October 1, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Super Penguin: Seeing Is Believing, But Is It Understanding?

Another fossil of a giant penguin in Peru has been found (cf. 06/26/2007).  It apparently had reddish-brown underwings and stood as tall as a man.  It must have been a strong swimmer.  Nicknamed “water king,” the mammoth penguin was placed at the 36 million mark on the evolutionary timeline.  One remarkable feature of this fossil, however, is the variety of statements it has generated by scientists saying, on the one hand, “We just don’t know” much about this amazing bird, and on the other, that it “sheds light on bird evolution” (see article in National Geographic News).
    Writing for NG news, Ker Than began: “They don’t make penguins like they used to.”  The pronoun had no antecedent, but it is doubtful Mr. Than was embracing creation: “The new species, called the water king, sheds light on bird evolution, researchers say.”  This remarkable bird was apparently fully penguin.  It had strong flippers and more tuxedo decor than many modern species.  Even more remarkable, feathers were recovered that still had pigment bodies – melanocytes – with reddish brown coloration remaining in them.  “The finding, detailed this week in the journal Science, marks the first time feathers and preserved scales from an ancient penguin have ever been found.”  It’s hard to understand how this fossil could shed light on bird evolution, given that the melanocytes “had a similar structure and organization as those of living birds that have reddish brown and/or grey feathers, including robins and zebra finches.”
    A succession of maybes and perhapses ensued.  As to why the black tuxedo fashion evolved, Ker Than suggested that “perhaps” it was to help camouflage them against predators, but “Then again, the melanosome evidence suggests the tuxedo look might have been a side effect of the birds’ increasingly aquatic lifestyle.”  The melanocytes differ from those of living penguins.  As to which way evolution was going, the answer appears to be luck of the draw from a grab bag of possibilities: “It’s possible, the team speculates, that the melanosome metamorphosis made penguin feathers stronger—helping transform their wings into stiff, narrow ‘flippers’ for swimming—or conferred some other unknown advantage.”  Two other possibilities followed the catch-all unknown advantage category.  The shape shifts in the melanosomes might not have anything to do with color; “Then again, the black-and-white look may have arisen ‘due to changes in penguin ecology that we haven’t figured out yet,’” one researcher fumbled.  “We just don’t know.
    The paper in Science1 also had little to show about evolution, either by observation or understanding: “The fossil reveals that key feathering features including undifferentiated primary wing feathers and broad body contour feather shafts evolved early in the penguin lineage.  Analyses of fossilized color-imparting melanosomes reveal that their dimensions were similar to those of nonpenguin avian taxa and that the feathering may have been predominantly gray and reddish-brown.”  No explanation was given for the different shapes of the melanosome clusters, whether the modern ones are fitter, or why saying something “evolved early” confers understanding.
    As for the implausible idea that feathers and melanosomes could survive in Peru for 36 million years, the authors admitted that the “Presence of intact lesser covert feather bases and tips (in part and counterpart) represents a dimensionality rare in feather preservation.”  The paper also said little about bird evolution, leaving the inquisitive reader of National Geographic News wondering how it sheds light on it, in spite of the title that promised to reveal “Fossil Evidence for Evolution of the Shape and Color of Penguin Feathers.”
    Somehow, all the bet-hedging and fabrication of composite explanations produced understanding.  “The ability to interpret the color of the water king penguin’s feathers is ‘really quite remarkable and represents a huge breakthrough in the study of vertebrate paleontology,’” a New Zealand zoologist promised.  Mike Benton of the UK University of Bristol crowed, the water king fossil “shows how paleobiologists now can span the boundary between living and fossil and seek to understand important functional systems.”

1.  Clarke et al, “Fossil Evidence for Evolution of the Shape and Color of Penguin Feathers,” Science, Published Online in Science Express September 30, 2010; DOI: 10.1126/science.1193604.

Tell us when you get there.  Tell us when you understand.  Tell us when you can span the boundary between living and fossil so as to tell how penguins got from there to here.  Tell us how melanocytes and feathers survived for 36 mythical million years.  Tell us why changes from bigger to smaller without morphological changes should be called evolution.  Tell us when you get the flashlight to shed some light on evolution.  All we hear so far is confusion and waffling.  We don’t see any evolution to shed light on in the first place.
    This super-bird was bigger, badder and fitter than today’s penguins – exceeding by a foot the four-foot emperor penguins made famous by March of the Penguins, with twice the body mass.  According to the artist’s reconstruction, it was fully equipped with tuxedo wetsuit and outfitted for powerful swimming just as much as today’s penguins.  The melanocyte differences are trivial.  They should have worried about how the delicate structures and the feathers could be preserved at all for so long.
    The Darwin bluffing charade continues: they promise but don’t deliver (cf. 09/22/2010).  Some of us are not convinced that Darwin should get a pass just because he wears a Science badge.  Science badges can be faked.  They don’t make reliable science badges like they used to.

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