Another Fossil Surprise

This Archaeopteryx fossil, known as the "Thermopolis specimen," was analyzed chemically. The results were surprising to those who think it is millions of years old (click for credit)

Archaeopteryx is an extinct bird that we know only from the fossils it left behind. There are eleven discovered fossils in existence, and the one that is generally considered the most well-preserved is called the “Thermopolis specimen.” It was found somewhere in the Solnhofen region of Germany and was part of a private collection until it was acquired by the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis, Wyoming.1 The Solnhofen Limestone formation, where it was probably preserved, is thought to be 150 million years old.2 Because the specimen is so well-preserved, geochemist Roy Wogelius and his colleagues wanted to analyze the specimen chemically, to see if there were any chemical remnants of the actual bird still in the fossil.

How do you chemically analyze a fossil without destroying it? One way is to use the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL). This instrument produces high-intensity X-rays which are used to illuminate the material being studied. The elements in the material absorb these X-rays, becoming “excited” with the extra energy. In order to “de-excite,” they release that energy with X-rays of their own. The released X-rays are different for each element, so when you analyze the X-rays being emitted by the illuminated fossil, you can determine what elements exist in the fossil, along with their concentrations.

So Roy Wogelius and his colleagues teamed up with some physicists at Stanford University to analyze this incredibly well-preserved Archaeopteryx fossil. The results were surprising, at least to those who think the fossil is 150 million years old.

The researchers first scanned the limestone slab in which the fossil was preserved so as to get an idea of what elements are in the limestone and how they are distributed. They then started scanning the fossil itself, and they found significant differences between the elements found in the fossil and the elements found in the surrounding limestone. For example, the fossilized bones, claws, skull, and teeth had similar concentrations of calcium, which were all much lower than the concentration of calcium found in the limestone itself. Conversely, the concentrations of zinc, phosphorus, and sulfur were all greater in the fossil than in the surrounding limestone.3

What does this tell us? Well, here’s what the authors say is their most striking result:

…elevated Zn levels associated with the skull and other bones have persisted over geological time and most likely, along with phosphorous and sulfur, are remnants of the original bone chemistry.

So even after a supposed 150 million years, there is still a lot of the original chemistry from the bird itself. While this is amazing, I thought the other thing they discovered was even more incredible. When they looked at the levels of phosphorus in the rachises (feather shafts) that are preserved in the limestone, they found that the levels were once again quite different from the surrounding limestone. Instead, they were very similar to the levels found in the rachises of birds that are currently alive!

This is really surprising, because it has always been thought that the feathers we see in these Archaeopteryx fossils are just impressions left behind in the surrounding limestone. However, that’s not what these results indicate. As the authors state:

Here we present chemical imaging via synchrotron rapid scanning X-ray fluorescence (SRS-XRF) of the Thermopolis Archaeopteryx, which shows that portions of the feathers are not impressions but are in fact remnant body fossil structures, maintaining elemental compositions that are completely different from the embedding geological matrix.

So in the end, the fossil seems to have remnants of the original chemistry of the bones, claws, skull, and teeth. More surprisingly, it even has remnants of the original feather shafts!

This kind of analysis, combined with the results of several other fossil analyses, provide strong evidence that such fossils are not millions of years old.


1. Gerald Mayr, Burkhard Pohl, and D. Stefan Peters, “A Well-Preserved Archaeopteryx Specimen with Theropod Features,” Science 310:1483-1486, 2005.
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2. Paul Selden and John Nudds, Evolution of Fossil Ecosystems, Manson Publishing 2012, p. 159.
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3. U. Bergmann, R. W. Morton, P. L. Manning, W. I. Sellers, S. Farrar, K. G. Huntley, R. A. Wogelius, and P. Larson, “Archaeopteryx feathers and bone chemistry fully revealed via synchrotron imaging,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107(20):9060–9065 2010. (available online)
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14 thoughts on “Another Fossil Surprise”

  1. Interesting article. I suppose evolutionists will have to come up with a different “missing link” now.

  2. Here’s another recent discovery of original biologic structures: preserved coloration of trilobites dated at least 250 million years old:

    The original paper is here:

    Notably, the authors don’t express surprise anywhere at the survival of these structures, considering the length of time they are supposed to have been preserved and the fact that there was a later, widespread regional deformation event in the area.

    1. Thanks so much for those links, S.J. It’s truly amazing how many original biological structures are being found in these supposedly “millions of years” old fossils.

  3. I don’t quite understand how this disputes the dinosaur to bird transition? All this is saying is that the chemistry in the fossils is different than the rocks. Also, do you have any other citations that say these weren’t thought of as feathers before other than Answers In Genesis or YEC? My understanding is that mainstream science always thought of these as proto feathers as found in other fossils. There is also evidence of DNA that codes for teeth found in chickens left over from the dinosaur days.

    1. Thanks for your comment, JLAfan. I guess I don’t understand your points. Nowhere do I imply that this disputes the dinosaur to bird transition. The post simply makes the point that it’s hard to believe the fossil is millions of years old if it retains much of the original chemistry of the bird.

      The AiG link does dispute the transitional status of Archaeopteryx, but not because of this finding. It disputes the transitional status based on the fact that by essentially all measures, Archaeopteryx was a strong flyer and a bird in every sense of the word. The AiG article doesn’t claim the fossil has no feathers. In fact, it points out that the feathers are identical in every way to that of a modern bird. Thus, they cannot be transitional. If you want a non-AiG source that says the same thing, that’s easy, as it is the common view among paleontologists.

      What this finding shows is that the feathers in the fossil are not just impressions. As the authors note, this was the general consensus of the paleontological community, but we now know that’s not true. The feathers in the fossil are remains of the actual feathers, not just their impressions.

      Also, since you mention protofeathers, there are evolutionists who put forth very strong arguments that what have been considered protofeathers by some paleontologists have nothing to do with feathers at all (see here and here). Also, these same paleontologists say that the dino-to-bird transition is not even possible.

      The fact that chickens have genes that code for teeth is not surprising to young-earthers. In fact, there are two genera of extinct aquatic birds that are fully birds but have teeth (Hesperornis and Ichthyornis). Thus, at least some birds were designed with teeth. The fact that modern birds don’t have teeth simply means that this is a genetic trait that was lost over time, most likely because of loss-of-function mutations, such as those discussed by Michael Behe.

  4. Sorry about the misunderstanding about transitional forms but the YEC position is that Archaeopteryx is a winged bird and not a dinosaur to bird transition, right? May I ask why that is if mainstream science accepts this as fact?

    1. You are correct, JLAfan. The YEC position is that Archaeopteryx is a true bird in every sense of the word. In fact, that is the position of most in the Intelligent Design community as well. There are even several in the “mainstream” scientific community who do not see Archaeopteryx as transitional. Dr. Alan Feduccia (one of the world’s leading paleornithologists), for example, considers it to be a true bird. Those in the “mainstream” scientific community who look at it as transitional do so because they have to. Since there aren’t any serious contenders for the supposed dinosaur-to-bird transition, they need something. Thus, they see the teeth, bony tail, and wing claws on Archaeopteryx as remnants of its almost gone dinosaur ancestry. However, lots of extinct true birds had teeth. Penguins have bony tails, and the juvenile hoatzin has wing claws. Thus, there is no reason to consider those characteristics to be transitional, as they can all be found in true birds.

  5. I’m not a YEC myself but if there is no much evidence for it, why does mainstream science ridicule it so much? Doesn’t that mean that YEC is wrong? I can see it being a theist vs atheist war but even some theists are against YEC.

    1. JLAfan, I suggest you look at the history of science. The scientific community has often ridiculed scientific beliefs that turn out to be correct. Not all that long ago, for example, Dr. Dan Shechtman was ridiculed for his belief in quasicrystals. He ended up being right and winning a Nobel Prize for it! The fact is that scientists (even the vast majority of them) can often be wrong because they allow their preconceived notions to get in the way of the data. This is why it is important to look at the evidence for yourself.

  6. Thanks for the post Dr. Wile. Very interesting. I had someone mention the Archaeopteryx to me last week and now I have some new sources thanks to both this article and your comments.

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