Did This Bird Go Extinct and Re-Evolve? I Doubt It.

A flightless Railbird on the Aldabra atoll in the Indian Ocean (click for credit)

Over the past few days, several people have sent me articles like this one, which makes a rather fantastic claim:

The Aldabra white-throated rail bird was declared extinct, a victim of rising sea levels almost 100,000 years ago.

However, the flightless brown bird has recently been spotted – leaving scientists scratching their heads as to how – and why – the species has come back to life.

What do you conclude from reading that? The article seems to be saying that no one had ever seen this bird before; it was only known from the fossil record. Now, however, living versions of it have been seen, and how they came back from extinction is a mystery. Unfortunately, like many “science news” stories, this one distorts the science to the point that it is deceptive and misleading.

The science that is being distorted comes from a study published last year. A responsible article that describes the study can be found here. While the study and the responsible article don’t distort the science, I do think the conclusion that they draw is not the only one consistent with the data.

Let’s start with the bird that is being discussed. It’s the Aldabra white-throated rail, whose scientific name is Dryolimnas [cuvieri] aldabranus. It lives on the Aldabra atoll in the Indian Ocean and is nearly identical to white-throated rails (Dryolimnas cuvieri) found in other parts of the world, like Madagascar. However, the ones on the Aldabra atoll cannot fly, while the others can. As a result, the flightless birds on the atoll are considered a subspecies of the version that can fly.

While we cannot say for sure, the generally-accepted origin story for the Aldabra white-throated rail is that normal white-throated rails landed on the atoll, and since there were no predators there, they stayed. Since they didn’t need to fly anymore, they evolved into flightless birds over several generations. This makes sense, because when a population of organisms doesn’t need a particular biological trait, mutations can degrade those traits without affecting survivability. In addition, DNA is so incredibly well-designed that over the course of generations, it can “turn off” genes that are no longer used in order to save energy. As a result, it makes sense that these flightless birds are descendants from birds that could originally fly.

Why do these articles discuss the birds being extinct at one point? Because the authors of the scientific study looked at the fossil record of the atoll. Using scientifically-irresponisble dating methods, they came to the conclusion that the atoll was completely underwater about 140,000 years ago. When they looked at fossils they interpreted to be older than 140,000 years, they found two bones that seem identical to the corresponding bones in the Aldabra white-throated rails that currently live on the atoll. Thus, they conclude that these flightless birds lived on the atoll before it went completely underwater.

Well, since the birds couldn’t fly, the authors assume that they all died when the atoll was underwater. However, in fossils that they interpret as being deposited after ocean levels decreased and the atoll was no longer underwater, they found another bone that looks similar to the corresponding bones in white-throated rails that can fly. However, it is heavier and more robust than what is found in those birds, but still lighter than what is found in the flightless Aldabra white-throated rails. In other words, it seems to be “in between” the bone of a normal white-throated rail and a flightless white-throated rail. To them, that gives “irrefutable evidence” (their words) that the Aldabra white-throated rails evolved twice: once before the atoll went underwater, and once after.

While their interpretation of the evidence makes sense and is consistent with all the known data, their case is certainly not “irrefutable.” First, you have to assume that they are interpreting the fossil record correctly. There is a lot of evidence to indicate the earth isn’t anywhere close to 140,000 years old, and if that evidence is correct, then their entire explanation is wrong. Also, even if the earth is as old as these scientists want to believe, the authors’ explanation is not the only one consistent with the data. We know that flightless animals can move from place to place on floating mats of vegetation. This is called “rafting,” and it is used by both evolutionists and creationists to explain the worldwide distribution of certain animals. If the atoll flooded like the authors think, the flightless birds could have survived by rafting. What about that one bone that is “in between” the two subspecies? There are natural variations in all bones. A “more robust” bone from a normal white-throated rail can be explained by natural variation within a population of normal white-throated rails.

The main reason I am writing about this is not to argue with the authors. It’s to point out the deceptiveness of articles like the one I quoted at the beginning of the post. As I have said many times before, do not believe the things you read in the popular press when it comes to science. Most “science journalists” are profoundly ill-equipped to understand science, and usually quite poor journalists as well.

No Other Explanation: Dinosaur DNA!

Cells In two different stages of mitosis. The dark areas represent DNA, which is most likely damaged but still at least partially arranged in chromosomes.
(image from paper being discussed)

Despite the overwhelming evidence, there are some who are skeptical that soft tissue can be found in dinosaur fossils. Even among those who think that there may be soft tissue in some dinosaur fossils, there are those who think that there is no way complex molecules like DNA could possibly be found in that tissue. Well, Dr. Mary Schweitzer and her colleagues have recently published a study that, as far as I am concerned, should put all doubts to rest. Yes, dinosaur fossils do contain soft tissue and original dinosaur biomolecules, including DNA.

The study involves a detailed investigation of fossils from duck-billed dinosaur (Hypacrosaurus stebingeri) nestlings that are supposed to be 75 million years old. The authors examined cartilage tissue under the microscope and found what were obviously cells. Of course, that’s nothing unusual. The Dinosaur Soft Tissue Research Institute has some really great examples of dinosaur cells and other delicate structures from dinosaur fossils. They also have evidence for RNA in the fossils (see here, here, and here).

What’s new (and in my mind definitive) about this study is that they applied two different DNA stains to the tissue. The stains are designed to bind only to DNA, and when you use two different stains and see them both bind to the same structures, you have doubly confirmed the presence of DNA. Of course, what they saw could be DNA stains binding to DNA that contaminated the fossil, right? Wrong! The image at the top of the post indicates why. If I ask anyone who has taken a good high school biology class what the red box is drawn around, he or she should be able to tell me.

Continue reading “No Other Explanation: Dinosaur DNA!”

More Incredible Dinosaur Soft Tissue Results

An axon from a nerve fiber, found in a triceratops fossil. (image taken from the video discussed below)

The Dinosaur Soft Tissue Research Institute is producing some incredible results. About two months ago, I discussed a video in which the institute’s founder, Mark Armitage, showed some of them. Recently, Armitage posted another video that shows even more results, and once again, they are amazing.

If you don’t have time to watch the entire video, let me summarize what I consider to be the two most amazing things shown. In my previous post, I told you that Armitage shows delicate vein valves that he extracted from soft tissue found in a triceratops fossil. It is amazing that he could get them, since they are so delicate that I end up destroying them when I try to get them from a dissection. More importantly, there is no possible way that such a vein valve could be from any source other than the dinosaur, since no organism that could possibly contaminate the fossil produces such structures. Thus, these vein valves are clearly original tissue from the dinosaur itself.

At 2:49 in this video, he shows not only the vein valve, but he shows that the wispy tissue which covers the valve when it is close is still 100% intact! How does he do that? He traps bacteria underneath the closed valve. The tissue is so thin that you can actually see the bacteria swimming around underneath it, trying to get out! The bacteria are obviously the result of contamination, but there is simply no way that the vein valve can be explained that way. So the video shows incredibly delicate dinosaur tissue (so delicate that you can see through it) that is still soft! That’s strong evidence that the fossil is not millions of years old!

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Incredibly Fragile Dinosaur Soft Tissue

Two images of the delicate, one-way valves from veins. They were found in dinosaur soft tissue!
(Image copied from the presentation embedded below)

Mark Armitage and James Solliday at the Dinosaur Soft Tissue Research Institute have been doing some amazing work. On October 5th, Mr. Armitage presented their findings at Lower Columbia College. Apparently, he has not yet received the video of that presentation, so he kindly posted a quick overview of the content. To me, it is astounding:

While everyone should watch all 15 minutes of the presentation, I want to highlight the things that I think are most important.

At 2:29, he shows two images that elicited an audible gasp from me when I first saw them. To understand just how incredible the images are, you need to know that there are one-way valves found in vertebrate veins. This is because the blood pressure in a vein is so low that blood can actually travel backwards. To prevent that, there are delicate, one-way valves throughout the veins. They open when the blood is flowing the correct way, and they close to prevent it flowing backwards. In the left-hand part of the image at the top of the post (copied from the presentation), you see a circle with what looks like a partially-opened tent flap. The circle is the base of the valve, and the “tent flap” is the delicate membrane that opens and closes. In that image, the valve is partly open. On the right-hand side, the valve is fully open.

This is incredible to me, because I have tried to dissect animals and extract these valves. I have never been able to. They are so delicate that I end up destroying them in the dissection process. Now, of course, I am not much of a biologist, and I am even less of an expert at dissection. Nevertheless, my experience with them indicates that they are absurdly delicate. Yet, here they are in a dinosaur fossil! Not only does this give evidence that the fossil is not millions of years old, but it also shows that these are definitely not structures that come from fungi or bacteria which recently invaded the fossil. Bacteria and fungi do not build structures with these delicate, one-way valves! He also presents other evidence that rules out bacterial and fungal contamination.

At 8:22, he shows red blood cells from a fossil that is supposed to be 400 million years old! The cells have the appropriate size and shape for red blood cells. Later on (12:05), he shows a blood vessel from a dinosaur fossil that has not even collapsed! It has an air bubble in it. When he does a stain test to see what is in the blood vessel, the test indicates that there is RNA in the blood vessel!

At 6:47, he shows what appears to be blood clotted in the tissue. He shows how it behaves just like you would expect blood to behave when exposed to polarized light, and he also shows that iron from the blood has not spread into the bone tissue. This is important, because Dr. Mary Schweitzer has proposed that iron might be preserving the soft tissue found in dinosaur bones. There has already been several arguments (see here and here) that seem to invalidate Dr. Schweitzer’s hypothesis, but this observation is the nail in the coffin. Iron can’t be preserving bone tissue if it doesn’t spread into the bone to begin with!

I have said this before and will say it again: It’s a wonderful time to be a young-earth creationist!

NOTE: A commentor made the great suggestion that I post a link if you want to support Mr. Armitage’s research. Here it is:

Donate to the Dinosaur Soft Tissue Research Institute.

Cool Video of a Soft Dinosaur Cell

A dinosaur fossil (left) and a cell that came from a different part of the same fossil assemblage (right)
(Images copyright Mark Armitage. Click for source)

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the remarkable dinosaur research being done by microscopist Mark Armitage. The story discussed two scientific articles he wrote about finding soft dinosaur cells in a Triceratops fossil. Well, Armitage is continuing his research at the Dinosaur Soft Tissue Research Institute in the state of Washington. The pictures above represent some new results: soft bone cells from a Nanotyrannus fossil.

Now whether or not there is such a thing as a Nanotyrannus is actually a matter of debate. Some paleontologists think the fossils are really from a juvenile Tyrannosaurus. So it might be a different species, or it might just be a juvenile form of an already-known species. Regardless of which is correct, it is well accepted that these fossils have been found in Cretaceous rock that is supposed to be about 65 million years old. It’s hard to understand how any cellular material could have survived for that long without being fossilized. Nevertheless, the cells that Armitage has extracted from the fossil are soft, as shown in the video below.

Of course, it is always possible that the cell is not really from the dinosaur. However, that’s a bit hard to believe. It came from a bone, and it has all the visual characteristics of an osteocyte, which is a bone cell. I can’t think of any possible contaminant that has the size, shape, and filipodial extensions that you see in the video. Also, remember that Armitage previously extracted soft bone cells from a Triceratops fossil. Thus, if this is a contaminant, it must be common to two completely separate fossils (or somehow introduced by Armitage’s process, which once again, is hard to believe).

I think it is reasonable to conclude that Armitage is, indeed, isolating soft dinosaur bone cells. He plans to make a presentation at Lower Columbia College in Longview Washington, on October 5th 2019, at 7 pm. In that presentation, it looks like he will also discuss how the soft tissues from which his cells are isolated react to stains for DNA and RNA. I won’t be able to make it, but I sincerely hope that it is recorded and that Armitage eventually writes another article about his continuing research!

How I Address the Age of the Earth in My Courses

My publisher has been getting several questions about how I address the age of the earth in my science courses. This probably stems from the fact that there is a lot of misinformation going through the homeschooling community regarding my position on the issue. I thought I would try to clear things up with a post.

First, my position on the age of the earth hasn’t changed in more than thirty years. I turned from atheism to Christianity in my late high school years, and at that time, I was happy to believe what my teachers told me about the age of the earth. It was more than four billion years old. I was told that we knew this because of radiometric dating methods, which involved studying the relative amounts of radioactive atoms in rocks and fossils. This “fact” of science was later reinforced when I went to university, so I was still happy to believe it.

Then I started my Ph.D. program in nuclear chemistry. I learned about radioactive decay in detail and started doing experiments with nuclear reactions. Most of my work was done at the University of Rochester Nuclear Structure Research Lab, which also had a group that did radiometric dating. I never did any of that work myself, but I watched them do their experiments, asked them questions, listened to their presentations at the lab, etc. Based on what I learned there, I decided that I couldn’t put much faith in the ages given by radiometric dating.

This caused me to question the age of the earth from a scientific perspective. Theologically, I wasn’t committed to any age for the earth. Certainly the most straightforward interpretation of Genesis is that the universe and all it contains was created in six solar days, and that leads to a young-earth view. At the same time, however, there were early church Fathers (as well as ancient Jewish theologians) who didn’t interpret the days in Genesis that way. So I attempted to investigate the subject with an open mind. I found that in my view, science makes a lot more sense if the earth is thousands of years old rather than billions of years old, so I started believing in a young earth. The more I have studied science, the more convinced I have become that the earth is only thousands of years old.

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Soft Tissue Showdown

Soft tissue structures in a dinosaur bone that the authors interpret as biofilms left by modern bacteria (image from study being discussed)

Since Dr. Mary Schweitzer shocked the paleontological community with her discovery of what appears to be soft tissue in a dinosaur fossil, scientists rushed to find more examples of such soft tissue in fossils that are thought to be many millions of years old. They were apparently successful (see here, here, here, here, and here, and here).

Reactions to these finds follow one of three schools of thought. Some in the scientific community (like myself) beleive that the soft tissue is from the creatures that made the fossils and is therefore evidence that the fossils are not millions of years old, since there is no plausible mechanism by which soft tissue can stay soft that long. Some believe that the soft tissue is from the creatures that made the fossils and are seeking a means by which it could stay soft for millions of years. So far, those attempts have not been successful (see here, here, and here). The rest accept the seemingly obvious fact that soft tissue cannot possibly stay soft for millions of years and therefore argue that the soft tissue that has been found cannot be from the creatures that made the fossils. The results of a recent study at least partially support the view of those in the third camp.

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Soft Dinosaur Tissue Looks Really Young!

“Soft” tissue from an Allosaurus fossil, which is supposed to be 150 million years old. (Image from study being discussed)

In 2005, Dr. Mary Schweitzer stunned the paleontology community by finding soft tissue in a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil that is supposed to be more than 65 million years old. Because it is very difficult to understand how tissue could remain soft for more than 65 million years, many scientists tried to contest her findings. Over the years, however, more discoveries of soft tissue in fossils that are supposed to be multiple millions of years old have been made (see here, here, here, here, and here, for example). As a result, most scientists have come to accept the fact that there is soft tissue in fossils that are up to 550 million years old.

Now the focus on soft tissue in fossils is changing. Scientists are trying to find some chemical mechanism that would allow soft tissue to avoid decay and fossilization over such a long period of time. Dr. Schweitzer herself did experiments to suggest that iron might help to stave off decomposition and fossilization, but from a chemical standpoint, it simply doesn’t work (see here and here).

A reader recently asked me about another proposed explanation that I had somehow missed. The study was published late last year, and while it attempts to explain how soft tissue can avoid decomposition over millions of years, it doesn’t achieve its goal. Instead, it actually gives more evidence that the fossils in the study are very young. However, it does produce some interesting results that require further investigation.

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Here’s Another College That Gets It

Six years ago, I wrote an article about Anderson University, where I am an adjunct professor. While the university clings strongly to the essentials of the Christian faith, it does not force its faculty to conform to one interpretation of Scripture. As a result, students are exposed to many different views that exist within Christendom.

In addition, rather than just trying to proselytize for their own view, the faculty are committed to making sure students understand the different ways Christians interpret the world through the lens of Scripture. This is best exemplified by an example. One of the science professors is an old-earth creationist, but he regularly invites me into his classes either to give a young-earth view of the science the students are learning or to engage in a friendly debate with him on the issue of the earth’s age. I especially like the latter, since students see that two people can engage in serious disagreements and still be good friends.

Just before Christmas, someone I respect and admire sent me an article that I wanted to share with my readers. It gives you another example of a Christian College (in this case, a seminary and Bible College) that gets it. To fully appreciate the article, however, you need to know the history behind it.

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Lightning: A Natural Nuclear Reactor!

A thunderstorm in Annemasse, Haute-Savoie, France (click for full credit info)

In 1994, a scientific team using the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory reported seeing intense gamma ray flashes coming from the earth. The researchers called it an “unexplained terrestrial phenomenon,” but they noted:

The apparent correlation of the events with storm systems leads us to hypothesize that they are caused by electrical discharges to the stratosphere or ionosphere.

This generated interest among certain research groups, so ground-based observatories, airborne detectors, and other space-based observatories began looking for the same thing. It is now well-known that lightning is accompanied by the production of high-energy gamma rays.

While these gamma rays are of high enough energy to induce nuclear reactions, until now there has been no conclusive evidence that such reactions are actually occurring in connection with lightning storms. However, thanks in part to a Japanese academic crowdfunding site, we now have strong evidence that lightning does, indeed, produce nuclear reactions in the atmosphere!

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