Rescuing Dinosaur Soft Tissue from the Ravages of Time

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Posted on March 15, 2014 in Cell Biology, Darwin and Evolution, Dating Methods, Dinosaurs, Dumb Ideas, Fossils, Philosophy of Science

The reaction of scientists to irrefutable evidence for soft tissue in dinosaur bone sounds all too human: ignore, rant, rationalize; repeat.

Blogger Jon Tennant, a grad student at Imperial College London studying vertebrate macroevolution, believes in ghosts.  His recent post, “How do the chemical ghosts of dinosaurs help their preservation?”, abridged on The Conversation, tries to keep soft tissue old in dinosaur bones by building on Mary Schweitzer’s recent work suggesting that iron atoms from heme molecules hold onto the delicate remains, keeping them intact for millions of years.  Does it work?  He knows it’s a stretch:

Life as we know it is carbon-based, that is, organic. These organic molecules containing mostly carbon and hydrogen are delicate to the ravages of time, relatively speaking. They aren’t usually preserved in fossils that paleontologists unearth to tell the story of our planet’s past. For them, it is vital information lost forever.

It should be lost forever, that is, if the bones are tens of millions of years old.  But it’s not.  That’s the problem.  Schweitzer’s work turned up “structures resembling blood vessels and even the residue of proteins.”  What is his answer?  A fairy tale:

… Schweitzer shows that, during the process preservation, the conditions can often be “just right” to save tissues — the ‘Goldilocks effect’. This process that she calls “tissue fixation” may help paleontologists look at molecular remains that may hold important clues about these beasts. Borrowing a host of analytical tools from Earth and environmental sciences, Schweitzer shows it may be possible to observe the “chemical ghosts” remaining in fossils, and how these have helped to exquisitely preserve molecular structures.

One should not confuse cute phrases, like those in quote marks above, with explanation.  (Q. “How did soft tissues survive for 70 million years?”  A. “Tissue fixation.”)  It’s also suspect in science to invoke special conditions, like a “Goldlilocks effect.”  For the explanation, Tennant offers nothing new; he just borrows Schweitzer’s hypothesis that iron preserved the blood and osteocytes preferentially.  He knows this is also a stretch:

Only a decade ago, this hypothesis would have been laughed at by fellow scientists. While many still remain unconvinced, there is growing evidence that molecular tissues may actually have been preserved. Now the question is: how much have palaeontologists missed by not considering these potentially high levels of preservation in dinosaurs? And how much is there that is still left to be found at such levels of detail?

In his lengthier blog entry, Tennant reveals the reaction of fellow scientists to the news about dinosaur soft tissue.  It sounds all too human:

Naturally, her research has been met with a whole wad of stiff resistance from the scientific community, seemingly for no other reason than “We don’t like the sound of that..”. Scientific rigour ftw!

(We refuse to translate the acronym, but it means the scientific community was very bothered by the news.)   He adds to the laughter claim: it’s “something that 10 years ago would have been laughed out of the room, and still is by many.”  For himself, though, he finds the evidence compelling that it really is original soft tissue.  To rule out other explanations, he points to (1) the reaction of the tissue to antibodies, (2) the peptide sequence data, and (3) the discovery of intact histone proteins.

Tennant’s blog entry says that Phil Manning coined the term “chemical ghosts,” but the phrase seems misleading.  They are not phantoms, but real original remains, including osteocytes with their delicate dendrites intact.  Tennant includes some electron micrographs of T. rex vessels infiltrated with iron, compared with tissues from a hadrosaur fossil and from a recently-dead ostrich.  Since they all show infiltration of iron, it’s iron to the rescue!  Soft tissue can be preserved for 70 million years!  (See 11/26/13 about Schweitzer’s hypothesis.)  Now, armed with a catch-all “explanation” for delicate remains, he can breathe a sigh of relief, and get excited again with his evolutionary scientism:

For me, this is one of the greatest steps in recent palaeontology – no longer do we just have bones, but we have other soft tissues like feathers, skin, and internal structures, adding a whole new bio-chemical dimension to how we perceive fossils. Of course, this opens up a whole new wealth of knowledge to be uncovered about extinct animals, their physiologies, and their evolutionary roles.

So why aren’t paleontologists all over the world rushing to uncover all this evidence they had not considered before?  He doesn’t say.  Nine years after Schweitzer’s first bombshell announcement (3/24/05, 1/30/11), maybe they still don’t like the sound of it.

Other Dinosaur News

Speaking of T. rex, Europe got its version of a tyrannosaur, which National Geographic calls “Big Bruiser.”  A “pint-size” tyrannosaur was found in Alaska, Nature News reported.  Finally, in a bizarre mix of cosmology and paleontology, both Nature and New Scientist proposed a hypothesis that dark matter killed the dinosaurs.  The idea is that the solar system passes through the disk of the Milky Way periodically, where dark matter is expected to be more dense.  The extra matter might trigger barrages of comets.  This hypothesis was not treated with unmixed support:

The arbitrary selection of craters and the fact that some estimates of their ages bear large error bars, adds to the uncertainty, says Adrian Melott, an astrophysicist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. “Dissipative dark matter is a possible explanation, but it’s not clear that it’s explaining anything real,” he says.

Despite its speculative basis, Randall says that the exercise is valuable. “This is trying to turn this somewhat crazy idea into science, by saying we will make predictions based on it,” she says. “We’re not saying we think it’s 100% going to be true.

Send in your crazy idea to Nature and make a prediction.  Who knows; maybe they will publish it.

Well, you have just observed something about “the scientific community.”  They are willing to blast the world to hang on to their evolutionary notions.  They will ignore evidence that stares them in the face.  They don’t like the sound of anything that threatens their naturalistic religion with its obligatory moyboys.  They believe in ghosts and children’s fairy tales (whatever happened to uniformity of nature, if Goldilocks is their savior?).  They invent phrases that masquerade as explanations, that accomplish nothing more than hiding their biases.  Give them contradictory evidence, and they will laugh you out of the room.  When they can’t do that any longer, they will grasp at any straw and turn it into a pillar, then stand on it and proclaim how wonderful scientism is.

This is known as “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18).

 

 

 

10 Comments

kalisz March 15, 2014

Good article, but ftw usually means “for the win.”

John D March 15, 2014

It stands for, “For the win” and it’s usually used sarcastically. He’s mocking them for their lack of scientific rigor. It’s not a spoonerism

mmartin March 15, 2014

Ah, soft tissue, i can’t get enough science news about it — it is just mind boggling what amounts of denial it generates, isn’t it?

Editor March 15, 2014

That’s the clean version. From the context, I doubt that’s what he had in mind.

Editor March 15, 2014

See my reply to kalisz.

Editor March 15, 2014

Are you suggesting we should call them denialists?

John S March 15, 2014

Is there a list of all documented soft tissue found to date? I saw one from ICR or somewhere, but it was 2 years outdated, which might as well be 200 million with how fast things are moving in this area. (I’m sorry, I meant to say 213.7 million years. One must be exact about these things, you know)

Editor March 15, 2014

That’s what Google is for.

John S March 15, 2014

Well, that’s kinda my point. I don’t have the expertise or time to wade through the 2 million google pages and make a compilation, even then it would be a poor list. I was hoping there was an expert out there somewhere who may have done it for us ‘regular’ people since this seems to me to be a huge evidence of YEC, and it is not so technical that normal folks get the glazed look unlike trying to understand and explain distant starlight theories and such.

Apparently at lest this guy thought it was a good idea at one point, but stopped in 2010.
http://www.icr.org/soft-tissue-list/

Editor March 15, 2014

We have tag search, category search and a search bar that can provide quick lists to our articles. Try it for “soft tissue.” Note: since the upgraded website only searches tags back to June 2011, you would need to search separately on the old site for older articles. We have articles going all the way back to Schweitzer’s first announcement.

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