September 15, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

Fossils Can Mislead Big Time

Claims about fossil patterns rely on methods and assumptions that have been proven wrong.

The dead walk again, terrorizing scientists and the public.

A team of researchers dropped a bombshell in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. They checked assumptions and methods behind evolutionary claims about mass extinctions in earth history. Whoops; it became apparent that fossils can get up and move! It’s like a zombie story: a headline from the Florida Museum of Natural History reads, “The walking dead: Fossils on the move can distort patterns of mass extinctions.”

Florida Museum of Natural History researchers used a series of 130-foot cores drilled from the Po Plain in northeastern Italy to test a thought experiment: Imagine catastrophe strikes the Adriatic Sea, swiftly wiping out modern marine life. Could this hypothetical mass extinction be reconstructed correctly from mollusks – hard-shelled animals such as oysters and mussels – preserved in these cores?

When they examined the cores, the results were “somewhat unnerving,” said Michal Kowalewski, Thompson Chair of Invertebrate Paleontology and the study’s principal investigator.

Why was the result unnerving? Their data appeared to show a mass extinction had occurred, but that idea was false; the species were known to be still living! The scientists realized that common practices for interpreting fossils can be flat wrong.

Current methods may give researchers the illusion of precision but fail to account for these factors, which are crucial to correctly interpreting past extinction events, he said.

“If you apply methods based on the assumption of random fossilization, you get a precise estimate, but it may be wrong by millions of years,” Nawrot said. “Not only the pattern of extinction but also the timing of extinction would be wrongly interpreted, so this is quite important.”

Many paleontologists naively assume that fossils they dig up are laid down in a random order over time. Assuming that, the top fossil of a given animal, such as a mollusk, should count as the “last occurrence” (LO) of the species. Fitting its date to the evolutionary timeline, the scientist would think they have found the date that the species went extinct. If several species show their LO’s at the same time, scientists would think have identified the date of a mass extinction. That interpretation could be very, very wrong. Why? The fossils might have moved to another location!

The mollusks in the cores presented a false extinction pattern, with last occurrences of certain species seemingly “vanishing” from the fossil record at different depths. The disappearance of these species coincides with shifts in marine environments. Photo courtesy Daniele Scarponi.

When the researchers reordered the species represented in the cores from the Po basin according to their last occurrence, they noted several points at which many species appeared to vanish simultaneously. In reality, none of the species had gone extinct. They disappeared from a given site either because local environmental conditions changed, or they were simply missed during the sampling, said Rafal Nawrot, the study’s first author and a postdoctoral researcher in invertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum.

The cores also depicted a false pattern of extinction, with the majority of offshore species disappearing in a single large “pulse” in the lower part of the cores and shallow-water and brackish species fading out in several smaller pulses. This is because species followed their preferred habitats as they shifted with changing sea levels. Deeper-water dwellers vanished first, as the local river delta started to expand into the Adriatic Sea, replacing open sea with coastal conditions. When shorelines advanced even farther, shallow-water species disappeared as well.

Paleontologists have not been totally ignorant of problems in interpreting fossil cores. They knew about some ways that data can be misleading. One is called the Signor-Lipps Effect:

Comparing with the previous photo, could you interpret what happened? Could anyone? Photo by Daniele Scarponi.

The problem is a phenomenon known as the Signor-Lipps effect: Because the fossil record is incompletely sampled, the last-known fossil of a given species is almost certainly not the last member of that species, which muddles our ability to date extinctions.

Applied on large scales, the Signor-Lipps effect can make a mass extinction appear gradual. “But it’s more complicated than that,” these scientists warn. Why? Because fossils are not laid down in a random way. Geology changes. Things can happen that speed up or slow down the fossilization process at a given site.

Taken at face value, the cores presented a dramatically distorted record of both the timing and tempo of extinction, potentially calling into question some of the methods paleontologists commonly use to interpret past mass extinctions.

Climatic cycles trigger changes in sea level, causing shorelines to advance or recede and driving changes in environments. A beach may become a mudflat, for example, or a delta can turn into a coastal plain. Shifts in sea level can also affect sedimentation rates – how quickly mud and sand are deposited. These factors can cause last occurrences of fossils to cluster together and influence the probability of finding fossils in a given location.

Geologists and paleontologists have been at work for centuries. Surely they knew about these caveats, right? Here’s what one of the paper’s co-authors, Michal Kowaleski, says about that:

“This is to my knowledge, the first empirical study to use the fossil record of living species to test these models rigorously and computationally, rather than theoretically,” Kowalewski said. “We know these species are still living in the Adriatic Sea, so we can be sure that their disappearance from the fossil record does not represent a true extinction.”

Another co-author pointed out an additional way data can easily be misinterpreted:

“It’s important to admit that fossil species – just like modern ones – have specific ecological requirements, which sounds obvious but is not always acknowledged.”

How widespread is this problem? Was their discovery a rare case?

Taken at face value, the cores presented a dramatically distorted record of both the timing and tempo of extinction, potentially calling into question some of the methods paleontologists commonly use to interpret past mass extinctions.

The scientists want to reassure the public that scientists “can” interpret the fossils correctly, just that they need to be more careful about their assumptions and methods.

“We’re not saying you cannot study mass extinctions. You can,” Kowalewski said. “What we’re saying is that the nature of the geological record is complicated, so it is not trivial to decipher it correctly.”

But if we could not trust the interpretations of previous experts, why should we trust these experts? What other unknowns have they overlooked? They may not have taken into account “unknown unknowns” that are misleading on a massive scale. The open-access paper concludes,

Stratigraphic distribution of extant species demonstrates that interactions between ecological preferences of organisms and processes of sediment accumulation produce systematic changes in occurrence rates and sampling probabilities of taxa along a sedimentary succession. The resulting non-random truncation of stratigraphic ranges leads to clustering of LOs at specific sequence stratigraphic positions distorting the relative chronology of species extinctions. Such patterns can easily confound interpretations of the timing, duration and ecological selectivity of mass extinction events. Importantly, the effects of these eco-stratigraphic processes cannot be removed by methods that correct the Signor–Lipps effect under a model of uniform preservation and recovery of fossils.

Research strategies that account for the effects of stratigraphic architecture are data-intensive and rely on placing fossil occurrences in a rigorous palaeoenvironmental and sequence stratigraphic framework. They also typically require integration of data across multiple sections or sedimentary basin, thus often sacrificing temporal and spatial resolution. These challenges imposed by the nature of the stratigraphic record must be acknowledged and addressedbefore high-resolution reconstructions of past extinction dynamics are attempted. However, more conservative interpretations of the stratigraphic distribution of fossil taxa will maximize the accuracy of palaeobiological interpretations and reduce the risk of using false extinction patterns to formulate and test eco-evolutionary hypotheses.

NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine reproduced this press release, even though the results cause problems for evolutionary dating.

These scientists experimented with boreholes. How can you know when you’ve drilled enough boreholes? You might conclude you found the last occurrence (LO) of a mollusk or crinoid, but maybe a more recent one was missed had you drilled another hole nearby. This happens; dramatic cases of “living fossils” prove that previous claims about the last occurrence of a species, such as a ginkgo tree, a coelacanth, or a tuatara (each of them thought to have gone extinct with the dinosaurs or earlier), were false. The species had to be living in the intervening millions of years (according to the evolutionary timeline), without leaving a trace! Does that sound reasonable? What does that imply about the evolutionary timeline? What does that imply about evolutionists’ stories of mass extinctions? Evolutionists trot out their man-made diagrams of mass extinctions, giving an “illusion of precision” that might present a “dramatically distorted record,” deceiving the public.

Clearly the fossils mean something. They mean that animals lived and died. But when and how did they die? How did they become buried where they are? Fossils do not interpret themselves. Scientists did not watch them die and get buried. They might use assumptions they “feel” are reasonable. Some assumptions can be tested, like watching how seashells sort themselves out in water, using a flume. Even then, how can they be sure that their flume experiments match all the circumstances of the fossil burial? If two different sets of circumstances were to yield the same appearance, one could never be sure which scenario was correct. There’s no way to be absolutely sure without having been there. The more complicated the data set, the more fraught with potential for error. And if your interpretation is tied to a worldview (e.g., slow-and-gradual evolution over millions of years), watch out! As creation geologists like to ask, is the Grand Canyon to be explained by a little water over a long time, or a lot of water over a short time? Your worldview will determine which theory you find “reasonable.”

Biblical creationists have an advantage: an Eyewitness who was there and told us what happened. A global flood wiped out the first animals, leaving a fossil record which Ken Ham likes to describe as “billions of dead things, buried in rock layers, laid down by water, all over the earth.” You can choose to believe the Eyewitness or not, but we all have the same facts to examine. And what do we find? Billions of dead things, buried in rock layers, laid down by water, all over the earth. Who are you going to trust, fallible scientists who weren’t there and don’t know everything? You just watched them blunder on their assumptions and interpretations. Their confidence that they can get it right from now on is just bluffing. Don’t keep throwing good money to bad fortune tellers.

For solid evidence that the fossils are not millions of years old, but fit the Biblical timeline, see the free videos available online now from the documentary “Is Genesis History?” Since the film came out in 2017, their website has offered many helpful resources. It now includes extended scenes from the film, and lectures from the scientists who appeared in it (also available on their YouTube page). Watch this one about Dinosaur Soft Tissue and think about what it implies about the age of the fossil record.


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