Synthetic Fossils Show Organic Films Can Preserve Quickly
In an attempt to learn about the fossilization process, scientists have found that exceptional fossils don’t require millions of years.
Scientists at the University of Bristol are old-earth evolutionists, but what they found by experiment mimicked what can be seen in fossils. How long did it take? One day.
Exceptionally-preserved fossils, like those of dinosaur bones and birds with soft-tissue remains in the form of carbon films, have been in the news for the last 20 to 30 years. Mary Schweitzer, in particular, created a stir with her fossils of what looked like intact blood vessels in a T. rex bone. The evidence of elastic tissue under a microscope elicited gasps by host Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes in 2010 (YouTube). Numerous reports have come in since, showing intact collagen and melanosomes in bird feathers and carbon films thought to be residues of organs and tissues (see footnote 2). Despite their astonishment at these finds, no one in the secular journals or mainstream media ever questions that these fossils really did form many tens of millions of years ago. Creationist radio host Bob Enyart keeps a running list of fossils with soft-tissue remains as evidence against the assumed long ages.
Can the conditions that created these exceptional fossils be reproduced in the lab? Researchers have created “synthetic fossils” (artificial taphonomy) in order to test what conditions can reproduce the observed remains. They tried to speed up the fossilization process by applying heat and pressure. These “maturation” experiments have been a staple for organic geochemists, says a press release from the University of Bristol, to help geochemists understand the formation of fossil fuels, or to produce synthetic diamonds.
More recently, maturation has been used to study the formation of exceptional fossils that preserve soft tissues as dark, organic films in addition to mineralised tissues like bone, including fossil dinosaurs from China with organically preserved feathers.
New work at the University of Bristol by grad student Evan Saitta has mimicked these types of fossils. His team gathered chicken feathers and living birds and lizards, then performed “humane euthanasia” on them by gassing them with CO2 (see footnote 1). When he used the standard maturation processes on his specimens, however, all he got was a “foul-smelling fluid.” He altered the technique by placing the specimens in compressible bentonite clay. This provided an outlet for fluids during the compaction step:
Saitta explained: “The sediment acts as a filter allowing unstable molecules to escape from the sample, revealing browned, flattened bones surrounded by dark, organic films where soft tissues once were.
“These results closely resemble exceptional fossils, not just visually, but also microscopically as revealed using a scanning electron microscope.”
Microscopic, pigment-bearing structures called melanosomes reside within the organic films in feathers and lizards treated with the new method while unstable protein and fatty tissues degrade and are lost, just as in exceptional fossils which have been used by scientists such as Vinther to reconstruct the original colours of dinosaurs.
The methods described in the paper in Palaeontology say that the experiment ran for 12 to 23 hours – less than one day (see footnote 1).
The researchers say the new method of sediment filtration represents an improvement upon earlier maturation experiments and will allow for the testing of many hypotheses regarding organic preservation in fossils and sediments.
The findings did not change the team’s views about long ages. They still believe fossils like Schweitzer’s fossils formed 60 to 80 million years ago (see footnote 2). But on what basis?
One commonly employed experimental approach is known as ‘artificial maturation’, where high heat and pressure accelerate the chemical degradation reactions that normally occur over millions of years when a fossil is buried deep underground and exposed to geothermal heat and pressure from overlying sediment.
And yet scientifically speaking, no scientist ever observed the presumed millions of years. What they observed, tested and found only took 23 hours.
To back up their claim, the team should repeat the setup without applying heat and pressure, and then wait 68 million years. Then their conclusions might be scientifically supportable.
Sediment‐encased maturation: a novel method for simulating diagenesis in organic fossil preservation
Evan T. Saitta, Thomas G. Kaye, and Jakob Vinther
First published: 25 July 2018 in Palaeontology
Data archiving statement: Data for this study are available in the Dryad Digital Repository: https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.0t67n
1. from the Method section of the paper:
Fresh feathers (Gallus gallus and Meleagris gallopavo from
UK farms) and lizards (Anolis captured from the wild in
Arizona, USA) were matured shortly after acquisition/humane
euthanasia via CO2 asphyxiation with their full
range of tissue composition present (see Saitta et al.
(2018) for additional, preliminary results on non-vertebrates).
Specimens were buried in easily-compacted bentonitic
clay (purchased from Clay Terra; https://clayterra.c
om/) inside a metal piston and compacted using a hydraulic
press (9–18 tonnes over 126.7 mm2), producing a consolidated
tablet (Fig. 1A). Previous attempts with loose
sediment did not produce results macrostructurally comparable
to fossils, or amenable to easy structural analysis,
indicating that compaction is important in establishing
the desired pore space filtration. Tablets were loaded into
a welded metal tube (19 mm inner diameter), forming an
airtight chamber tapped for a high-pressure airline, with
the goal of providing space for the escape of maturation
products from the sediment (Fig. 1B). The chamber
resided inside a ceramic-lined laboratory oven. The airline
exited a hole in the oven and connected a pressure-regulated
air compressor. Experiments ran at 210–250°C/225–
300 bars/12–23 h (Saitta et al. 2018) consistent with other
maturation studies of fossilization.
2. Statements regarding controversies about preservation potential that the scientists wished to test:
The discovery that melanosomes preserve commonly in
exceptional fossils (Vinther et al. 2008; Colleary et al.
2015) has opened new avenues of palaeontological
research, but their study has not been without controversy.
These structures have alternatively been identified
as fossil bacteria (Wuttke 1983; Davis & Briggs 1995), a
position still maintained by some (Moyer et al. 2014;
Lindgren et al. 2015; Schweitzer et al. 2015). However,
this stance has been countered by the fact that microbodies
commonly found in fossil skin, hair and feathers
conform to melanosomes in distribution, size and organization
(Vinther et al. 2008; Vinther 2015, 2016). Furthermore,
chemical analyses show that these structures
contain melanin (Glass et al. 2012, 2013; Lindgren et al.
2012, 2014; Colleary et al. 2015; Clements et al. 2016;
Gabbott et al. 2016; Brown et al. 2017).
In addition, it has been suggested that keratin protein
can preserve organically in fossils (Schweitzer et al. 1999,
2015; Edwards et al. 2011; Moyer et al. 2016a, b) and,
thus, melanosomes might be obscured by a keratin protein
matrix (Zhang et al. 2010; Moyer et al. 2014; Pan
et al. 2016). However, studies have described melanosomes
as being exposed on the sediment while nonpigmented
regions yield only rock matrix (Vinther et al.
2008; Colleary et al. 2015; Vinther 2015). More recently,
studies have argued that the only constituents of keratinous
tissues preserved deep in the geological record are
calcium phosphate and pigments (Mayr et al. 2016;
Vinther et al. 2016; Saitta et al. 2017a).
Experimental taphonomy supports the poor preservation
potential of keratin protein. Previous, non-sedimentencased
maturation experiments turned keratin into a
volatile-rich, water-soluble fluid (Saitta et al. 2017a) while
extracted melanosomes survived largely intact (Colleary
et al. 2015). This contrasting behaviour between keratin
protein and melanin during maturation suggests that diagenetic
degradation and loss of keratin protein is to be
expected in fossils, leaving behind melanosomes. However,
this keratin–melanin dynamic has yet to be experimentally
Similarly, decay-resistant collagenous tissue (Sansom
et al. 2010a, b, 2013) is expected to be diagenetically
unstable (Parry et al. 2018), like other proteinaceous
organics (Bada et al. 1999). However, epidermal collagen
protein has been proposed in Mesozoic fossils (Lingham-
Soliar et al. 2007), although such claims are debated
(Smith et al. 2015; Smithwick et al. 2017).
Regarding the specific experiments described here, we
hypothesize that tissues containing diagenetically-unstable
organics such as proteins and labile lipids (e.g. keratinous,
collagenous, muscle and adipose tissues) will largely
become degraded and lost into the sediment, while diagenetically-
stable organics such as melanin (i.e. melanosomes)
will tend to remain with the specimen. If the
hypothesized filtering effect of porous sediment on diagenetically-
altered organic materials is correct, then experimental
results from sediment-encased maturation should
be expected to resemble fossils such that preserved organic
stains consist largely of exposed melanosomes resting on
the sediment with a loss of surrounding tissues.