Fossil snakes and the Flood boundary in North America

Photograph: Chad Arment snakes
Figure 1. Three colubrids capable of intergeneric hybridization: (left to right) Pituophis, Lampropeltis, and Pantherophis.

by Chad Arment

The placement of the geological boundary between Flood deposits and post-Flood deposits is a point of debate within creation science. One method for estimating the placement of this boundary utilizes biostratigraphy.1 Biostratigraphy could be used in conjunction with hybridization data to more firmly pinpoint certain fossil beds as post-Flood deposits. Snakes can be used to illustrate this proposed method with certain North American fossil beds.

Snakes include multiple baraminic kinds.2 Most are terrestrial, so most kinds would have been present on the Ark. North American snakes number about 48 extant genera3 (out of about 460 genera worldwide). An extant kind may be represented by a single monotypic genus or by multiple genera (where confirmed by hybridization records).

Fossils of snakes are not uncommon. They can be identified as being an extant species, an extinct species of an extant genus, or a species of an extinct genus. In some cases, a genus may be identifiable but the species indeterminate due to quality of material or other issues. In most cases even an extinct genus can be relegated to identifiable families (which may be extant or extinct). They therefore have the potential to offer insight into whether or not a given fossil assemblage is a Flood or post-Flood deposit.

In order to create a methodology utilizing fossil stratigraphy and hybridization data, two assumptions must be made. First, hybridization between two genera indicates they are in the same kind. This is a well-recognized axiom in creation biology (e.g. lions and tigers interbreed, so both species are considered to be in the same kind). Second, if a terrestrial ‘unclean’ vertebrate genus were to be found in both Flood and post-Flood fossil deposits, that genus must have been on the Ark, representing that kind. (Only one pair of each terrestrial ‘unclean’ animal kind was on the Ark.) This is because the distinctive suite of anatomical characteristics that define a genus are unlikely to develop from ancestral stock in exactly the same way twice. Familial traits and convergent ecological adaptations may influence similar morphotypes, but these are distinguishable. (It may be that new post-Flood morphotypic trajectories would distinguish themselves from pre-Flood populations far more in ‘unclean’ kinds as the genetic limitations of a single-pair bottleneck adapted to post-Flood changes in geography, ecological structuring, etc.)

From these two assumptions, a principle can be developed: if two extant genera (of terrestrial ‘unclean’ vertebrates) within the same kind are found in the same fossil deposit, those fossils must represent a post-Flood environment.

An example with colubrid snakes

The Devil’s Nest Airstrip Site, Knox County, Nebraska, is a fossil deposit dated as Late Miocene (Late Hemphilian).4 All fossil snakes found at this site are from extant genera, including the cornsnake Pantherophis guttatus, the ratsnake Pantherophis obsoletus, the kingsnake Lampropeltis getula, the milksnake Lampropeltis triangulum, and the bullsnake Pituophis melanoleucus. We know from hybridization records that Pantherophis, Lampropeltis, and Pituophis (figure 1) are all part of the same kind,5,6 therefore this differentiation must have taken place after the Flood. So, we can recognize the Devil’s Nest Airstrip site as a post-Flood fossil site.

By looking closely at such relationships not only can we deduce specific post-Flood sites but we can also make inferences (the strength of which may vary but which can’t simply be ignored). One inference would be that all fossil sites with either Pituophis or Lampropeltis material are post-Flood sites. Pantherophis is closest to the Old World Elaphe morpho-type, so it is far more likely that Pituophis and Lampropeltis are post-Flood New World developments from Pantherophis-like ancestral stock, which in turn likely dispersed from Old World populations. (Pantherophis hybridizes with Old World Elaphe in the pet trade.)

A second inference would be that associated non-snake genera at deduced post-Flood fossil sites would then themselves indicate other post-Flood sites even in the absence of snake fossils. So, as the Devil’s Nest site is post-Flood, fossils of the extinct artiodactyl genus Pediomeryx found there would also be post-Flood.7 This genus only had North American distribution, which suggests a post-Flood New World differentiation from Old World artiodactyl ancestry. So, it may be that all fossil sites with Pediomeryx are post-Flood sites. Another fossil genus associated with the Devil’s Nest site is the giant marmot Paenemarmota. Paenemarmota is also found at the Hagerman Fossil Beds in Idaho.8 What do we find at the Hagerman site? Snake fossils of Pantherophis and Lampropeltis, again pointing to this site as a post-Flood deposit.

An example with rattlesnakes

Another pair of snakes known to have produced an intergeneric hybrid are the rattlesnakes Crotalus and Sistrurus.9 Crotalus includes the typical rattlesnakes of North and South America, while Sistrurus includes the pygmy rattlesnakes and massasaugas, found in North America (one species, S. ravus, is endemic to Mexico). Sistrurus is considered more ‘primitive’ due to characteristics such as the nine-scale crown pattern on the head (where Crotalus shows more variability).10 Sistrurus and Crotalus are believed to have diverged from a common ancestral form, with Sistrurus retaining more ‘primitive’ traits.10 Crotalus and Sistrurus fossils are found only in the New World. The ‘earliest’ Sistrurus fossil comes from the late Miocene Pratt Slide (Nebraska) site.11 

The Pratt Slide site includes both Sistrurus and Crotalus along with numerous other species, including Lampropeltis and Pituophis, discussed above.12 So, it should clearly be recognized as a post-Flood site. The rhinoceros Teleoceras major has been found at Pratt Slide.13 This means that Teleoceras major was a post-Flood animal. Even more importantly, it indicates that Teleoceras was a post-Flood genus. (Teleoceras had several species in North America and France.) Given the large number of fossil rhinoceros genera,13 it is highly unlikely that Teleoceras made up its own kind and was probably a post-Flood derivation.

Holman4 lists a number of Pleistocene and Pliocene sites where Elaphe (Pantherophis), Lampropeltis, Pituophis, and Sistrurus fossils have been found. Fairly consistently, these same sites also hold fossils of a wide range of other extant North American snake genera: ringnecks (Diadophis), gartersnakes (Thamnophis), watersnakes (Nerodia), hognoses (Heterodon), racers (Coluber), copperheads and cotton-mouths (Agkistrodon). This strongly ties these genera (and a few other genera that are obviously direct ancestors of extant genera, such as Paleoheterodon and Paracoluber) to post-Flood deposition.

Holman also shows that these extant genera are found in late Miocene (Clarendonian and Hemphillian) sites. A few are found in middle Miocene (Barstovian) sites, along with a few different genera (Calamagras, Ogmophis) extinct today, though they do have subfamilial relations (small erycine boas like modern North American rubber boas and rosy boas). Looking at early Miocene sites (Arikareean, Hemingfordian) we see Calamagras, Ogmophis, and others but with few exceptions we don’t see extant genera, though there are a few genera that could be ancestral to those.

table1
Table 1. Representative snakes found at North American sites.4,11,14 Click for larger view.

In Oligocene sites, small boids (like Calamagras and Ogmophis) are most abundant, along with a few small fossorial colubrids. Eocene sites have small fossorial snakes, a few terrestrial boids, and a number of sometimes very large marine serpents (palaeopheids). Calamagras and Ogmophis are found at a few late Eocene sites. Paleocene sites share a number of genera with early Eocene sites: particularly large marine serpents and small fossorial snakes. Cretaceous snakes include some boids and small fossorial snakes. No snakes are known at ‘earlier’ fossil sites in North America (see table 1).

A final note, while the fossil snakes are found at sites referred to as Pleistocene, Pliocene, Miocene, etc, the argument presented is essentially taxonomic, as the identification of snake fossils as members of extant genera is independent of stratigraphic placement. Being limited to the question of fossil identity, it should avoid issues that engender more heated debate within the creation model.

Conclusion

The fossil record of North American snakes indicates that the Flood boundary on this continent is found ‘lower’ than the late Miocene, where fossil snakes are highly correlated with modern herpetofauna and hybridization records point to post-Flood differentiation. Any argument that a fossil site with, for example, Lampropeltis or Pituophis fossils, is a Flood deposit must explain the discrepancy.

References and notes

  1. Ross, M.R., Evaluating potential post-Flood boundaries with biostratigraphy—the Pliocene/Pleistocene boundary, J. Creation 26(2):82–87, 2012. Return to text.
  2. Hennigan, T., An initial estimate toward identifying and numbering extant tuatara, amphisbaena, and snake kinds, Answers Research J. 7:31–47, 2014. Return to text.
  3. The Center for North American Herpetology, June 2014; cnah.org. Return to text.
  4. Holman, J.A., Fossil Snakes of North America, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN, 2000. There have been a number of recent taxonomic changes in North American herpetofauna, many at the species level, which would not affect the argument here. Genus-level changes have primarily involved splitting New World genera from Old World genera, e.g. most ratsnakes in North America formerly referred to as Elaphe are now Pantherophis. Older texts will have outdated nomenclature. Return to text.
  5. Hennigan, T., An initial investigation into the baraminology of snakes: Order—Squamata, Suborder Serpentes, CRSQ 42(12):153–160, 2005. Return to text.
  6. Fankhauser, G. and Cumming, K.B., Snake hybridization: A case for intrabaraminic diversity; in: Snelling A.A. (Ed.), Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Creationism (pp. 117–132), Creation Science Fellowship, Pittsburgh, PA, and Institute for Creation Research, Dallas, TX, 2008. Return to text.
  7. Janis, C.M., Scott, K.M. and Jacobs L.L. (Eds), Evolution of Tertiary Mammals of North America, vol. 1, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1998. Return to text.
  8. Hagerman Fossil Beds (National Park Service), nps.gov, June 2014. Return to text.
  9. Bailey, R.M., An intergeneric hybrid rattlesnake, American Naturalist 76:376–385, 1942. Return to text.
  10. Klauber, L.M., Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life Stories, and Influences on Mankind, vol. 1, 2nd edn, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1997. Return to text.
  11. Parmley, D. and Holman J.A., Earliest fossil record of a pigmy rattlesnake (Viperidae: Sistrurus Garman), J. Herpetology 41(1):141–144, 2007. Return to text.
  12. Parmley, D. and Hunter, K.B., Fossil snakes of the Clarendonian (Late Miocene) Pratt Slide local fauna of Nebraska, with the description of a new natricine colubrid, J. Herpetology 44(4):526–543, 2010. Return to text.
  13. Prothero, D.R., Evolution of North AmericanRhinoceroses, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2005. Return to text.
  14. Parmley, D. and Holman J.A., Nebraskophis Holman from the Late Eocene of Georgia (USA), the oldest known North American colubrid snake, Acta Zoological Cracoviensia 46(1):1–8, 2003. Return to text.

Reader’s comments

Philip S.
It has long seemed to me that most terrestrial & avian 'Kinds' must be Post-Flood - otherwise we constantly have the huge & unscriptural anomaly in the 'standard' W&Morris model of those very critters that were meant to be completely 'blotted out' - surviving thru the end of the Flood, & breeding variety etc!?
I think all that comes from the erroneous W&M idea of 'Hydrological sorting' allied to a gradual 'Eco-Zonation' order of fossils - when the very critters on the Ark are still found alive on earth more or less at the end of the Flood, & not only that, but are found on mountains & plains etc that DID NOT EXIST AT THE START OF THE FLOOD!!
All the upper layers of then Geolly Column are surely reworked lower layers, interspersed with massive volcanics & 'new' chemical/elemental beds etc, all still settling out before being thrust up, warped, & newly eroded etc - 'The Mts rose, the valleys descended', end-Flood [unless you have the crumby NIV etc!]
Nothing could survive thru that [excepting enough plants, inverts, fish etc], & there is sound Scriptural reason to think the first 40 days were the Flood proper, immensely & overwhelmingly destructive, the crust-cracking 'Spings' & subsequent massive boulders etc grounding mankind etc to powder, and any remains, possibly even underneath, or at the bottom of, the Pre-Cambrian!? That is why there are no Pre-Flood human remains.... 'Wipe out', 'blot out', completely eradicate etc....
No, I cannot explain all the features of the 'column', & it also seems to me that both the W&M people, & rebellious, mainly British 'Recolonisers' - both have big problems!
My own view, for what it's worth, is that the 'column' took about c700 yrs, beginning Flood to end Ice-Age, although most was laid in the Flood yr, & no Creation surfaces left
Chris W.
Dear Sir,

I understand that the theory that the author is making hinges on two assumptions, the first of which I have no problem. But the second: ....

'...if a terrestrial ‘unclean’ vertebrate genus were to be found in both Flood and post-Flood fossil deposits, that genus must have been on the Ark, representing that kind.'

Causes me to think that if there aren't any (or very rare) Post Flood fossil deposits, then the theory would fall down?

The snakes and other animals you cite simply hybridised pre-flood, and post flood.

But perhaps I'm missing something here?!

Regards,

Chris Westbrook
Shaun Doyle
Arment does address the issue of pre-Flood 'lookalikes' of post-Flood animals in the sentences immediately after: "This is because the distinctive suite of anatomical characteristics that define a genus are unlikely to develop from ancestral stock in exactly the same way twice. Familial traits and convergent ecological adaptations may influence similar morphotypes, but these are distinguishable."

As to the extent of post-Flood deposits, Arment is suggesting this as a criterion for distinguishing between Flood and post-Flood deposits. As such, this idea can't be ruled out simply by presupposing that post-Flood deposits are practically non-existent. Either one would have invalidate this criterion, or show that this criterion suggests that there are almost no post-Flood deposits, to make a case against Arment's ideas.

For more information, please see Fossil snakes and the Flood boundary in North America - Letter to the Editor for an exchange between Arment and Michael Oard, who voices some disagreements with Arments ideas.
Jeff H.
Great points all! I'd like to see this applied in other areas, too. And see if there is some correlation with layers that have poor fossil representation in between the flood and post-flood layers.
WR B.
The methodology is good here ASSUMING that the specified forms are indeed post Flood forms. Can anyone name a significant site on Earth today where permineralized fossils are currently being formed? Maybe all fossil beds were produced in the Flood, and except for an occasional bone or piece of wood lowered into a hot spring, and the occasional non mineralized bone or tooth that is found. Maybe fossilization is an extinct process.
Are we trapped in the uniformitarian mind set that says all processes are the same? Maybe fossilization was a unique process only happening in widely distributed, highly mineralized water of the mabbul, the first part of the Flood?
We need to consider all evidence and this is a unique approach, but is the model substantially correct? Did a world wide torrent of water transition into a continued deposition of fossils, or was it a huge one time event?
Shaun Doyle
Almost all creationists believe that fossils mostly formed in non-uniformitarian conditions. But why must we limit such conditions to the Flood? Might not such conditions occur frequently in the centuries immediately after the Flood, even if on a smaller an less intense scale, as the globe returned to a quasi-equilibrium state? Arment gives reasons for thinking the forms he lists are indeed post-Flood forms. They can be contested, sure, but they can't be contested simply by asserting that fossils essentially can't form except during the Flood. Just as we need to be careful about assumptions about fossil identification and it's relation to biblical chronology, so we also need to be careful about assumptions that constrain the contexts in which the fossils and rocks we see could be produced. Trying to find the right balance between these considerations is difficult, which is why the location of the post-Flood boundary is contested in the creationist literature. At any rate, we certainly need to keep asking probing questions.

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