Tetrapods from Poland trample the Tiktaalik school of evolution
Published: 14 January 2010 (GMT+10)
Published online: 14 January 2010(GMT+10)
Subsequently published in Journal of Creation 24(1)
Tracks of footprints found in a quarry in Poland have turned the palaeontological world upside down.1 For years there has been a neat evolutionary story about how fish evolved four legs and came out of the ocean onto the land (figure 1). Probably the most famous fossil in this sea-to-land icon of evolution is Tiktaalik roseae, a fish with fins that was claimed to have had features intermediate between fish and tetrapods. Creationists consistently rejected the evolutionary spin put on the fossil and showed that it had nothing to do with any alleged sea-to-land transition (see Tiktaalik roseae—a fishy ‘missing link’ and Tiktaalik—sticking its head out of water?). All the same, evolutionists promoted Tiktaalik relentlessly. It has its own website,2 features in evolutionary diagrams (e.g. figure 1), stars on the covers of books about evolution3 and was even the theme of a song to promote evolution.4 Richard Dawkins, in his latest book The Greatest Show on Earth, claims “Tiktaalik is the perfect missing link—perfect, because it almost exactly splits the difference between fish and amphibian, and perfect because it is missing no longer.” (See forthcoming book refutating Dawkins’ book.)
But now this footprint evidence from Poland consigns Tiktaalik and all its companion fossils onto the garbage heap. From being stars of the show they have suddenly become an evolutionary dead-end. So the creationists were right all along.
At first glance the evidence does not look very impressive. The tracks are preserved as shallow indentations on the surface of large limestone slabs from Zachelmie Quarry in the Holy Cross Mountains of Poland. The rough surfaces have an array of roundish indentations arranged in lines (figure 2). But, with the use of lines and diagrams (figure 3), the authors have argued a strong case that these indentations are indeed trackways of four legged animals that resembled large lizards. They were even able to show the shape of the foot within some of the individual prints and identify the toe marks (figure 4). From the dimensions of the prints they concluded that some animals were more than 2 metres long.
These trackways are a remarkable find but tracks are not particularly unusual in the fossil record. Thousands of trackways of land animals have been found in many different locations all over the world. What has captured world attention is that that these tracks are dated at 397 million years, which makes them fully 18 million years older than Tiktaalik. If four-legged animals existed 18 million years earlier, then Tiktaalik can’t be the transitional fossil it has been claimed to be. It’s suddenly been demoted to an evolutionary dead end along with all the other fossils connected with it. In other words, all those neat evolutionary diagrams that vividly displayed the transition from fish to four-footed animal ancestor (such as figure 1) need to be disposed of. The evolutionary house of cards, so proudly paraded before the world, collapses with a breeze of evidence from Poland.
A total upset
This is not some small correction or a minor detail. It has turned the paleontological world upside down. Something of the magnitude of the upset can be gleaned from statements made about the find.
- “They force a radical reassessment of the timing, ecology and environmental setting of the fish-tetrapod transition, as well as the completeness of the body fossil record.”5
- “[It] will cause a significant reappraisal of our understanding of tetrapod origins.”6
- “[They] could lead to significant shifts in our knowledge of the timing and ecological setting of early tetrapod evolution.”7
- “We thought we’d pinned down the origin of limbed tetrapods. We have to rethink the whole thing.”8
- “That’s surprising, but this is what the fossil evidence tells us.”9
- “These results force us to reconsider our whole picture of the transition from fish to land animals.”10
Note the terms “radical reassessment”, “reappraisal”, “surprising”, “reconsider … whole picture” and “rethink”. We are given the impression that paleontologists scratch around in the sediments and the evidence for evolution just pops out. Creationists are castigated because they are accused of working by faith and not evidence. Well, this Polish upset demonstrates that evidence does not speak for itself. It takes thought, ingenuity, mental exercise and interpretation to make sense of it. The paleontological world is going to take quite some time to rethink their stories.
What could be some of the thoughts running through their minds? Remember that each scientist comes to the evidence with their own beliefs, biases and … vested interests. Those who have invested their lives and careers in the standard fish-to-beast story will not be very enthused by the implications of the latest find. They will be reluctant to change, especially since they have nothing to replace it with. Here are a few ideas that I came up with of what they may be thinking.
Are they really tracks?
Some may be wondering whether the impressions in the rocks are really footprint trackways. Perhaps they were not made by tetrapods. Could there be any other explanation for the depressions on the surface? Such an approach would spoil the fun and the novelty. But the beautiful evolutionary stories of fish to land animal, which have been so vigorously promoted for so long, can be retained intact. If the evidence consisted of an isolated footprint it would certainly be open to much question but these are a series of related footprints connected into a trackway and represent very strong evidence that they are indeed made by four-legged animals. But the thought of questioning the tracks is likely to be one option followed in the paleontological community. In fact, that is exactly the line that palaeontologist Ted Daeschler from the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has taken. He pointed out to National Geographic News that tracks and trackways are notoriously difficult to interpret with full confidence and said he’s awaiting more evidence before abandoning existing explanations for the transition.7
Are the tracks dated too old?
Others may be wondering whether the trackways are as old as claimed. Is there something wrong with the dating? It would be really nice if the tracks could be dated some 20 or 30 million years later. Once again, the cherished evolutionary stories could be retained intact.
If the dating had been carried out by some isotopic method (e.g. Argon-Argon or Rubidium-Strontium) there would be many avenues by which the date could be challenged and dismissed, such as appealing to an inherited age, excess argon, open-system behavior, contamination or sampling error. (See The way it really is: little-known facts about radiometric dating). However, isotopic dating was not used on the limestone because it is not suited to that sort of method.
The “securely dated” dates referred to were assigned from the conodont fossils found in nearby strata.11 From their fossil content the rocks were classified as the Eifelian stage of the Devonian system, and the dates for this stage have been assigned by the International Commission on Stratigraphy as between 391.8 and 397.5 million years.12 Once the rocks are classified it is just a matter of looking the dates up on a chart. The only possibility would be for the rocks to be assigned to a different stage on the stratigraphic chart. For that to happen, paleontologists would need to re-examine the fossil evidence used in the original classification, perhaps by searching for other fossils in the area or by examining the fossils on which the original assignment was made. It is not unusual for a rock classification to be changed as a result of examining different fossil evidence.
The assignment would need to move the rocks at least three stages younger, to the Famennian stage, which would be quite a large move. The type section that defines the Eifelian stage is reasonably close geographically, in pastureland near the town of Schönecken-Wetteldorf, Germany. So a reclassification of these rocks in Poland may affect the classification of strata in other regions of Europe, and that may call for a significant readjustment. However, such a reassignment of its date may be possible. The huge upset could be resolved by changing the classification of only one fossil site. I would not be surprised to hear of paleontologists seriously looking at this.
Are the other transitional fossils dated too young?
Other scientists may be wondering whether the dates of the other transitional fossil sequence (such as Tiktaalik and Panderichthys) can be made older. Again, this would enable the neat evolutionary story to be retained, albeit at a slightly different date. However, this would be a huge job because it would involve a re-examination of the fossils associated with each particular transitional animal and convincing the stake holders for each of these fossils to accept a different interpretation of the dates. It would be necessary to move the classification of each fossil to at least three stages older. The fossils that make up the transitional sequence were found in a number of countries (e.g. Tiktaalik in northern Canada and Panderichthys in Latvia) and so there could be room for juggling the global correlations used for the assignment of each stage. But many specimens would need to be reclassified so this option would not be very attractive as a research project.
Was the transition earlier than we thought?
The paleontological community seems to have resigned itself, at least publically, to accept the new evidence from Poland and toss their neat fish-to-animal transition into the garbage bin. Instead of exhibit number one, which was so convenient to promote evolution and blast creationists, they are prepared to accept an earlier transition and relegate their iconic transitional sequence to an evolutionary dead-end.
This means they have to start from scratch. At the present time they have absolutely zero body fossils to illustrate their evolutionary transition. So the search will now be on to find transitional fossils at an earlier date than the Eifelian stage of the Devonian. Philippe Janvier from the National Museum of Natural History, Paris, France, put it this way, “I suspect that now we can push the divergence back to the Emsian stage [one stage earlier in the Devonian] maybe 400 million years ago.”
In the meantime there is currently no body-fossil evidence and no detailed story for how the transition from fish to land animal took place. Darwin said that the absence of fossil evidence was the biggest problem for his theory. At the conclusion of the hoopla connected with the 150th anniversary of his book, the evidence for the fish-to-amphibian transition is still missing.
Without fossil evidence evolution is a belief system based on blind faith. But for evolutionists the evidence does not matter. They know evolution happened. They will now start looking for it in a different place.
Is our interpretive framework wrong?
I wonder if there will be anyone who will question the whole interpretive framework that is being used. Is there any scientist involved in this research who is prepared to think outside the box? Perhaps the fossils are not recording evolution over millions of years. Perhaps they represent instead the catastrophic burial of the entire biosphere of the earth during a recent global watery catastrophe—like Noah’s Flood. What a radical thought.
Yes, some scientists are prepared to think outside the box but they have been forced to work mostly outside of the academic establishment. These scientists look at the evidence from a biblical perspective and publish their findings in academic journals (such as Journal of Creation) and on websites (such as creation.com). These creationist scientists have been critical of the claims made about Tiktaalik and his “transitional” buddies. It seems now that their concerns have been dramatically vindicated by the footprints from Poland.
However, it is unlikely that this option would even cross the minds of scientists within the mainstream paleontological community. Most would not imagine that a serious alternative worldview exists. Evolution over millions of years is their starting assumption. Scientists have been feeding on this idea, like mother’s milk, from the time they were undergraduates. Evolution over millions of years is non-negotiable. And anyone who questions the paradigm will find research grants difficult to obtain, papers impossible to publish, and would almost certainly be Expelled.
For them there is no question that evolution happened. The debate is only over how it happened. In their minds this new evidence from Poland is just causing a small reassessment of the “how”. Even though new fossil finds are continually dropping spanners into the evolutionary works no one ever thinks (at least not on paper) outside the box. In this information age with so much creationist research material so readily available we hope that the message will start to penetrate and bring about change.
- Bryne, J., Four-legged creature’s footprints force evolution rethink, LiveScience.com, http://www.livescience.com/animals/100106-tetrapod-footprints.html, 6 January 2010. Return to text.
- <http://tiktaalik.uchicago.edu/> Return to text.
- Shubin, N., Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body, Pantheon Books, New York, 2008; see review by Colin Mitchell, Journal of Creation 23(1):29–32, 2009. Return to text.
- Youtube video: Tiktaalik (Your Inner Fish), music by the Indoorfins, 2008. Return to text.
- Niedzwiedzki, G., Szrek, P., Narkiewicz, K., Narkiewicz, M and Ahlberg, P., Tetrapod trackways from the early Middle Devonian period of Poland, Nature 463(7277):43–48, 2010; nature.com/nature/journal/v463/n7277/pdf/nature08623.pdf. Return to text.
- Editor’s Summary, Four feet in the past: trackways pre-date earliest body fossils, Nature 463(7277), 2010; nature.com/nature/journal/v463/n7277/edsumm/e100107-01.html Return to text.
- Roach, J., Oldest land-walker tracks found—pushes back evolution, National Geographic News, nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/01/100106-tetrapod-tracks-oldest-footprints-nature-evolution-walking-land.html 6 January 2010. Return to text.
- Palaeontologist Jennifer Clack, University of Cambridge, UK; in: Curry, M., Ancient four-legged beasts leave their mark, ScienceNOW Daily News, sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2010/106/2, 6 January 2010. Return to text.
- Palaentologist Philippe Janvier from the National Museum of Natural History, Paris, France; in: Amos, J., Fossil tracks record ‘oldest land-walkers’, BBC News, news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8443879.stm 6 January 2010. Return to text.
- Palaentologist Per Ahlberg of Uppsala University, Sweden; in: Fossil Footprints Give Land Vertebrates a Much Longer History, ScienceDaily sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100107114420.htm 8 January 2010. Return to text.
- Niedzwiedzki, G., Szrek, P., Narkiewicz, K., Narkiewicz, M and Ahlberg, P., Tetrapod trackways from the early Middle Devonian period of Poland, Nature 463(7277), supplementary information, 2010; http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v463/n7277/suppinfo/nature08623.html; Conodonts have been described as “fascinating little whatzits”; Stearn, C.W. and Carroll, R.L., Paleontology: The Record of Life, John Wiley & Sons, p. 161, 1989. Return to text.
- International Stratigraphic Chart 2009, stratigraphy.org/upload/ISChart2009.pdf. Return to text.
Very interesting article. I was especially interested in how the footprints were dated. That was very informative.
In my opinion, the article would be improved by stating all the facts first without references to the creation / evolution debate. That way the facts have a chance to speak for themselves. Also, it begins with something that both evolutionists and creationists can agree on. Giving the impression of "Here's one for creationism!" or "Creationists were right all along!" does not fit my image of a scientific article, but reduces the article to the level of an opinion piece.
I think that controversy or the history of the controversy should be left for a commentary section at the end. I am not including controversy over interpretation or facts such as "Theory / Dating of proposed evolutionary link challenged / overturned."
I liked your article on the amphibian track in Poland. Especially your predictions about where this is going. Maybe you could add another scenario, based on what they did with dinosaurs: the earliest dinosaur tracks are—according to the evo mantra—20 million years older than the first bones. And the earliest ancestor of dinosaurs, Eoraptor, is a full-fledged dinosaur. So they keep the old story and completely disregard the facts. To the great public it is what the media says about a given issue, not what scientists say. And whenever scientists have access to the media, they make sure they keep the rosy picture of science having the facts settled alive.
A good point. That is the way they have behaved in the past when so many icons of evolution have been discredited, icons such as Haeckels embryos, the ape-to-human sequence, bacteria resistance, the Miller-Urey experiment, etc. These icons are too useful as propaganda to let go. This failed sequence will most likely continue to be promoted for decades. (See They are teaching lies to our kids.)
Nice to see another intermediate fossil bite the dust, so to speak. However the evolutionists will use one of two rescue arguments …
- There is still an intermediate fossil but it has moved 18 million years into the past, just waiting to be discovered (footprints only).
- Tiktaalik is still an intermediate fossil from another evolutionary line in parallel to the current find, with the same common ancestor, the latter splitting off from it earlier than tiktaalik.
I mean why spoil a beautiful theory with the facts?
Thanks, Dr Walker, for this excellent article. It is so well written and you have considered all the possible lines of defense that the evolutionists are likely to take. I pray that more and more scientists, and others who can impact those around them, will be struck to the core by the evidence for creation, and will turn with repentant hearts to our Lord.
It is so encouraging to hear news of this nature. We Christians need all the support we can get to stand up to the atheists, rationalists, and so called intellectuals. It is a pity that we as Christians are not all united, so that all these sort of things and others are shared amongst all.
Most Atheists want to be intellectually fulfilled, so Darwinism naturally appeals to them. But if the fossils don’t bear out the hypothesis, then it’s just too bad. The Atheists are really just looking for a fossil crutch to lean on; they should harden up and face reality.
Has anyone heard what Richard Dawkins has to say about the Polish footprints? I can’t wait to hear. I think it is a real shame that good teachers are without work while people like Mr. Dawkins make thousands of dollars a year writing deceptive propaganda. If no one would support him, he would go away. Not only does he need to wake up, but so do his readers.
I have just read the article titled Footprints. I am confused by the ages of the fossils. I was under the impression that the earth is 6K years old and yet the article is referencing 397 million years old. Can you help me understand which one is accurate and why? Thank you in advance!
I should have made it clear that numbers like 397 million years are what the evolutionists are saying but we do not accept them. I used them for discussion purposes only. They are based on assuming that sedimentary rocks accumulated very slowly but, in fact, they were laid down quickly during Noah’s Flood, as the waters were rising on the earth. Based on the reliable history of the Bible we know that was about 4,500 years ago.
I would like to think that with all the evidence piling up against evolution that it would eventually fail. The Bible, however, tells us they don’t want to know the truth and so God allows them to believe their lies and suffer the consequences. We need to keep pointing out the discrepancies, however, in hopes that the honest at heart will see and hear the truth.
I enjoyed your article and comments relating to it, and I am heartily sick of the continual repetition of such claims relating to ‘footprints’ with no apparent thought given to the practicalities.
During the recent cold snap we had a lot of snow and tracks of all kinds were left in it all over the place. Not surprisingly, these disappeared when the snow melted. Snow does that.
Mud is generally somewhat more robust than snow but does tend to erode quite quickly, even when sun-hardened, yet we’re expected to believe such prints have survived unmolested by erosion for hundreds of millions of years, despite the fact that a brief glance at such structures as Stonehenge or the Pyramids of Egypt, demonstrate that far harder materials have worn quite badly over much shorter time frames than those claimed for such prints.
Now, as you say, if they were made more recently and buried quite suddenly—in a Flood, for example—the theory might hold more water.
Of course scientists are going to take a while to have an explanation for this discovery. Unlike creationists we do not believe that we have a single book with all the answers. With true science, evidence has to be found. Sure this raises some questions about the origins of tetrapods. It can be noted from the photos in the blog that this is not an animal with a pentadactyl limb so it is possible that there was convergent evolution given the same selection pressures were applied to thousands of fish species worldwide.
Scientists come in two forms: naturalistic and creationist. Both use evidence. Naturalistic scientists have a single guiding principle: naturalism.
There is one type of scientist. One who observes nature, tests hypotheses, establishes theories, and observes and interprets results. Creationists establish their ultimate result (God) then either manipulate evidence to point to that conclusion, or simply attack evidence provided by actual scientists. This is simply a case of the latter.
Steven, I assume you are commenting on the previous post: “Scientists come in two forms: naturalistic and creationist. Both use evidence. Naturalistic scientists have a single guiding principle: naturalism.”
Naturalism requires millions of years of time for naturalistic explanations to have a modicum of plausibility. Naturalism also requires evolution—small incremental changes that build the complexity we see in the world, a complexity that looks designed.
Naturalistic scientists do exactly what you accuse creationist scientists of doing. Naturalistic scientists have already established their ultimate result (no-God) and they “either manipulate evidence to point to that conclusion, or simply attack evidence provided by actual scientists.”