Fossil Bird Oil Stuns Scientists
A gland that birds use for preening, including the fatty oil, has been found in a fossil. Could it really be 48 million years old?
Yesterday, we reported a soft tissue find in a turtle fossil said to be 54 million years old. Within hours, another story appeared about soft tissue from a bird fossil said to be 48 million years old. The Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum put out this press release:
As a rule, soft parts do not withstand the ravages of time; hence, the majority of vertebrate fossils consist only of bones. Under these circumstances, a new discovery from the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Messel Pit” near Darmstadt in Germany comes as an even bigger surprise: a 48-million-year old skin gland from a bird, containing lipids of the same age. The oldest lipids ever recorded in a fossil vertebrate were used by the bird to preen its plumage.
…one of the most astonishing examples of soft part preservation in animals.
The Messel Pit has yielded some of the best-preserved fossils in the world. Even in the context of previous amazing finds at the site, this discovery struck the scientists by surprise. Gerald Mayr, ornithologist for the institute, remarked,”The discovery is one of the most astonishing examples of soft part preservation in animals. It is extremely rare for something like this to be preserved for such a long time.” It’s astonishing because paleontologists know that “The organic materials that the soft parts consist of usually decompose within decades, or even just a few years.” And yet the lipids analyzed from the sample have kept their chemical composition for 48 million Darwin Years. How?
To date, it is not clear why the lipids from the uropygial gland were able to survive for so long. It is possible that hey hardened into nore [sic, more] decomposition-resistant waxes under exclusion of oxygen. In addition, the researchers assume that one of the properties of the preen oil played a role that is still shown by modern birds today – its antibacterial components. They may have been the reason that after the bird’s death only few bacteria were able to settle in, preventing the full-on decomposition.
Clearly, they don’t know. They’re only offering suggestions. Nobody has ever experienced 48 million years. “Decades, or even just a few years” are within human experience, and those have been sufficient to show that organic materials in soft parts decompose quickly. Even with mitigating circumstances to slow down the decay, can they overcome it for tens of millions of years?
Another problem for consensus science is that this bird had a gland that is virtually identical to those of modern birds – no evolution. Bob Yirka at Phys.org says,
The team studied the object using pyrolysis gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to better understand its chemical composition and found that it was unlike those of the bird’s other fossilized parts or the oily material in which the bird had been found. Instead, it very closely resembled the chemical makeup of modern uropygial glands. Taken together, the team reports, all signs point to the object representing an example of soft tissue surviving over the course of millions of years.
The “millions of years” part of the story, though, does not come from observations date-stamped on the specimen. It comes from Darwin’s requirement that life has developed gradually over long time periods. The scientists clearly did not expect this soft tissue to remain that long. Plus, there was no evolution evident. What, other than distraction, did Darwinism contribute to the report? Scientists should consider the distinct possibility that the remains indicate the bird did not fossilize very long ago.
The find has been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The Abstract follows:
Although various kinds of organic molecules are known to occur in fossils and rocks, most soft tissue preservation in animals is attributed to melanin or porphyrins. Lipids are particularly stable over time—as diagenetically altered ‘geolipids’ or as major molecular constituents of kerogen or fossil ‘geopolymers’—and may be expected to be preserved in certain vertebrate tissues. Here we analysed lipid residues from the uropygial gland of an early Eocene bird using pyrolysis gas chromatography mass spectroscopy. We found a pattern of aliphatic molecules in the fossil gland that was distinct from the host oil shale sediment matrix and from feathers of the same fossil. The fossil gland contained abundant n-alkenes, n-alkanes and alkylbenzenes with chain lengths greater than 20, as well as functionalized long-chain aldehydes, ketones, alkylnitriles and alkylthiophenes that were not detected in host sediment or fossil feathers. By comparison with modern bird uropygial gland wax esters, we show that these molecular fossils are likely derived from endogenous wax ester fatty alcohols and fatty acids that survived initial decay and underwent early diagenetic geopolymerization. These data demonstrate the high fidelity preservation of the uropygial gland waxes and showcase the resilience of lipids over geologic time and their potential role in the exceptional preservation of lipid-rich tissues of macrofossils.
One positive result of the discovery for everyone is that paleontologists will be on the lookout for similar soft tissue remains in other bird fossils, possibly even in the “feathered dinosaur” fossils coming from Jurassic and Cretaceous strata. Of course, soft tissues of other kinds have already been reported in some of those. The more soft tissue found, the better.
Note: the press release states, “Press images may be used at no cost for editorial reporting, provided that the original author’s name is published, as well. The images may only be passed on to third parties in the context of current reporting.”
Add this rock to the ballast in the Darwin hot-air balloon (see yesterday’s commentary).
See our previous reports about Messel Pit fossils:
- 10/15/15, “Breathtaking Cretaceous Fossil Mammal Preserves Soft Tissue”
- 02/24/15, “Stunning Fossils Featured”
- 05/28/14, “The Early Hummingbird Gets the Evolutionary Nectar”
- 06/19/12, “Mating Turtles Fossilized Instantly”
- 12/26/06, “Incredible Stasis in Evolution: What Does It Mean?”
Strangely, earlier reports gave dates of 47 million years for the pit. The article does not mention why they added another million Darwin Years.