March 25, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Fossil Facts and Fantasies

The stories told about some fossils raise more questions than answers, even with top Darwin spin doctors in the operating room.

Aquatic slothsLive Science has some comments about the “aquatic sloths” that were found with those Chile whale fossils (2/26/14).  The interpretation that they lived in water relies on measurements of high density of their bones.  But since land-dwelling sloths and some other mammals also had dense bones, the idea seems a stretch.  The article weaves a tale about how they swam to the bottom of the water to eat vegetation, since the coast was becoming arid, then went extinct when the Isthmus of Panama closed “4 million years ago.”  Whatever happened, there used to be more species of sloth, and bigger ones, than the two kinds that live in trees today – and they didn’t evolve blowholes, flippers or sonar.

Tar pit tales: Paleontologists are rushing to document bones in asphalt tar in west Los Angeles before a subway tunnel is completed, PhysOrg reported.  70 feet below the surface, workers have found ice-age mammals, birds, and insects in the same formation as the nearby La Brea Tar Pits.  “In one spectacular instance,” the article says, “a worker scraped his bulldozer across what turned out to be a nearly intact skeleton of a Columbian mammoth with 10-foot-long tusks, which researchers named Zed.”  The terrestrial fossils are supposed to be two million years old, but this paragraph jumps out of the article:

Paleontologists have recovered mollusks, asphalt-saturated sand dollars, pieces of driftwood and Monterey cypress cones. For [Kim] Scott, the most exciting finds have been a rock embedded with what appears to be part of a sea lion’s mouth (perhaps 2 million years old) and a non-fossilized 10-foot limb from a digger pine tree that would look right at home today in Central California woodlands.

The dating seems convoluted.  The article says that the deposit is supposed to be from 50,000 to 330,000 years old, so how did a 2-million year old seal get mixed in?  And an unfossilized digger pine?  Those don’t usually grow near sand dollars.  Why are marine and land creatures in the same mix?  The explanation given is that this was a coastline community.  “Even though we’re finding fossils older than what’s found at La Brea, none of the identified fossils found to date are extinct,” Scott said. “We can still find all the plants and animals in California.”  That doesn’t help much; the “younger” La Brea fossils include mammoths, mastodons, American lions, saber-tooth cats, dire wolves, huge bison and camels that are extinct.

Fossilized fern cell division:  A fossil fern said to be 180 million years old shows  “preserved cell walls and the nucleus containing genetic material” so clearly that chromosomes undergoing cell division are discernible, says New Scientist.  For such exquisite preservation, it must have been “almost instantly fossilised,” perhaps by becoming engulfed in a lava flow.  Why, though, did it not burn up in the hot lava?  The fossil was donated in the 1960s by a Swedish farmer, but was forgotten in a museum drawer till analyzed recently.  Despite being so “old” in the evolutionary timeline, no evolution is visible:  “The fern is very similar to a living species: the cinnamon fern, Osmundastrum cinnamomeum,” the article says.  “The similarity of the cinnamon fern to the fossil supports the idea that is a ‘living fossil’ – an example of evolutionary stasis, when organisms appear not to evolve for millions of years.”  The fossil was also reported by Live Science, where Tia Ghose presented a different theory: “The fossilized plant was likely preserved when minerals in the superheated, salty water oozing from a crack in the earth, called a hydrothermal brine seep, rapidly crystallized, freezing the plant in time while it was still alive.

The original paper in Science calls this “180 million years of genomic stasis in royal ferns,” indeed a “paramount example of evolutionary stasis.”  Why, then, do they claim it “can provide exceptional insights into the evolution of life over geological time“?  The paper shows stunning photographs of cells with chromosomes in various stages of cell division.  Prior to this fossil find from Sweden, “evidence for evolutionary conservatism in fern genomes has been exclusively based on studies of extant plants.”  Now, fossils confirm that no evolution is evident in 180 million Darwin years.

Conventional wisdom fails turtle race:  Two halves of a giant sea turtle fossil came together at last after being separated for 162 years, PhysOrg reported. One half of the fossil had been brought to the attention of famed paleontologist Louis Agassiz in 1849.  When an amateur found the other half on a grassy knoll in a New Jersey stream bed in 2012, scientists were startled, not believing it could have survived so long at the surface – but the fit was good.  “Now, the scientists are revising their conventional wisdom to say that, sometimes, exposed fossils can survive longer than previously thought.”  Paleontologists estimate the turtle was 10 feet long, the largest known sea turtle.  How did the turtle swim to New Jersey?  “The scientists believe that the entire unbroken bone was originally embedded in sediment during the Cretaceous Period, 70 to 75 million years ago, when the turtle lived and died,” the article explains, but then “those sediments eroded and the bone fractured millions of years later during the Pleistocene or Holocene, before the bone pieces became embedded in sediments and protected from further deterioration for perhaps a few thousand more years until their discovery.”

Snakes alive, venomous snake evolution in Africa?  Fossils of a clade of venomous snakes have been found in Tanzania, Science Daily reports, providing the “Oldest fossil evidence of modern African venomous snakes” in that part of the continent.  “Colubroid fossils are documented as early as 50 million years ago,” the article explains. “But they weren’t expected to constitute such a large part of the African snake fauna 25 million years ago, as they became dominant in Europe and North America much later.”  Instead of the high ratio of venomous snakes “In the Oligocene epoch, from about 34 to 23 million years ago, we would have expected to see a fauna dominated by booid snakes, such as boas and pythons,” experts said.  Clearly they didn’t see what they expected.

Cambrian care:  Ostracods babysat their young 450 million years ago, an article on Live Science reveals.  Ostracods are small crustaceans that lay eggs; it is very rare to find fossilized animals of any kind with their eggs intact. This is the earliest known example of brooding in an animal.

“This is a very rare and exciting find from the fossil record,” David Siveter, lead study author and a geologist at the University of Leicester, said in a statement. “Only a handful of examples are known where eggs are fossilized and associated with the parent. This discovery tells us that these ancient, tiny marine crustaceans took particular care of their brood in exactly the same way as their living relatives.

The ostracod specimens are among the rare fossils that preserve body tissues, such as limbs, embryos and other soft parts. These tissues have been replaced by the mineral pyrite, or fool’s gold, but the mineralization means the researchers could closely examine the tiny fossils by X-ray and CT scanning.

The report on Science Daily says that “like their modern relatives, the ostracods were probably capable of swimming near the sea bed and obtained their food by scavenging and hunting.”  The “exceptionally well preserved” fossil ostracods were found in Ordovician strata in New York along with trilobites.

Coal beast from Vietnam:  A fossilized “coal beast” and a rhinoceros, said to be 37 million years old, were found in a Vietnam coal mine, according to Science Daily.  “The newly described mammals show a surprisingly close relationship to prehistoric species known from fossil sites in Europe.”  The coal beast is a “pig-like ungulate, closely related to hippos,” the article says.  Their predators were found, too: “The mammals’ remains bear signs of crocodile attacks. Indeed, the excavation site at Na Duong contains the fossilized remains of crocodiles up to 6 meters in length.”

Fishapod on the air:  Neil Shubin, discoverer of Tiktaalik (the fossil that crawled onto land behind Neil Tyson in the first Cosmos episode, 3/10/14) is taking his fish to TV.  In an interview for National Geographic, he said his fossil garnered so much attention partially because the Dover case on intelligent design was going on at the time (12/23/0512/30/05) and Steven Colbert also featured it, “it ended up part of popular culture, which is really wonderful.”  Having achieved his “huge find in paleontology” (1/14/14) he plans to go back to Ellesmere Island, the site of his discovery, to push the envelope. “I’m going back there this summer to look for something even older, something from the ‘Cambrian Explosion,’ when you see all these different sorts of creatures appear in the fossil record,” he says.  “A fish with a real skull, that’s what we hope to find. That would be terrific.”

There are facts (the fossils as observed), and there are narratives into which they are forced.  Learn to keep them apart.  There is nothing about any of these “brute fact” fossils that serves the Darwin narrative; indeed, they militate against it.  Early complexity (e.g., the ostracod), extraordinary stasis (the fern), and the strange mixtures of fossils (tar pits), are not what Darwin would have predicted.  The millions-of-years dates become increasingly absurd when you think of organisms that Darwin claimed would be in a continuously fluid state of evolution turn out to be identical to their living counterparts for hundreds of millions of years.  Add to that the exceptional preservation of many of these fossils after tens or hundreds of millions of years.  How can you believe such things?  If we had not been indoctrinated into the moyboy lingo for so long, such notions would appear incredible.  Philosophically, time becomes the evolutionists’ closet, as big as a warehouse, in which to hide their skeletons.

Shubin still doesn’t mention the tetrapod trackways that precede his fishapod.  Let him find a Cambrian-explosion fish with a skull.  Bring it on.  That will hurt the Darwin narrative even more.  There’s an inverse relationship going on, you see: as the Cambrian explodes, Darwinism implodes.

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