May 31, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Felicitous Fossils Facilitate Phylogenetic Fabling

Here are some recent fossil finds that, whether they fit or not, are claimed to shed light on evolution.

Goby a fish:  Otoliths are rocks in the head of many vertebrates that aid with orientation and gravity sensing.  An article on PhysOrg claims that fish otoliths provide “unprecedented insight” into the evolution of gobioid fishes, one of the most numerous groups of bony fish.  But what can really be told from little rocks?  What is the “eloquence of the otoliths,” as the headline teases?  Does the body of the article live up to the hype?  Actually, even though a team claims to have produced a detailed phylogeny, and claims it can read otoliths like a genetic code, the major finding from “perfectly preserved” otoliths in Italy just moves one fish family to another clade.  Moreover, the lack of fossils that can be dated “has hampered understanding of the evolutionary history of this highly successful group of fishes.”

Turtle on the half shell:  A fossil of a turtle-like animal with back ribs that are not fused together, as in modern turtles, is attracting interest.  Both Science Now and Science Daily put their headlines just-so story form, like “How the Turtle Got Its Shell” (see 10/09/08).  The comparison of the fossil to a turtle looks convincing that the fossil is an evolutionary ancestor, but that inference requires believing that the “beginnings of the turtle shell started 40 million years earlier than previously thought” according to another Science Daily article.  It also requires believing that the turtle’s novel respiratory system evolved in concert with changes in the ribs.  “If you incorporate your ribs into a protective shell, then you have to find a new way to breathe!” one researcher exclaimed.  That being the case, they are only claiming that the South African fossil named Eunotosaurus may provide “clues” to turtle evolution.

Scrambled dino eggs:  Fossil dinosaur eggs are rare, especially ones that contain fossil embryos.  National Geographic used the “missing link” meme in its announcement of theropod eggs found in Portugal.  Lucky for evolutionists, they fit in a gap that “has frustrated scientists because many of the bird-like aspects of reproduction seem to have appeared during the gap.”  Scientists inferred a few things about the eggs, such as that they must have been buried, but nothing definitive of increase in complexity or information except a single layer as opposed to two or three layers of assumed later dinosaurs and birds.

Triceratops cousinLive Science announced a new ceratopsian dinosaur claimed to have lived “12 million years before the rise of its more famous younger relative.”  It’s being called “a new kind of three-horned dinosaur” that “may be the oldest cousin of Triceratops yet.”  Judging from the artist reconstruction, though, it’s hard to see much difference.  Judiceratops (from the Judith River formation, Montana) has the frill and three horns and most other features Triceratops, yet the article asks readers to believe that these dinosaurs evolved rapidly, with “a lot of turnover” as older species were replaced by newer ones.  Whatever differences might be apparent to paleontologists on the outside seem trivial compared to the complexity of the inside of both creatures.

Wood you believePhysOrg posted a story of a buried forest in Switzerland that is being studied for dendrochronology.  Claimed to be 13,000 years old in Zurich clay, the pine wood was discovered by accident.  The data have not been formally published, but the article includes a picture of some cross sections being analyzed.

The early bird:  No sooner had our entry on “Feathers before flight” gone to press (5/28/13) that a new “feathered dinosaur” announcement hit the wires (paper in Nature).  All the secular sites went nuts, as expected: “New candidate for world’s first bird” (National Geographic); “New feathered dino may be world’s first bird” (Live Science); “New contender for first bird” (Nature News).  The reconstruction makes this creature look something like a bantam chicken with teeth, but fully fledged with modern-looking feathers and wings.  A consequence of calling Aurornis xui the first bird is that it puts Archaeopteryx back on the bird line (BBC News, New Scientist), after the controversial shake-up by Xing Xu in 2011 (see 7/28/2011).  Science Now, though, is not sure this fossil, found by a Chinese farmer and sold to a museum, is authentic:

But Luis Chiappe, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in California, says that Aurornis must fly through at least one important hoop before it can claim to be the first bird: Its authenticity must be proved. That’s because the specimen was not found during excavations by Godefroit’s team, but—like most early birds and feathered dinosaurs from Liaoning province, including many studied by Xu—it was supposedly found by farmers and acquired from a Chinese fossil dealer, who sold it to the province’s Yizhou Fossil and Geology Park. China’s museums and research institutions have been plagued in recent years by the circulation of fake or altered fossils, including the infamous “Archaeoraptor” fake of the late 1990s, a claimed “missing link” between dinosaurs and birds published by National Geographic.

Many of the science news sites though, including National Geographic, let their imaginations take wings, asserting that it is truly a feathered dinosaur ancestral to birds.  The original paper was more concerned about phylogenetic placement of this fossil than about explaining how powered flight could have evolved.  The supplementary information file claims there was no evidence of forgery but concurred that most of the spectacular feathered dinosaur fossils have come from dealers.

Update 6/7/13:  Science Magazine seriously questions the authenticity of the Aurornis fossil and other spectacular “feathered dinosaur” finds:

Suspicions dog any specimens from the fabulous fossil fields in northeast China’s Liaoning province, where Aurornis and dozens of other new species of feathered dinosaurs and early birds have been found over the past 15 years. Some of the country’s leading paleontologists have been outspoken about a growing number of fake and composite specimens from Liaoning and other fossil-rich areas of China (Science, 24 December 2010, p. 1740). “This is a big concern,” says Zhou Zhonghe, director of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing. “Illegal and unscientific collecting and commercial trading,” he says, have flooded the market with fake fossils and caused an “irretrievable loss” of crucial information, such as where authentic fossils came from and how old they really are.

For fear of antagonizing their Chinese colleagues, Western scientists have been reluctant to speak their minds, the article said.  “But the publication of Aurornis, the latest of a flurry of recent papers in Science and Nature describing fossils purchased from Chinese commercial dealers or acquired from collectors, has emboldened several leading Western paleontologists to speak their minds.”  It went on to describe China as an “epicenter” of a black market in fossils.  “Some of these fakes are masterful.”  Insisting on CT scans or provenance details is probably not workable, the article complains.  But if some of them prove to be fakes, especially those on which major evolutionary claims are being based, the “flood of fossil fakes” is going to “haunt Chinese vertebrate paleontology for the next 100 years.”

Mammoth blood:  A potentially gigantic, though controversial, finding came from Siberia this week: mammoth blood preserved in ice (see Siberian Times, “Exclusive: The first pictures of blood from a 10,000 year old Siberian mammoth“;  Live Science, “Perfectly preserved mammoth blood unearthed in ice“).  The photos show clear pictures of blood vessels, red meat and liquid blood collected in a vial.  Nature urged caution in its announcement, “Can a mammoth carcass really preserve flowing blood and possibly live cells?” but could not rule out the authenticity of the claim:

The Siberian Times obtained striking photos of the specimen showing the reddish tissues and a vial of the dark brown liquid said to be blood that was found in ice cavities under the animal’s belly, as well as additional details of the discovery. The story quotes mammoth researcher Semyon Grigoriev of the North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk, who led the recovery of the mammoth, as speculating that the blood contains “a kind of natural anti-freeze” and declaring the specimen — a female that was between 50 and 60 years old when she died — to be “the best preserved mammoth in the history of paleontology.

Moreover, the report says this specimen gives researchers “a really good chance of finding live cells” — no wonder the Nature reporter said, “Wow!” before mentioning a few caveats: “The upshot: it really does appear to be an incredible find, but some of the claims about it are incorrect as reported or have yet to be established as fact.”  A few experts weighed in on the possibility that the claims are true.  None of them claimed they were definitely false.  One asked, “Another question is, how were these samples preserved in this state for so long?  The discoverers postulated that some kind of natural antifreeze protected the blood and soft tissues.  They said they are working with South Korean researchers who want to clone a mammoth, using an elephant for gestation.  Speaking of mammoths, Science Daily presented a new theory for their extinction: a meteor impact changed the climate.  Considering that mammoths and mastodons lived throughout much of the world, and some are buried in mass graves like those in Hot Springs, South Dakota, impact theories require auxiliary hypotheses to explain why a meteor would be selective in its effects.

The last two stories are the most interesting (early bird and mammoth blood).  The prior ones show evolutionists doing what they usually do, forcing obscure pieces of evidence into their worldview picture (see 5/01/08 commentary, “How not to work a puzzle”).

Regarding Aurornis, skeptical readers should watch these “feathered dinosaur” fossils like a hawk.  Science made a very damaging admission by stating that most of the fossils come from dealers.  Just think—very few, if any, were found intact in the strata, including those found by master dinobird storyteller Xing Xu (5/01/10).  Forgers fooled the experts once with “Archaeoraptor” back in 1999.  Is it possible that many of the most controversial “feathered dinosaurs” are fakes?  Those that are not fakes (like Archaeopteryx, found across the world in Germany) are genuine, but it was a bird, capable of powered flight.  Consider: the motivation for forgery is strong.  Poor Chinese farmers can gain riches and fame for finding what evolutionists want.  Maybe the forgers learned lessons from “Archaeoraptor” and have gotten better at their craft.  Why can’t the paleontologists pull authentic fossils out of the strata themselves?  Is it because the fossils are not there?  Why are the same species never found anywhere else in the world in comparable strata?  If forgery is proved for some or any of them, creationists will be all over it like white on paint.  It would seem in the best interests of the evolutionists, therefore, to err on the side of caution, stop the hype, and go dig up some in situ specimens, documenting their provenance.  Their reputations depend on it.

Regarding the mammoth blood, this is an amazing story worth watching.  More analysis is needed that can satisfy scientists, but the fact that many frozen mammoths are already known would seem to discount motivation to commit a forgery.  In July or August the discoverers are bringing other researchers to the cold site where the specimen is preserved.  Imagine if live cells and intact blood are actually proved.  That would be a “Wow!” indeed—a finding that would cast serious doubt on the dating methods used to claim this beast died 10,000 years ago.  Until we have more reliable information, though, creationists should include disclaimers in their coverage.

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