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Creation 41(3):46–47, July 2019

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Fossils in a day?

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Paleontologists (fossil experts) traditionally believe that time—lots of it—is an essential ingredient to form fossils. But a paper by three scientists in the online journal Palaeontology indicates they may well have created fossils in a single day.

Palaeontology, 2018 p. 5 … used with permission13482-lizard-before-burial
 A collation of experimental (before burial) and maturation images of a lizard. Images A, D and F represent experimental lizard foot, hand and head, whilst images B, C, E and G are maturation images of the same. In comparison, K and L are actual lizard fossils. H and I show exposed melanosomes, bodies that make and store melanin (for colour and photoprotection); J shows fossil melanosomes.

A summary of their paper is titled: “Researchers have discovered how to make proper fossils—in a day”. It says they “figured out a way—by compressing that incredibly lengthy process into a day.”

Taphonomy is a field within paleontology that studies the chemical and physical processes of decay and fossilization. Such scientists have long recognized that heat and pressure are especially necessary ingredients for forming fossils. Of course, there is plenty of pressure on deep sediments, and in addition to the heating associated with this there are also many lava flows throughout the fossil record.

To experimentally mimic the fossilization process, taphonomists have undertaken what they call maturation experiments. These often involve placing an organic specimen (say a leaf or feather) in a small sealed capsule and then heating and pressurizing the contents. These experiments are meant to speed up the rate of chemical degradation and shorten the time for fossil formation.

In the Palaeontology paper, the researchers noted that traditional maturation experiments face challenges. One of the more significant of these is that labile molecules (relatively unstable substances that are readily changed or broken down) and volatile molecules (those which readily evaporate) should be lost during maturation, but are instead trapped inside the holding capsule. As a result, an organic specimen can become more of a soft, spongy ‘mush’ than anything like a fossil.

So these three scientists decided on what they called a ‘novel’ approach. They first buried the organic specimens within easily-compacted clay, and then applied pressure to make a ‘tablet’ of clay with the specimen inside. These tablets were then placed inside the capsules.

The purpose was to explore more closely what is stable and what is mobile—what is trapped in the compacted specimen, and what escapes into the sediment. They called this an “initial compaction in sediment, followed by maturation [temperature and pressure].”1

The outcomes were fascinating. According to the Science Alert article, the bird feathers, leaves, resin and other substances were “spectacularly well preserved”. It quotes lead author Saitta as saying:

We were absolutely thrilled. … They looked like real fossils—there were dark films of skin and scales, the bones became browned. Even by eye, they looked right.2

The Palaeontology paper argues:

In this procedure, porous sediment allows maturation breakdown products to escape into the sediment and maturation chamber, while recalcitrant, immobile components are contained, more closely mimicking the natural conditions of fossilization.1

Simply put, “unstable molecules … leak out into the sediment, instead of turning the entire fossil to mush.”1

Their paper goes on to explore the utility of this approach and its implications in explaining the many exceptionally-preserved fossils in the rock record (their origin is a topic of great debate among experts).

Such aspects are certainly worthy of further exploration. But equally important is that the research undertaken highlights the importance of sediment in fossil formation.

Needed—rapid burial

First, the scientists confirm that sediment plays an important role in removing unstable and volatile molecules that would otherwise prevent fossilization.

Second, their results highlight a need to more thoroughly study the sediment—what are its origins, how abundant is the sediment, sediment movement and deposition—because rapidly deposited sediments are needed to induce the pressure needed.3

After many decades of measuring sediment loads and sedimentation rates around the globe (part of my own professional field of interest), we find that in all climatic environments they are remarkably low. Instantaneous deposits from flooding rivers are typically only millimetres or centimetres deep, not the metres or tens of metres needed to induce pressure to speed chemical degradation.

In short, current surface processes of erosion and deposition of sediments cannot explain the billions of fossils found globally. What was needed was a flood of unprecedented magnitude, capable of providing vast quantities of sediment over a short time period.4

These recent experimental results support the description of the global Flood of Noah in Genesis 6–8. This would have provided unprecedented rapid burial in deep sediment that was able to remove unstable and volatile molecules and cause the pressure needed for extensive organic fossil preservation—without millions of years.

References and notes

  1. Saitta, E.T. and 2 others, Sediment-encased maturation: A novel method for simulating diagenesis in organic fossil preservation, Palaeontology 62(1):135–150, Jan 2019; first published online 25 Jul 2018. Return to text.
  2. Starr, M., Researchers have discovered how to make proper fossils—in a day; sciencealert.com, 27 Jul 2018. Return to text.
  3. Rapid burial has long been noted in CMI publications; e.g. Wieland, C. Fast fossils: Billions of well-preserved fossil fish clash with popular belief, Creation 19(4):24–25,1997. Return to text.
  4. Oard, M.J. The case for Flood deposition of the Green River Formation, J. Creation 20(1):50–54, 2006. Return to text.

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