December 13, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Strange Beasts Walked the Earth

Narnia is a fantasy world of talking beasts and chimeric monsters, as seen in the release of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third movie in the series, great for an adventurous escape to a different world (see Narnia.com).  While fauns and minotaurs may be mythical, some of the extinct beasts found as fossils in Earth strata seem more suited to that world than ours.

  1. Fin dragon:  The fin-backed reptilian Dimetrodon is not new, but the most complete skeleton of one was found in a sinkhole in north Texas, reported Live Science.  The site has more bones of this species than any other location in the world. 
  2. Horse dragon:  “A shield-toothed horse-dragon may sound like a mythical creature, but the newly described dinosaur once roamed the U.S. West, a new study says.”  That was the opening line of an article on National Geographic News about Hippodraco, a scientific name that translates to horse dragon.  Then there’s Iguanacolossus (colossal iguana) found nearby: a member of the iguanodon family with members found worldwide.
        Hippodraco is shaking up the family tree of this group of dinosaurs, for reasons explained in the article.  Scientists claim its skull bones are more primitive than members of the group found in Europe, but “Even so, any visible differences between living iguanodont species would have been subtle…. regardless of their locations, the creatures all looked pretty much the same,” the article admitted.
  3. Koreaceratops:  Every kid’s favorite dinosaur, triceratops, had cousins in Korea.  Live Science reported on a “mini triceratops” that is the first horned dinosaur found in South Korea.  The animal would have been about 6 feet long, weighing 100 pounds, the discoverers estimate. 
  4. Crocodile cat.  After awhile, crocodiles looked different than their ancestors, reported PhysOrg and the BBC News.  This is based on odd shaped fossils found in Madagascar and elsewhere, one looking squat like a cat.  “Recently discovered ancient ancestors include small cat-like specimens, giant ‘supercrocs’ and a pug-nosed vegetarian species,” the BBC said, although how they decided it was vegetarian was not due to direct evidence, but inference about the overall body shape – a risky business if comparing human vegetarians to meat-eaters by body shape alone is any guide. 

The crocodile articles claimed that a diverse group of prehistoric reptiles gave rise to a diverse group of later reptiles: e.g., “contrary to popular belief, scientists now suggest that the basic body structure of crocodiles, alligators and ghariels evolved from a diverse group of prehistoric reptiles with different body shapes.”  Both articles claim the finds disprove that crocodiles are “living fossils.”  The BBC article emphasized the point in its headline: “Crocs dispel ‘living fossil’ myth.”  The phrase living fossil, however, usually describes fossils of plants and animals that look very similar to living species with long time gaps between their disappearance in the fossil record and the present (e.g., the tuatara, Wollemi pine and coelacanth), not of fossils that have a long history in the record without significant change.  Either way, it is not clear that evolution was found; just diversity, since each creature was well equipped with teeth, vision, locomotion, digestion, and the basic body plan characteristic of all crocodylians.

Scientists do not watch creatures evolving.  They look at present-day bones, and make inferences according to a paradigm they feel comfortable working in.  But feeling comfortable is no guide to the truth.  Think of how many different ways a group of disinterested people could arrange furniture into evolutionary relationships, if they were given starting assumptions about which ones evolved first and had an elaborate tree showing the ancestry of branching relationships and common ancestors, and a time scale allowing millions of years.  In fact, parents or teachers should try that as an experiment to show how much assumption plays a role in scientific explanation.
    The outward shape (morphology) of an animal is the least informative part of the evolutionary tale.  Getting all that structure and function in the first place is the challenge.  Each creature was exquisitely suited to its habitat and equipped with amazing structures that provided all the functions of life.  Dimetrodon, for instance, had a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth.  Do you realize how many design specifications are required to get teeth to develop, grow, and work in the real world, so that an animal can eat?  Moreover, the teeth, jaw, brain, and senses all have to work together for capturing food, and then the mouth has to pass the material on to elaborate digestive systems to make use of it (see 10/14/2008).
    In piecing together their tale, evolutionary paleontologists cannot escape paradigm bias in taxonomy, dating, and relationships (e.g., 05/19/2010, bullet 5; 03/05/2010; 02/09/2010, 12/11/2009).  Many dinosaur fossils thought to represent different species have recently been shown to be the same species in different life stages (09/17/2008, 07/14/2010).  When trying to understand relationships of extinct animals, the situation is even more fraught with potential for misinterpretation.  If they were asking the right questions, like where did all this complexity come from, they would not focus so much on connect-the-dot games, but would come face to face with the question of design.

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