The Bite Stuff

A blog about paleontology, paleoecology, and the problems involved therein. You will see me discuss the issues of diet, teeth, taxonomy, and the reconstruction of biomes and dietary conditions in a host of extinct organisms, and even those animals that have no teeth.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Palaeontological Apologists?

Well, apologists as far as creationism, anyway. A group called Creation Expeditions (link) seek to recover fossils to "prove" creation and disprove evolution. However, the group is peppered with some of the more egregious and most easily falsifiable (as well as down-right ridiculous) statements that show how little some of these investigators are really willing to go to study the fossils they encounter, other than to shoehorn them into some preconceived notions.

But really, first, this post takes the cake. This one starts off with a humdinger:

Fossilized skin imprints from “Ezekiel” the Edmontosaurus point to recent catastrophic death of this duck-billed giant. Find counters the myth that the Edmontosaurus was a transitional dinosaur with feathers.

Now, having "followed" the literature to some extent, I am at a loss to figure out how Edmontosaurus, a hadrosaurid ornithischian dinosaur from the Maastrichtian Late Cretaceous of southern Canada and north-central USA, is in any way related to the dinosaur-bird debate. And I've certainly never seen anyone propose it had feathers! There have been some folks, due to a particular ornithischian, Psittacosaurus, who have suggested that quill-like integument (see Mayr et al 2002), scales, and feathers, are all the same thing.

An excellent rending of a Psittacosaurus with the quills in place as discovered is here. Meanwhile, a more elaborate, yet less likely, rendition is here. Note that only the tail has been found with the quills, and they are more apparently similar to mammalian fur than they are to feathers.

In fact, based on observing the development of feathers and scales and even fur, several biologists, including a molecular chemist and an ornithologist, disagree. Chuong, on his part, has studied the genetic development of feathers, and Prum (followed by Prum & Brush in a review) has modelled the origin of feathers into developmental stages that should, they theorize, correspond to finds in the fossil record. Indeed, they propose each stage can concfer a utility on the bearer, and thus allow that animal to use these structures. No where in the origin of feathers debate has anyone considered Edmontosaurus to have had feathers. Indeed, fossil finds of hadrosaur skin have been known for a CENTURY, and because of this, one once has the topic came up.

But perhaps these apologetics on the part of the post authors is an attempt to steer the readers into assuming such a theory was formulated? To argue that they, in finding a fossil of which several like it are also known, means something more? By framing it as part of the dinosaur-bird debate, the authors have stepped outside of the entirety of the scientific literature in order to make their proposal "mean something." Does it?

But wait, there's more:
“Our find dispels the myth that the Edmontosaurus was a pre-bird,” said Pete DeRosa, president of Creation Expeditions and team leader on the South Dakota dig. “The rich ash and sulfur content in the soil beautifully preserved the animal’s skin down to the very pigment. It is clear that this was a reptilian-like animal with skin closer to that of a crocodile than a bird. Our discovery demonstrates that there is no reasonable possibility of feathers on this animal.”
More of that false myth used to create a dichotomy, this time a "pre-bird". No theory, however small, has ever argued that Edmontosaurus was a pre-bird. There have been some ideas, back in the 1800's, that argued the ornithischian hip design, because the pubis projected rearward along with the ischium, that they were allied to birds somehow, and that birds may be related. However, with newer study, over a century ago, has thouroughly trashed this idea and theropods have been, by benefit of the work of Thomas Huxley in the 1890's--1920's and John Ostrom in the 1960's--1970's. So there is more "debate" without debate. Just an invention of a desire to create one for excitement. Anmd don't get me started about the comment on pigment....
DeRosa continued, “Buried in the same strata with Ezekiel were evidences of animals which, by evolutionary standards, should not be there, including garfish and turtles. The deposition of the animal, the fossilization and preservation of the skin, the full articulation of the animal, and the fact that it appears to be part of a fossil graveyard[."]
First we have the oldest saw in the anti-evolution book, the "if there are these advanced forms, why are there still primtive ones" argument. This is so bogus it doesn't take a genius to unravel. There is simply no sane reason to expect that "garfish and turtles" would NOT be there, unless they were never found. Nonetheless, the "garfish" in question, likely the garpike Lepisosteus, is a recent, Cretaceous innovation. They are a far younger (and completely extinct group) that did not appear until well after the origin of turtles and dinosaurs, which were very nearly at the same time in the Late Triassic. The oldest known turtle, Proganochelys, is from the Late Triassic of Germany, is in fact coincident with some of the very earliest dinosaurs, including Plateosaurus and the possible dinosaur Procompsognathus (which could even be a sphenosuchian croc). Triassic fossils from Argentina, including Herrerasaurus and the tiny Eoraptor, show that these animals appeared at the same time, and there is no reason not to expect them at the same time and place just as we find crocs, turtles, birds, and mammals and fish all in the same place (say, a Nile shorebank) today. There is, in fact, no scientific reason, only an apologetic one, to argue the opposite. My last statement is borne out by the following:
["]We believe he died thousands, not millions, of years ago. His death is best explained by the catastrophic events surrounding the flood of Noah’s day, as described in the Bible.”
And here, ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of the issue. The apologetics, the attempt to reconcile the natural world with Biblican text. Moreover, a LITERAL reading of that text and an outlanding interpretation of inferred dates based on the long-dead Ussher, whose own ideas have been disproven almost TWO centuries ago. Talk about clinging to the past. The Bible is treated as first, and all fossils come after it, despite the Bible teaching that all things created by God cannot be destroyed. To fix this, fellows like Ken Ham and the great "Dr." Kent Hovind (certainly not a doctor of any science, I can assure you) have simply decided that the Flood killed everything. Yet the Bible states Noah collected ALL animals of the earth, including the "unclean" ones, so there seems little room to leave out the dinosaurs.

But it was worth a laugh, right?


Chuong, C.-m. Literature.

Mayr, G., D. S. Peters, G. Plodowski & O. Vogel. 2002. Bristle-like integumentary structures at the tail of the horned dinosaur Psittacosaurus. Naturwissenschaften 89(8):361-365.

Prum, R. 1999. Development and evolutionary origin of feathers. Journal of Experimental Zoology 285:291-306.

Prum, R. & A. H. Brush. 2002. The evolutionary origin and diversification of feathers. The Quarterly Review of Biology 77:261-295.