Reasons to Believe

Science News Flash: An Old-Earth Perspective on Dinosaur Feathers Preserved in Amber

Whenever we are in a foreign country, my wife loves to shop at local, out-of-the-way markets. She always finds some of the most interesting souvenirs.

It turns out that the same is true for paleontologist Lida Xing who purchased several amber pieces from a market in Myitkyina in the country of Myanmar. The amber sold at the market comes from a nearby mine in the Hukawng Valley. While most buyers are looking for amber to make jewelry, Xing was looking for amber with inclusions of plant and animal remains. The amber from the mine dates to 99 million years. Because of the amber’s age, the well-preserved plant and animal remains entombed by this fossilized tree resin offer a unique glimpse at ancient life on Earth, providing details and insight that far exceed those available from highly compressed fossil remains that typically compose the fossil record.

As fate would have it, one of the amber pieces Xing purchased contains a piece of a dinosaur tail (perhaps from a maniraptor) with attached feathers! This discovery is described in a paper that will appear in the December 19 issue of Current Biology.1 Yesterday, the paper was published online ahead of the publication date, and it has already generated headlines both in the popular news and on social media.

This is not the first time researchers have discovered feathers preserved in amber. But it is the first time they have observed feathers associated with parts of a dinosaur—in this instance, a section of the tail (near the middle or end) that includes eight vertebrae. The anatomical features clearly indicate that the preserved tail belongs to a large group of dinosaurs labeled the coelurosaurs.

It goes without saying that this find has already caused quite a bit of a stir because of its important implications for evolutionary and creation models for bird origins.

An Evolutionary Perspective of the Discovery

For many in the scientific community, this discovery further affirms the evolutionary link between birds and dinosaurs, with feathered dinosaurs viewed as transitional intermediates. Along these lines, the researchers describe the dinosaur feathers preserved in amber as transitional, noting that the feather’s central shaft (rachis) is poorly defined. On this basis, the researchers argue that the rachis was a late-appearing feature in feathers, forming when the barbs of the feather fused together.

An Old-Earth Creationist Response

As an old-earth creationist, I’m skeptical about the evolutionary account that has birds evolving from theropods. In fact, this latest discovery only adds to my skepticism.

Paleontologists interpret feathered dinosaurs from the fossil record as transitional intermediates between theropods and birds—including the feathered dinosaur tail found in amber. Yet, each occurrence of feathered dinosaurs in the fossil record appears after the first true bird, Archaeopteryx.2 Based on the fossil record, this ancient bird appeared on Earth around 155 million years ago. Archaeopteryx’s feathers were identical to the feathers of modern birds. In fact, the same research team discovered bird feathers in 99-million-year-old amber from the same source that yielded the amber with the dinosaur feathers. The bird feathers, like those of Archaeopteryx, are identical to those found in modern birds.

It is hard to imagine how the “primitive” feathers associated with the dinosaur tail (again, dated at 99 million years in age) could be transitional if they appear over 50 million years after Archaeopteryx and co-occur with feathers from a bird belonging to enantiornithes.

This problem is not unique to the bird fossil record. There are several instances in which presumed transitional forms appear in the fossil record well after the first appearance of their evolutionary descendants. In fact, paleontologist have a name for this phenomenon: a temporal paradox.

For a more complete discussion of the problems I see with the proposed evolutionary link between birds and theropod dinosaurs, see “Birds in the Fossil Record” (listed in the resource section below).

A Young-Earth Creationist Perspective of the Discovery

One exciting aspect of this find is the possibility that soft-tissue remnants associated with the features may be preserved in the amber. The researchers discovered iron (in the ferrous form) associated with the carbonized feather remains. They speculate that this iron derives from hemoglobin originally found in the tail muscle tissue. On this basis, the research team speculates that soft-tissue remnants derived from keratin may be present in the amber-entombed specimen.

In recent years, young-earth creationists have made use of these types of finds to argue that it is impossible for such fossils to be millions of years old. They argue that soft tissues shouldn’t survive that long. These materials should readily degrade in a few thousand years. In their view, these finds challenge the reliability of radiometric dating methods used to determine the age of these fossils, and along with it, Earth’s antiquity. Instead, they argue that these breakthrough discoveries provide compelling scientific evidence for a young Earth and support the idea that the fossil record results from a recent global (worldwide) flood.

An Old-Earth Creationist Response

These types of claims prompted me to write Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth. In this work (and elsewhere), I explain why the recovery of soft-tissue remnants associated with fossil finds is illegitimate evidence for a young Earth.

Given the structural robustness of keratin, and the preservative effect of ferrous iron, it is completely reasonable to think that keratin remnants associated with the feathers could survive long enough to be completely entombed by the amber and eventually persist for nearly 100 million years.

Though this find will be interpreted by the scientific community from an evolutionary vantage point and, more than likely, by young-earth creationists to challenge the antiquity of Earth and life on Earth, the dinosaur feathers entombed in amber can readily be accommodated within an old-earth creationist vantage point.

Resources

Creation vs. Evolution Controversy

Age-of-the-Earth Controversy

Endnotes

  1. Lida Xing et al., “A Feathered Dinosaur Tail with Primitive Plumage Trapped in Mid-Cretaceous Amber,” Current Biology 26 (December 2016): 3352–60, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2016.10.008.
  2. Some paleontologists claim that the temporal paradox for bird origins was solved based on the discovery of a feathered theropod that dates between 151 and 161 million years in age. (See Dongyu Hu et al., “A Pre-Archaeopteryx Troodontid Theropod from China with Long Feathers on the Metatarsus,” Nature 461 [October 2009]: 640–43, doi:10.1038/nature08322.) However, at best, this find demonstrates the co-occurrence of feathered dinosaurs and the first true bird, when the error bars of the age-date measurements are taken into account.
  3. Lida Xing et al., “Mummified Precocial Bird Wings in Mid-Cretaceous Burmese Amber,” Nature Communications 7 (June 2016): id. 12089, doi:10.1038/ncomms12089.

Subjects: Age of the Earth, Evolution, Fossil Record, Transitional Forms