barking to the troops that they have been marching in lock step in the wrong direction.
    There is only one group that is not surprised by these findings: the young-earth creationists.  Yes, those despised, hated, expelled Henry Morris followers, relegated to the dregs of society by academia (both secular and theistic evolutionist camps), even shunned by many in the Intelligent Design community, are not at all surprised.  Like their foes, they also cannot believe that DNA and protein can last for 80 to 150 million years – because they believe those long ages are a fiction.  Now that the sleepers on EST (Evolution Standard Time) have been jolted awake, should we trust their alarm clocks?  Should we grant them credibility now, when they say, “Well, I’ll be darned!  DNA can survive for 150 million years!”?  Many of them are sidestepping the fact that soft tissue preservation wreaks havoc on evolutionary age assumptions (cf. 06/03/2005).
    While these findings do not vindicate the young earth creationists beyond all doubt – there are still many questions and tests to be made – it sure looks like they have the ball, and the momentum is with them.  So don’t let the evolutionists put Greek happy-masks over their red faces and spin this story with cheerful talk that such finds are going to “breathe new life into our understanding of ancient life” (how much did they understand before?), or that this is going to “revolutionize paleontology” somehow, in some vague, unspecified way.  It ought to revolutionize it, all right: by dismantling the evolutionary timeline and re-opening some old, imprisoned questions about the history of the earth.  See also the 01/28/2011 entry for more reasons to doubt the presumed authority of the moyboys.*  Don’t let them grab the ball.  Don’t let them make predictions that only a young-earth creationist would make, like “We expect more soft tissue will be found in dinosaur bones,” and then, when it is found, declare victory.  The ball is headed toward the other goal line, and it will take impartial referees to call the fouls.

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