Scorpions are part of phylum Arthropoda, which contains all animals that do not have backbones but do have an outer coating of “armor,” which scientists call an exoskeleton. This exoskeleton is a complex structure that is formed primarily with proteins and a molecule called chitin (pronounced KY tin). While the scorpions we know today live on land, the fossil record holds remains of some very scorpion-like animals that most likely lived in water. They are called eurypterids, or sea scorpions.
As far as we know, sea scorpions are now extinct, but you can find their fossils in rocks near the bottom of the geological column. Using scientifically irresponsible dating techniques, paleontologists think that the oldest sea scorpion fossils are well over 400 million years old.1 Evolutionists think that those sea scorpions eventually found their way out of the water and invaded land, evolving into modern-day scorpions.
So why am I telling you this? Well, a new report published in Geology tells us about a surprising discovery made by scientists who were studying a sea scorpion fossil they say is 417 million years old and a land scorpion fossil they say is 310 million years old. This discovery casts a lot of doubt on those outlandish ages.
To understand why this study casts doubt on the ages of the fossils, you first have to understand what chitin is. It is a long molecule composed of the same unit repeated over and over again. The unit that repeats is a derivative of glucose, the simple sugar that plants produce via photosynthesis. Arthropods, like scorpions, produce chitin and mix it with certain proteins to make their hard, protective exoskeleton.
Because there are so many arthropods in nature, there is a lot of chitin being produced. According to one estimate, 100,000,000,000 tons of it are made each year in nature.2 Since so much is made, of course, it needs to decay away fairly quickly once an arthropod dies, or there would be a lot of excess chitin building up in nature. Indeed, studies show that especially in the ocean, microorganisms tend to remove it very efficiently.3
Because of this fact, you don’t expect to see a lot of chitin or its remnants in fossils. Nevertheless, some has been found. Until this new study, the oldest fossils in which detectable chitin had been found were supposedly 25 million years old.4 Now to me, that’s surprising enough. I would not expect chitin to avoid degradation for that long. However, the authors who found this 25-million-year-old chitin argue that if the right conditions are met, it is possible for chitin to exist for that long.
Even though paleontologists had looked for chitin in fossils that are supposedly older than 25 million years, none had been found. Thus, it was generally accepted that while it is possible for chitin to avoid degradation for a handful of millions of years, it can’t last much longer than that. However, the new study I mentioned above just found it in two fossils that are supposedly hundreds of millions of years old!5
Science Daily calls the results “surprising,” but I find them a little more than surprising. I find them astounding! To think that a biomolecule could last that long without being completely degraded is hard for me to fathom. The environmental conditions have to be very specific for there to be even a chance at such long-term preservation. To think that such conditions could be maintained for hundreds of millions of years really strains the bounds of credulity.
As far as I am concerned, this study just adds to the ever-growing pile of evidence that suggests fossils are simply not as old as they are thought by many to be!
1. Jeram, A, “When scorpions ruled the world,” New Scientist 126:52-55, 1990.
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2. Gooday, G.W., “The ecology of chitin degradation,” Advances in Microbiological Ecology 11:387-430, 1990.
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3. M. Poulicek and C. Jeuniaux, “Chitin biodegradation in marine environments: an experimental approach,” Biochemical Systematics and Ecology 19:385-394, 1991.
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4. B. Artur Stankiewicz, et al., “Preservation of Chitin in 25-Million-Year-Old Fossils,” Science 276:1541-1543, 1997.
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5. George D. Cody, et al., “Molecular signature of chitin-protein complex in Paleozoic arthropods,” Geology 10.1130/G31648.1, 2011.
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12 thoughts on “Yet Another Example of “Old” Fossils that Look Young!”
As far as I understand it, young earth creationists reject radioisotopic dating methods as “irresponsible” because the assumption of uniformitarian decay rates through time cannot be demonstrated. If uniformitarian assumptions are such a bad thing, then why make the argument that the decay rates of chitin are evidence for a young earth when the same uniformitarian assumptions are made?
That’s a good question, Jordan. I think there are two important things to consider:
1. One of the problems with the assumption of uniformitarian decay is the timescale over which you have to extrapolate. We have been studying radioactivity for a bit more than 100 years. To believe in radioactive dating, you have to extrapolate that over BILLIONS of years. That is, at best, a very poor extrapolation. To believe that chitin cannot survive very long, all you have to do is look at the experiments that have been done. They strongly indicate that chitin typically doesn’t survive very long. That conclusion takes no extrapolation at all.
2. There is also the question of following the data. There are data out there that already suggest radioactive half lives are not constant. There are also data that suggest chitin can’t survive very long. Thus, it seems that the best way to follow the data is to be skeptical of radioactive dating and a millions of years old age for chitin-containing fossils.
So, why would 25 million years be any different than a few hundreds of millions? If the first is possible, then why not the second?
Jacob, it is not clear that the first is possible. As I said in my post, 25 million years is already quite surprising. More importantly, however, 400+ million years is 16 times the span, and it occurred in water, where the data already show how quickly chitin breaks down.
Fascinating point. Do they not even make an argument as to how the chitin supposedly lasted so long? Do you think that they didn’t even recognize the problem?
BK, they certainly recognize the problem. In the paper, the authors suggest that perhaps some of the chitin breaks down to form a waxy covering that protects the rest of the chitin. However, that doesn’t really work, because if the waxy coating is made from the products of protein/chitin breakdown, then microorganisms could still digest it. So you have to assume that despite the fact that the sea scorpion fossil was in water, somehow it was completely cut off from microorganisms, which have been shown to be incredibly good at decomposing chitin!
I’d have to go with Jacob on this one. If it preserved, it’s preserved. From my scan of the info, it looks like they had to use some pretty sophisticated techniques to flush out the info.
Thanks for your comment, Keith. There is no question the chitin is there. Thus, it has been preserved. The question rests on whether it is even possible for chitin to be preserved for so long, especially in water. I don’t think so, which calls into question the age of the fossils.
Is it really a stretch to think that the eurypterid somehow was cut off decomposing microorganisms? Say, from having been buried in sediment? Happens all the time today.
I mean, how old would this fossil be in the YEC timeframe? A few thousand years old? Based on known rates of chitin decomposition, I don’t think we would expect to find chitin even this old preserved in the fossil record. So if we’re willing to allow it in a YEC time frame, why not in a deep time frame? I think the only thing this study shows is that we have no idea how these things decompose in the face of rapid burial, and intense heat and pressure.
Jordan, I think it is a stretch. I can imagine isolation for a while, but microorganisms are ubiquitous. It is hard to imagine isolation for thousands of years, much less millions, and much, much less hundreds of millions! You are right. In a YEC timeframe, the fossils would be a few thousand years old. It’s surprising enough that chitin can survive that long.
Why consider it in a YEC time frame but not a deep time frame? Because the YEC time frame is hard enough to imagine chemically. The deep time frame strains the limits of credulity.
Maybe this is evidence that both deep time and the YEC time frame are wrong and that the earth is only a few months old.
Actually, Jordan, the presence of chitin makes them more likely to be a few months old than a few million years old!
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