When my kids were little we visited the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! museum in Hollywood, CA, home to displays that commemorate remarkable people who accomplished unbelievable feats. Or did they?
In the last several years, paleontologists have made some hard-to-believe discoveries of their own. In one example scientists found biomolecules and the remnants of soft tissue associated with fossils that date, in some instances, to well over 100 million years in age.1 In another recent case, a team of researchers from Ohio State University reported the recovery of organic compounds, called quinones, from sea lily fossils that date to 340 million years in age.2 Sea lilies, animals with a plantlike appearance, belong to a biological group called the crinoids. These organisms use quinones as pigments and toxins.
This discovery excites the research community because it opens up the possibility for scientists to gain important insight into the biology of ancient organisms. Specifically, quinones—preserved in a chemically intact form for at least 340 million years—allow paleontologists the opportunity to study their fossilized skeletal remains and associated organic materials.
Some Christians, a subset of that community, are excited by this discovery, too. They claim that the recovery of quinones from crinoid fossils makes it impossible for the crinoid remains to be 340 million years old (and by extension challenges the Earth’s antiquity). Instead, they argue that this scientific evidence makes a compelling case for a young Earth, with the fossil record resulting from a recent global worldwide flood.3
As hard as it might be for some believers to accept the antiquity of these biomolecules, the research team explained that not all biomolecules are made equally: some are more stable than others. And not all environments are the same, either: some are more conducive to biomolecule preservation than others.
The crinoid fossils experienced a rapid burial that isolated the organic and inorganic materials associated with the fossil from alterations caused by fluids moving through the rocks. Also, the rock formation that housed the fossils escaped metamorphosis, which would have also altered the fossils and their associated organics. More importantly, the physiology of the sea lilies promoted stability of the quinones. This organism’s skeleton is porous. Some of the pores are filled with organic materials. When the organism died, the pores were sealed with calcite, thus trapping the molecules in a protected environment.
Knowledge of this elegant process, in light of other recent discoveries of ancient biomolecules recovered in fossils,4 makes the preservation of quinones quite believable after all.