Feather fossil fantasy
Amber-encased feathers no help to feather evolution
Published: 28 March 2008 (GMT+10)
Evolutionary paleontologists have recently claimed to have found evidence of early feather evolution in amber.1
They ‘dated’ these finds to about 100 million years ago (Ma), and claim that they represent an intermediate stage in the evolutionary development of feathers.
Out of time
The title of the article reads: ‘The early evolution of feathers: fossil evidence from Cretaceous amber of France [emphasis added]’. This title is misleading for two reasons: (1) The article dates these fossil feathers to 100 Ma, but Archaeopteryx, a recognizable feathered bird, is dated by evolutionists to 150 Ma, and even the beaked bird Confuciusornis is dated to 135 Ma; (2) Archaeopteryx, by the authors’ own admission, has ‘modern-type feathers that are similar to those of extant birds’.2
This begs the question: why are these fossil feathers evidence for the early evolution of feathers if they’re clearly (according to the evolutionists’ own dating scheme) anything but early?
The conclusion is painfully obvious, even just from these two points: these fossil feathers mean absolutely nothing for feather evolution. However, this brings to light an often overlooked point about orthodox dino-to-bird theory.3 When the fossil evidence contradicts the evolutionists’ own timeline the standard way to save their story is to have ‘ghost lineages’4 haunting the phylogeny:
‘Personally, I continue to find it problematic that the most birdlike maniraptoran theropods are found 25 to 75 million years after the origin of birds … Ghost lineages are frankly a contrived solution, a deus ex machina required by the cladistic method.’5
Interestingly, researchers recently used a number of different molecular dating techniques to arrive at a date for the origin of modern birds of 103 Ma at the earliest.6 This is 3 Ma earlier than this fossil evidence for the early evolution of feathers. If this is the case, what did the ancestor of modern birds look like? I couldn’t help wondering whether the TNR (totally naked rooster) mutant7 isn’t a mutant at all, and is very close to the ancestral form of modern birds!
Feather morphology, development and evolution
However, the claim for evolutionary significance rests on the morphology of the feathers. Perrichot et al. believe that these feathers represent an intermediate stage between two stages of the of Prum’s developmental theory of feather evolution.8
But how can we be sure that these feathers don’t fall within the full range of morphology in fully functional feathers? These feathers are very small (1–2 mm) and are described as morphologically similar to down, ornamental or afterfeathers.9 And other explanations for their origin are not considered. For example, the size could suggest that they are from a chick, or the lack of barbules may indicate degenerate feathers that have lost functionality.10
When it comes to giving these feathers a certain place in the evolutionary chain of feathers, the authors demur in favour of keeping their ‘missing link’ brand:
‘We prefer not to create a new stage for this morphology, as it merely illustrates a transition between two well-established stages rather than a distinct, stable stage.’
Not a stable stage? This stage has either reappeared or, more likely, had to persist for over 50 Ma in the evolutionary scheme if it is important for evolution! Once again, it seems that all that matters in dino-to-bird evolution is morphology. The timeline can be conveniently ignored when it doesn’t neatly fit the story.
Perrichot et al. also claim that these feathers are far more likely to come from dinosaurs than birds:
‘The morphology of the new fossils described herein, with a rachis11 forming ‘primitive’ vanes without barbules, is entirely consistent with the shafted feathers displayed by these two theropods. … But the poor early feather record still prevents a complete reconstruction of the distribution pattern of morphologies among non-avian coelurosaurs and basal birds, and the possibility that they are derived from an early bird cannot be excluded.’2
This is mind boggling! They are seriously arguing that seven 1-mm long broken feathers that have likely been twisted and crushed when trapped in the amber are prima facie evidence for dinosaur feathers. Of course, they couch their claim in tentative terms by saying that ‘the possibility that they are derived from an early bird cannot be excluded.’ All the same, this statement shows they think the feathers are more likely to come from dinosaurs than birds.12 Surely feathers are prima facie evidence for birds, especially given the interpretive controversies that surround ‘feathered dinosaurs’.13
However, this is probably where the evolutionary age (100 Ma) would be invoked to explain the likelihood of them coming from dinosaurs. There are also a number of dromaeosaurid and troödontid fossils14 found in strata closely related to where the feathers were found.2
The problem is that the age can’t be important here and also be significant for the early evolution of feathers except by appealing to ‘evolutionary stasis’, which is an evolutionary interpretation of ghost lineages.
The best case scenario for the evolutionist is that this is a dinosaur feather ‘dated’ 50 Ma after unequivocal evidence of fully developed feathers in an ‘early’ bird. If anything, these feathers would represent feather degeneration in dinosaurs, not evolution.
It makes no sense to place these fossils into a dino-to-bird evolutionary context because they produce too many conundrums and unexplained questions. The timeline doesn’t fit and other options for the origin of the feathers are not considered. Assuming that the feathers come from a dinosaur is a complete reversal of any reasonable prima facie consideration of the source of the feathers. Such an assumption can only be made from a deep commitment to evolution in general and dino-to-bird evolution in particular. From a biblical view, these feathers are likely to have come from a chick and were encased in amber during the Flood.
- Perrichot, V., Marion, L., Ne´raudeau, D., Vullo, R. and Tafforeau, P.,The early evolution of feathers: fossil evidence from Cretaceous amber of France, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, doi:10.1098/rspb.2008.0003, Published online 19 February 2008. Return to text.
- Perrichot et al., ref.1, p. 4. Return to text.
- Woodmorappe, J., Bird evolution: discontinuities and reversals, J. Creation 17(1):88–94, 2003; Doyle, S., Jurassic Park feathers? 2 October 2007. Return to text.
- A ‘ghost lineage’ is a proposed evolutionary lineage for which no fossil record exists. A ghost lineage is invoked when a particular fossil is required by evolutionary morphological analyses to be placed millions of years before any fossil evidence occurs for it within their own dating scheme. Return to text.
- Dodson, P., Response by Peter Dodson, American Paleontologist 9(4):13–14, 2001; cited in Woodmorappe, J., Bird evolution: discontinuities and reversals, J. Creation 17(1):88–94, 2003. Return to text.
- Brown, J.W., Rest, J.S., García-Moreno, J., Sorenson, M.D. and Mindell, D.P., Strong mitochondrial DNA support for a Cretaceous origin of modern avian lineages, BMC Biology 6:6, published online 28 January 2008. Return to text.
- Totally naked rooster, Creation 15(1):51, 1992 Return to text.
- Prum, R.O., Development and evolutionary origin of feathers. J. Exp. Zool. B (Mol. Dev. Evol.) 285:291–306, 1999; see also Scientific American admits creationists hit a sore spot: Need for a new paradigm in bird evolution.. Return to text.
- Perrichot et al., ref. 1, p. 2. Return to text.
- Tyler, D. and Neraudeau, D., Post details: Feathers with remarkably primitive features , 26 February 2008. Return to text.
- The rachis is the main stem of a feather. Return to text.
- Some dino-to-bird advocates may say that birds are dinosaurs. However, Perrichot et al. are are specifically postulating that the feathers came from a non-avian dinosaur. Return to text.
- See e.g. Doyle, S., Feathery flight of fancy, 25 May 2007. Return to text.
- Dromaeosaurs and troödontids are claimed to be the closest dinosaurian relatives of birds, especially as some dromaeosaurs and troödontids seem to have feathers associated with the fossil remains. Return to text.