July 9, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Feather Fossil Fallacy?

Imprints of melanocytes have been found in fossil feathers.  What does this mean?  The popular science news reports, like Science Daily, Live Science, PhysOrg and the BBC News seem convinced it can tell us something about how birds evolved from dinosaurs.  Understanding what was discovered requires sifting through claims that go far beyond the evidence.

The Claims:  “The complex coloured plumage of extinct birds which once soared over the heads of dinosaurs could soon be revealed” (BBC).  “Artists may now be able to paint dinosaurs and ancient birds and mammals in their true colors, thanks to the discovery of pigment residues in fossilized feathers.” (Live Science).  “The traces of organic material found in fossil feathers are remnants of pigments that once gave birds their color, according to Yale scientists whose paper in Biology Letters opens up the potential to depict the original coloration of fossilized birds and their ancestors, the dinosaurs” (Science Daily).  Another Yale scientist remarked, “Now that we have demonstrated that melanin can be preserved in fossils, scientists have a way to reliably predict, for example, the original colors of feathered dinosaurs” (Live Science).
What Was Found:  The Yale scientists determined that some imprints of carbon in the rock were not bacterial residues but traces of melanocytes – the cells that contain the pigment melanin.  The protein melanin was thought to degrade quickly, but carbon imprints of melanin were still identifiable in color bands within the specimens.  These were detected in a fossil of a striped feather from Brazil (which evolutionists claim is 100 million years old), and in a fossil of an Eocene bird from Denmark (claimed to be 55 million years old).  Both specimens were from birds.  No dinosaur feathers were found.

In other words, more imaginary feathers have been found, but this time on imaginary dinosaurs (see 04/10/2006, 02/08/2006).  The question no one seems to be asking is, how could these delicate protein structures survive for over 100 million years?  One of the co-authors of the paper simply stated that the fact they exist proves that they are that old.  Jakob Vinther stated flatly, “Understanding these organic remains in fossil feathers also demonstrates that melanin can resist decay for millions of years.”
    Only the BBC News came close to questioning the claim.  Co-author Mike Benton was quoted asking, “But then how do you square that with the well-known fact that the majority of organic molecules decay in thousands of years?”  His answer was vague: “Somehow [the melanosomes] are retained and replaced during the preservation process and hence you preserve a very life like representation of the colour banding.”
    In the end, no one questioned the age of the fossils.  “The Yale team believe [sic] it could identify brown, red, buff and even iridescent colours,” the BBC reported.  “The technique may be applied to other creatures to reveal the colour of fur or even eyes, the team believes.”  Benton did offer one more clue that the result was astonishing: “It might give you a very clear handle on an aspect of the ecology that people would have thought impossible to divine for an ancient fossil,” he said.

The observation-to-assumption ratio in this story was so low, that if it were a signal-to-noise ratio, you would hear mostly static.  Ask yourself a simple question.  Up till now scientists respected the “well-known fact” that organic molecules decay in mere thousands of years.  Doesn’t the presence of organic molecules in fossils suggest the slight possibility that the scientists are flat wrong about their dating, and that the fossils are indeed mere thousands of years old?

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Categories: Birds, Dinosaurs, Fossils

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