But what if I can explain these fossil mysteries?


I was sent this link to Five Fossil Mysteries…That Evolution Can’t Explain. Challenge accepted, sir!

Unfortunately, after reading their list of five, and realizing it was Answers in Genesis, and that their ‘unexplainable’ mysteries were trivial and stupid, I felt a bit deflated. It was like being invited to a battle, showing up in my +5 armor and +3 Vorpal Sword of Fireballs and discovering my opponents were a bunch of preschoolers in diapers, armed with sippy cups. Undaunted, though, I wreak carnage upon them.

One: Life’s Unexpected Explosion
Forty major animal groups appear out of nowhere at the bottom of the fossil record. Where did this “Cambrian Explosion” come from?

This one is built on a lie by Kurt Wise: But the ancestors of the Cambrian animals have never been found. Yes, they have. The pre-Cambrian biota, however, were small and softbodied — it is totally unsurprising that the transition from small multicellular eukaryotes to large, hard-shelled metazoans would involve smaller creatures without hard body parts, and also that the evolution of hard body parts might be piecemeal. So we find pre-Cambrian trace fossils, trackways and burrows, for instance, and later we find the small shellies, an assemblage of tiny fragments — partial bits of armor, mouthparts, an occasional spike and spine — all of which were once mounted on gooey soft wormy bodies that did not fossilize.

Wise is wrong. The Cambrian is not the bottom of the fossil record, and we have traces of precursors to Cambrian forms.

Two: Those Not-So-Dry Bones
If dinosaurs died millions of years ago, how can their fossils still contain soft tissue?

Question your assumptions, Marcus Ross! What would happen chemically to proteins isolated in sealed, thick mineralized chambers, away from the atmosphere and from degrading bacteria, for millions of years? I don’t know. Apparently they’ll persist in some form for far longer than I would have expected. The fossils are known by strong physical methods to be 70 million years old; finding rare scraps of peptides imbedded deep inside them doesn’t challenge their age, since we didn’t know exactly what happens to totally isolated proteins, but should make us think harder about molecular taphonomy.

Three: Without a Leg to Stand On
Birds are vastly different from dinosaurs, even in the way they walk. How could one come from the other?

Another lie! This one cites a single article, which does not claim that birds are vastly different from dinosaurs — instead, it makes a single, narrower claim about respiration in dinosaurs. It points out that modern birds have basically immobilized the upper leg, the femur, in the body wall, and explains that the reason for that is that movement of that part of the limb would impair the function of abdominal air sacs. They look at fossil dinosaurs, and found that the femur was clearly used in walking, and therefore argue that they almost certainly lacked those abdominal air sacs, although there is evidence that they may have had air sacs elsewhere. Here, read the paper for yourself. It concludes,

We conclude that there are few data supportive of there having been an avian style lung air-sac system in theropods or that these dinosaurs necessarily possessed cardiovascular structure significantly different from that of crocodilians. These conclusions are reinforced by previously cited evidence for crocodilian-like lung ventilation in theropod dinosaurs.

Isn’t it interesting how they present a piece of the scientific literature as supporting their anti-evolution crusade, when it actually does nothing of the kind?

Four: Amazingly Preserved Leaves

When leaves die, they shrivel up and crumble. So why is the fossil record full of well-preserved, flat leaves?

But…but…not all fossil leaves are flat or well-preserved! And leaves don’t always “shrivel up and crumble” — if you’re not zealous about raking your lawn (I can’t imagine who wouldn’t be), it’s pretty easy to get damp, matted piles that preserve the leaves for a few years. You can dig in a peat bog and find preserved plant material that is hundreds or thousands of years old. Anoxic environments can do somewhat surprising things.

Here’s another paper you can read: The Taphonomy of Plant Macrofossils. This is a non-problem. Here’s the conclusion from that paper:

Experiments with individual plant organs and modern vegetation have demonstrated that the leaf-rain potentially contributing to plant fossil beds reflects trees within only short distances of the area of deposition. Separate sedimentary facies in fluvial, paludal and lacustrine environments preserve plant macrofossil assemblages which reflect varying biases in the level of transport (autochthonous to allochthonous deposition) and hydrodynamic sorting (Figure 7 .5).Different vegetation types within any landscape will have a varied proportional representation in these sedimentary facies, reflecting proximity to depositional sites, the mode of deposition of both plant parts and sediment, and the energy of transport. Each ‘flora’ present within an exposure of particular facies will represent a subsample of the total vegetational mosaic, in some cases strongly biased towards individual plant communities, in other cases containing elements from several communities.

In consequence of these observations, plant macrofossil studies of palaeovegetation must (where possible) sample from within discrete bedding planes and consider sedimentary facies when attempting floristic reconstructions of palaeovegetation. While the potential sources of bias are great, observations of modern plant fossil sedimentary analogues allows predictive models to be constructed that allow palaeovegetation reconstructions to account for sedimentary facies, biofacies and differential dispersal (and small-scale variation through seasonal effects?). Such applications of taphonomy are reliant on careful and systematic stratigraphic sampling and result in a finer resolution of the palaeocommunity. Previous approaches of treating single plant fossil localities as a ‘flora’ must be abandoned in favour of such an approach.

Kurt Wise thinks that finding all the leaves neatly flattened (they aren’t) is compatible with the idea that they were fossilized in a catastrophic, world-destroying flood 4000 years ago. He’s an idiot.

Five: Tracks But No Trilobites

Why do we find lots of trilobite tracks in lower rock layers, but we don’t find any trilobite fossils until higher up?

This one is hilarious. I will quote Kurt Wise directly. Why do older rock layers have only trace fossils (trilobite tracks), while more recent Cambrian layers feature whole preserved exoskeletons (see also One: Life’s Unexpected Explosion)?

Such a worldwide pattern of fossil layers suggests that a global catastrophe, such as the Bible describes, once struck the world. What if, when the “fountains of the great deep were broken up” (Genesis 7:11), the spreading waters surprised the trilobites living on the ocean bottom? As the water became muddy, trilobites scurried about in terror, leaving their tracks behind them. Then as a layer of mud covered their tracks, they climbed through the mud and left tracks on the next layer—repeating this process until they finally succumbed in exhaustion and were themselves buried and preserved.

Ah, hydraulic sorting and differential mobility, those familiar old canards. This also explains why clams are found in more recent layers than Kimberella — they were better at climbing. We also have insight into trilobite culture: they must have held great reverence for their ancestors, since while scurrying about in terror, they still found time to excavate all of the bodies of their dead and haul them to higher ground with them. Clearly, they were god’s creatures.

Sorry for all the slaughtered toddlers. Also clearly, I am not one of god’s creatures, since I have so little reverence for religious idiocy.


  1. John Harshman says

    Not only did the trilobites bring their dead with them, they also brought their molted exoskeletons in great numbers. Trilobites were very tidy.

    I would have thought that Naraoia would have provided Kurt with a clue toward a better explanation of his dilemma.

  2. OverlappingMagisteria says

    Regarding Mystery #5 (Trilobite Tracks/Fossils) – What is the actual explanation? I haven’t heard this “mystery” before. Obviously, the Noah’s ark explanation is nonsense. Is it that they are misidentifying something else as trilobite tracks? Or is there a plausible reason why tracks would be preserved without fossils?

  3. mnb0 says

    Correction: Wise is not an IDiot, he produces Young Earth Creacrap. Like this:

    “But the ancestors of the Cambrian animals have never been found.”
    According to Young Earth Creacrap there never have been Cambrian animals. Creacrapper Kurt doesn’t even manage to be consistent on his own terms.

  4. says

    #2: The answer is in “One”. Trilobite evolutionary precursors lacked hard shells, but had limbs that left tracks. He’s talking about rock layers separated by tens of millions of years, not a couple of days.

  5. marcoli says

    Your answers are very apt, and of course your toddler-opponent is knocked out, but…
    they get right back up again, with no memory of the defeat. They cannot be fought with reasoning and evidence if they do not recognize reasoning and evidence.

  6. mothra says

    Question #4. Do creationists ever go out-of-doors? One Autumn day, back in my South Dakota home town, the leaves had mostly fallen and I was raking my mothers’ yard. But, across the street, one 150+ ft. cottonwood tree had stubbornly held onto its nice perfect yellow leaves. Along came a ‘random’ 30 mph wind gust (it had been calm) stripping the tree and, the front yard I had just raked was now covered in perfect yellow leaves. Imagine if you will, a tranquil river bottomland forest with cottonwood trees in the late Paleocene, along comes a gust of wind. . . . .

  7. says

    PZ wrote:

    Wise is wrong.

    As with almost everything that Wise promotes these days: Not only is he wrong, he is lying. Wise got an actual PhD in paleontology at Harvard, so we know that he had to actually learn much of the evidence base that he’s denying.

    It’s particularly frustrating when people who we know know better tell blatant lies about science. I know of a few similar cases. While I was a postdoc at UCLA, I learned of a former geophysics grad student there who got a PhD and then promptly started promoting “young Earth seismology” – never mind that moving tectonic plates a hundred thousand times faster than they actually move would require enough heat flow to melt the crust and mantle into magma.

  8. numerobis says

    You’ve parsed it wrong. It’s not mysteries about fossils, it’s mysteries that ARE fossils.

    They mysteries have mineralized and will never change until, over the next several billion years, they inexorably get ground up or melted in the mantle.

  9. blf says

    The mildly deranged penguin points out there is no fossilized cheese. Therefore, peas are evil.

    Or is it: Peas are evil, therefore she has ate all the cheese?

    Whatever, peacheese logic is on a much sounder footing than cretinist logic, since there are no cheese fossils and peas are evil.

  10. says

    Peas are delicious to evil people. Therefore, we have a simple test for evil: serve them a plate of peas.

    I know the answer in my case. BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAA!

  11. davidnangle says

    Can God make evidence against Himself that’s so persuasive that his believers will doubt? Nope.

    Can God make his religion so ridiculous that no one will believe that tripe? No. No, he cannot.

  12. blf says

    [H]as no one at AIG ever seen a leaf that landed in mud?

    But it didn’t fossilize! They waited and waited — a whole minute, at least — but it did not become a fossil. Therefore, the magic sky faeries did it, and also it, it, and it, and of course, it.

  13. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    numerbois @8 wrote:
    You’ve parsed it wrong. It’s not mysteries about fossils, it’s mysteries that ARE fossils.
    my snarky self would rephrase it a little more snarky:
    Fossils* talk about “mysteries”. [nb scare quote]
    Meaning their brains seem to have fossilized into thinking one thing they didn’t understand is a universal mystery and can be used a gotcha question. Fossilized on an imaginative guess they invented to answer the question they didn’t understand.

    * – fossil is also a slang term insult, not just a word for a paleontology artifact.

  14. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    sorry for the html hiccup. only numerbois was to be bolded. apologies for the html tpyo.

  15. garnetstar says

    I would walk a mile to see a terrified, exhausted trilobite. What do they do, scream like horror movie victims? Then pant loudly and flap their little legs more slowly while turning beet red? Then finally drop to the ground, or throw up because of all the lactic acid, like an over-worked Crossfitter?

    Creationists sure do have vivid imaginations!

  16. John Harshman says

    For anyone who fails to get the reference to Naraoia (#1), it’s a soft-bodied relative of trilobites (or some would say a primitive trilobite) found in a few deposits of exceptional preservation. Trilobites (other than Naraoia are preserved because they deposited calcite in their exoskeletons to harden their shells, which most arthropods do not. And that’s the explanation for “trilobite” tracks appearing before trilobites; the tracks were made by some kind of arthropod, but apparently not one with a calcified exoskeleton.

  17. says

    I cant believe you gave the example of clams being more mobile than Kimberella. A well know creationist/cartoonist (aren’t they all?) noted decades ago that “CAMS GOT LEGS!”

    Google it.

  18. emergence says

    I guess I have to point this out again; creationists are not only liers, they’re thieves. All of the evidence Wise is citing was done by actual non-creationist paleontologists. Creationists rarely do any research of their own, so they just abuse the results of real scientists’ research.

  19. blbt5 says

    The claim of “dinosaur tissue” has been thoroughly debunked as bacterial slime. The whole sorry episode of “T. Rex tissue” is a classic example of sloppy science performed by idiots using incompetent methodology and willfully misinterpreting the results. The work has never been replicated outside the original reporting group. More importantly no new information was revealed, just like the result of applying “intelligent design” methodology.