Fossils and the Flood
Ever since I was a boy I have loved fossils — collecting them, handling them, studying them. There is something magical about splitting open a rock on the beach to find a beautifully preserved ammonite inside.
Fossils are the remains or traces of animals and plants that lived in the past. They are preserved in rock layers that accumulated as sediments like sand or mud. Fossils have a story to tell — but what story?
Most scientists think that the fossil-bearing rock layers were deposited over a time span measuring hundreds of millions of years. But creationists think the fossil-bearing rock layers accumulated over a much shorter time period — the thousands of years of biblical history.
From this perspective, much of the fossil record was probably formed during the year-long global Flood in the days of Noah. In this article we will consider various features of the fossil record consistent with the creationist explanation.
First, consider the abundance of fossils. There are many factors that promote the preservation of fossils, including the possession of hard parts (such as shell or bone), burial in fine-grained sediments (which helps to preserve detail) and a low oxygen environment (which inhibits decay). However, the most important factor is rapid burial.
The remains of most organisms will not be preserved unless they are buried quickly. In modern environments, sediments are typically laid down too slowly to preserve fossils, and yet many sedimentary rock layers are rich in fossils.1
The abundance of fossils in older sediments suggests that they must have been buried more quickly than typically happens today.
Many fossil organisms display clear evidence that they were buried alive or soon after death. An expedition to Mongolia in 1971 made an extraordinary find of two dinosaurs, a Velociraptor and a Protoceratops, apparently fossilised in the middle of a fight.2
The Santana Formation of Brazil contains fish whose gills and muscles are so perfectly preserved that geologists believe they were fossilised within five hours of death.3 Many fossil trilobites are found rolled tightly into a ball, indicating that they were buried alive while trying to protect themselves.4 There are even female ichthyosaurs (extinct marine reptiles) fossilised while giving birth to young.5
In modern environments, even hard parts such as shells will eventually break down or dissolve in sea water, and fragile shells will break down more quickly than strong shells.
If the fossil record formed slowly, with individual rock layers taking hundreds or thousands of years to accumulate, we would expect fragile shell material to be relatively uncommon. Most of the shells in the fossil record should be thick and durable.
Nevertheless, studies have shown that small, thin-shelled fossils are just as likely to be preserved in the fossil record as large, thick-shelled fossils.6 This is further evidence that the sediments in which they are buried were formed rapidly.
Fossil vertebrates — including dinosaurs — are often found in a peculiar pose, with mouth gaping, head thrown back and tail arched. Experts have long debated the causes for this strange posture.
Recent research suggests that it may have resulted from the death throes typical of asphyxiation (oxygen deprivation)7 or the immersion of carcasses in water.8 The commonness of this posture in fossil vertebrates is consistent with these organisms being drowned and buried during the Flood.
Sometimes even soft tissues are preserved in the fossil record. In 2005, news headlines proclaimed the discovery of blood vessels and red blood cells in a Tyrannosaurus rex leg bone.9 This bone was estimated by conventional dating methods to be 68 million years old. Later, intact proteins were also identified.10
This find was so surprising that scientists were justifiably sceptical. It is difficult to conceive of soft tissues and proteins surviving for tens of millions of years.11 Some argued that the ‘dinosaur’ soft tissues were actually organic films produced by bacteria after fossilisation.12
However, subsequent studies of an even older hadrosaur fossil (conventionally dated to 80 million years ago) confirmed the presence of soft tissues in dinosaur specimens, including proteins and cell types found only in vertebrates.13
The presence of these soft tissues seems easier to explain if the fossils are only thousands of years old.
Fossilised trackways are another important feature of the fossil record. Their very existence is suggestive of rapid burial, since it is difficult to conceive of another way that such ephemeral features could have been preserved.14
But even more curious is the tendency for trackways of amphibians and reptiles to occur in sedimentary layers below the skeletal remains of the animals that made them.15
For instance, the first trackways of tetrapods (four-footed vertebrates) are found in sediments conventionally thought to be 18 million years older than those containing the first tetrapod body fossils.16 In a similar manner, bird-like tracks have been described from sediments supposedly 100 million years older than those in which the first birds are found.17
This pattern seems to be best explained by the Flood model. As the sediments were building up, animals were initially able to move around (leaving footprints) only to succumb later (leaving their skeletal remains).
The fine layering characteristic of many fossil-bearing sediments also suggests rapid burial. The oceans teem with living creatures that burrow into sediments to build their homes or to feed. But this is an extremely effective way of destroying layering in sediments. Marine burrowers work so fast that it is difficult to imagine a layer of sediment surviving intact for more than a few centuries at the very outside.18
Yet most sedimentary layers in the fossil record show little evidence of disruption — even though the fossil remains of burrowing animals may be present. This suggests that the layers built up too rapidly for the animals to burrow into them.
Another important observation concerns the proportion of modern-day species represented in the fossil record. The conventional interpretation of the sedimentary rocks suggests that they were laid down over hundreds of millions of years, which means that average sedimentation rates throughout this interval must have been very low.
All other things being equal, lower average rates of sedimentation will preserve fewer fossils, so if the conventional view is right, the 250,000 fossil species so far documented ought to represent a very low percentage of all the species that have ever existed.
On the other hand, if a significant proportion of the sedimentary rocks and their enclosed fossils were deposited rapidly, as in the Flood theory, a much larger percentage of species should have been ‘captured’ in the fossil record.
Observations suggesting that a very large percentage of modern species have a fossil record (see Table 1) are consistent with the creationist claim that the sedimentary layers were deposited much more rapidly than the conventional interpretation suggests.
Another striking feature of the record is the widespread distribution of the fossil-bearing rock layers. Consider chalk — familiar to most people as the rock that makes up the famous White Cliffs of Dover, on the south coast of England.
Chalk is a type of limestone made up of tiny ‘armour plates’ from billions of ocean-dwelling algae. The chalk underlies much of England and Northern Ireland. Across the English Channel it can be found in France, Germany, Sweden and Denmark.
It can also be traced across Poland, Bulgaria, Turkey, Egypt, Israel and the former Soviet Union. Similar chalks occur even in Australia and North America.19
Another example is coal, which represents the accumulation, compaction and alteration of plant remains. Some individual coal seams can be traced over hundreds or even thousands of square miles. The Coal Measures as a whole extend from the United States, across Europe and into the Donetz Basin north of the Caspian Sea.20
Comparisons with modern environments are wholly inadequate. There are no fossil deposits forming on this scale anywhere on the Earth today.
Finally, the order in which the fossils are found is mostly random with respect to evolution.
Evolutionary biologists study the characteristics that organisms share and use this information to determine the order in which they think the groups diverged from one another.
However, when the actual order of first appearance of the major fossil groups is compared with the order in which evolution predicts them to have appeared, there seems to be little correspondence.
Fossil expert Kurt Wise studied 144 test cases and found only five in which there was a significant agreement between the fossil order and the predicted evolutionary order.21
Notably, in all five cases in which there was agreement the organisms were ordered such that the sea-dwellers appeared ‘lower’ in the fossil sequence and the land-dwellers ‘higher’ in the fossil sequence.
A global Flood which began in the ocean and then progressively overwhelmed the land would explain this ‘sea-to-land’ order.
Of course, there are features of the fossil record that continue to puzzle us, and opportunities for further research abound. But the evidence described here suggests that it is not unreasonable to think that a recent global Flood could have produced the fossil record.
Paul Garner, FGS
Most modern organisms have a fossil record, suggesting that the fossil record is much more complete than evolutionary scientists assume.
Percentage of modern bivalves and gastropods
(Point Conception, California) with a fossil record:22
Bivalve families 90.6%
Bivalve genera 84.2%
Bivalve species 80.1%
Gastropod families 88.3%
Gastropod genera 81.8%
Gastropod species 75.6%
Percentage of terrestrial vertebrate taxa with a fossil record:23
Terrestrial vertebrate orders 97.7%
Terrestrial vertebrate families 79.1%
Terrestrial vertebrate families (excluding birds) 87.8%
1 A. A. Snelling, Earth’s catastrophic past: Geology, Creation and the Flood, Volume 2, Institute for Creation Research, Dallas, Texas, 2009, pp.537-575.
2 D. M. Unwin and two others, ‘Protoceratops and Velociraptor preserved in association: evidence for predatory behaviour in dromaeosaurid dinosaurs?’ Journal of vertebrate paleontology, Vol. 15, Suppl. 3, 1995, p.57A.
3 D. M. Martill, ‘The Medusa effect: instantaneous fossilization’, Geology today, Vol. 5, 1989, pp.201-205.
4 E. N. K. Clarkson, Invertebrate palaeontology and evolution, Second Edition, Allen & Unwin, London, 1986, pp.315-317.
5 R. Wild, ‘Holzmaden’, in: D. E. G. Briggs and P. R. Crowther (editors), Paleobiology: A synthesis, Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford, 1990, pp.282-285.
6 A. K. Behrensmeyer and eight others, ‘Are the most durable shelly taxa also the most common in the marine fossil record?’ Paleobiology, Vol. 31, 2005, pp.607-623.
7 C. M. Faux and K. Padian, ‘The opisthotonic posture of vertebrate skeletons: post-mortem contraction or death throes?’Paleobiology, Vol. 33, 2007, pp.201-226.
8 A. Cutler, and three others, ‘The opisthotonic death pose as a function of muscle tone and aqueous immersion’, Journal of vertebrate paleontology, Society for Vertebrate Paleontology program and abstracts book, 2011, p.95.
9 M. H. Schweitzer and three others, ‘Soft-tissue vessels and cellular preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex’, Science, Vol. 307, 2005, pp.1952-1955.
10 M. H. Schweitzer and six others, ‘Analyses of soft tissue from Tyrannosaurus rex suggest the presence of protein’, Science, Vol. 316, 2007, pp.277-280.
11 C. Nielsen-Marsh, ‘Biomolecules in fossil remains: a multidisciplinary approach to endurance’, The biochemist, June 2002, pp.12-14.
12 T. G. Kaye and two others, ‘Dinosaurian soft tissues interpreted as bacterial biofilms’, PLoS One, Vol. 3, 2008, e2808. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002808.
13 M. H. Schweitzer and fifteen others, ‘Biomolecular characterization and protein sequences of the Campanian hadrosaur B. canadensis’, Science, Vol. 324, 2009, pp.626-631.
14 N. A. Rupke, ‘Prolegomena to a study of cataclysmal sedimentation’ in: W. E. Lammerts (editor), Why not Creation? Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1970, pp.141-179.
15 L. Brand and J. Florence, ‘Stratigraphic distribution of vertebrate fossil footprints compared with body fossils’, Origins (Geoscience Research Institute), Vol. 9, 1982, pp.67-74.
16 G. Niedźwiedzki and four others, ‘Tetrapod trackways from the early Middle Devonian period of Poland’, Nature, Vol. 463, 2010, pp.43-48.
17 R. N. Melchor and two others, ‘Bird-like fossil footprints from the late Triassic’, Nature, Vol. 417, 2002, pp.936-938.
18 M. K. Gingras and three others, ‘How fast do marine invertebrates burrow?’ Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, Vol. 270, 2008, pp.280-286.
19 Derek V. Ager, The nature of the stratigraphical record, Second Edition, Macmillan, 1981, pp.1-2.
20 Ager, The nature of the stratigraphical record, p.7.
21 Kurt P. Wise, First appearance of higher taxa: a preliminary study of order in the fossil record, unpublished manuscript.
22 J. W. Valentine, ‘How good was the fossil record? Clues from the California Pleistocene’, Paleobiology, Vol. 15, 1989, pp.83-94.
23 A. S. Romer, Vertebrate palaeontology, Third Edition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1966, pp 347-396.