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It’s all talk,Tiktaalik can’t walk

A fishy story that has no legs


© Ted Daeschler Tiktaalik fossil
Tiktaalik fossil.
Published: 30 January 2014 (GMT+10)

It’s all so slick in the evolutionary storytelling world, especially with one of its icons Tiktaalik roseae.

Tiktaalik is a fish supposedly 3751 million years old which has been promoted as a transitional fossil in sea-to-land evolution.

Tiktaalik has its own website2 and was even the theme of a song to promote evolution with the repeated line, “tik, tik, tik, tik, Tiktaalik.”3

The Tiktaalik story began in 2004 when University of Chicago researchers found a fossilized skull (not a fully formed fish) in Canada. More remains were found at the same locality on Ellesmere Island in 2006, 2008 and 2013 and assigned to Tiktaalik.

On the basis of the finds, a representation of how Tiktaalik may have looked was produced and presented to the world as proof positive of a transitional form in fish-to-tetrapod evolution.

An unquestioning media soon took up the story and heralded the find as another milestone in science.

In 2006, Dr Jonathan Sarfati considered the evidence and pointed out that Tiktaaliks fin was not connected to the main skeleton, so could not have supported its weight on land. He likened the Tiktaalik claims to the hopes evolutionists held for the fin of the then supposedly extinct coelacanth.4

By 2008, Tiktaalik again stuck its head above water after researchers found more of its cranium to examine. They declared it provided further evidence of Tiktaalik being the ‘missing link’ fossil between fish and land animals. CMI’s Shaun Doyle took a look at these claims:

“Many features needed for terrestrial existence are simply not present in Tiktaalik. Because of this, the most important changes in the braincase are pushed to another link that is truly missing. Moreover, it could not have been preparing for the transition to land because evolution is blind; it cannot foresee what will evolve in the future—especially when the raw material for evolutionary change is supposed to come from random mutations.”5
Piotr Szrek, Uppsala University Figure 2. Limestone slab from Poland with fossil footprints. (Piotr Szrek, Uppsala University)
Limestone slab from Poland with fossil footprints.

But in 2010, a discovery in Poland shook the claims about Tiktaalik’s place in the evolutionary timeframe. It was of tetrapod footprints dated (using evolutionary assumptions) at 397 million years, 18 million years older6 than Tiktaalik. Dr Tas Walker wrote:

“If four-legged animals existed 18 million years earlier, then Tiktaalik can’t be the transitional fossil it has been claimed to be”.7

This should have been the end for the Tiktaalik story but no-one—apart from creationists—seemed to see a problem, or, at least, admit to it. The media did not pick up on the significance of the timing problem in relation to Tiktaalik apart from an understated observation in a BBC report about the footprints:

“But Tiktaalik lived about 375 million years ago; and although there are slightly older transition fossils, the Zachelmie Quarry tetrapods break the neat and simple timeline.”8

It’s no surprise that Tiktaalik’s chief advocate Neil Shubin, professor of anatomy at the University of Chicago, has continued to plow on with the storytelling anyway. His team has just released another paper9 about Tiktaalik in which they say the discovery of “large” pelvic bones points to the probability of feet and, therefore, further evidence of its place as a transitional fossil.

Already certain of Tiktaalik’s place in the evolutionary story, Shubin and friends decree:

“Antecedents of canonical tetrapod pelvic characteristics are seen in Tiktaalik. Although Tiktaalik lacks a sacral rib connecting the pelvic girdle with the vertebral column, the iliac blade is relatively more massive and dorsally expanded than in fish.”10

This sounds hopeful, except that the lack of a sacral rib connecting the pelvic girdle to the vertebral column is integral for tetrapods to be able to bear their weight on land! This statement clinches the point:

“Although the size and general robusticity of the pelvis is derived relative to other finned forms, aspects of the general architecture of the girdle are plesiomorphic.”11

First, the terms ‘derived’ and plesiomorphic come from the cladistic method of analyzing alleged evolutionary relationships (see Cladistics, evolution and the fossils). ‘Derived’ (or ‘apomorphic’) means a changed state in the organism in question relative to its claimed ancestors. ‘Plesiomorphic’ (or ‘primitive’) means the ancestral state. E.g. in claiming that birds evolved from reptiles, feathers would be the derived characteristic in an alleged transitional form, while the plesiomorphic characteristics would be the reptilian ones (but see Birds: fliers from the beginning). Thus for Tiktaalik, ‘derived’ means tetrapod-like while ‘plesiomorphic’ means fishy.

Thus the above quote can be translated as: ‘Tiktaaliks pelvis is as big as those of tetrapods, but it actually looks and works like a fish pelvis.’ Without the proper pelvic architecture, the girdle and its attached fins cannot bear Tiktaaliks weight on land:

“Plesiomorphic features of Tiktaalik can be interpreted as highlighting a functional difference with limbed forms: the pelvic fin was not capable of bearing stresses and strains as significant as those of Acanthostega and Ichthyostega, nor was the musculature as well-developed for appendage retraction.”

Translated: ‘Tiktaalik’s pelvis works like a fish pelvis and not a tetrapod weight-bearing pelvis.’ So, by the authors’ own admission, Tiktaalik’s pelvis is easily recognizable as a fish pelvis. To put it in less evolution-friendly terms: Tiktaalik was designed to be a fish, not a tetrapod. This also means that what Per Ahlberg once said of Tiktaalik’s pectoral fins applies just as much to its pelvic girdle:

“There remains a large morphological gap between them and digits as seen in, for example, Acanthostega: if the digits evolved from these distal bones, the process must have involved considerable developmental repatterning [emphasis added].”12

In other words, like every other part of Tiktaalik, its pelvis shows that it is a fish.

A favorable media report13 about the latest Shubin paper admits that “scientists have yet to find a Tiktaalik hind fin bone, or any remains that might shed light on the origins of toes,” without realizing how vital those elements are if the story is true.

Shubin’s response is revealing: “The hind fin of Tiktaalik is tantalisingly incomplete.”

He already stated in the paper that, whatever the result, Tiktaalik’s pelvis shows that its pelvic fin couldn’t bear weight on land! So just like the rest of the storytelling on this specimen over the years, the evolutionists have talked the talk but they can’t make Tiktaalik walk.

Perhaps some alternative words can be added to the tik, tik, tik, tik, Tiktaalik song … tick, tick, tick, tick Tiktaalik, times up—you’re just a fish.

References and notes

  1. Other estimated ages reported at 383 Ma and 379 Ma. Return to text.
  2. tiktaalik.uchicago.edu. Return to text.
  3. Tiktaalik (Your Inner Fish), music by the Indoorfins, youtube.com, 2008. Return to text.
  4. Sarfati, J., Tiktaalik roseae—a fishy ‘missing link’, 15 April 2006. Return to text.
  5. Doyle, S., Tiktaalik—sticking its head out of water? 12 December 2008. Return to text.
  6. Other estimated ages reported at 375 Ma, 379 Ma, and 383 Ma. Return to text.
  7. Walker, T., Tetrapods from Poland trample the Tiktaalik school of evolution, J. Creation 24(1):39–42, April 2010. Return to text.
  8. Fossil tracks record ‘oldest land-walkers’, news.bbc.co.uk, 6 January 2010. Return to text.
  9. Shubin, N.H., Daeschler, E.B., and Jenkins, F.A. Jr., Pelvic girdle and fin of Tiktaalik roseae, PNAS 111(3):893–899, 21 January 2014 | doi:10.1073/pnas.1322559111. Return to text.
  10. Shubin et al., ref. 9. Return to text.
  11. Shubin et al., ref. 9. Return to text.
  12. Ahlberg, P.E. and Clack, J.A., Palaeontology: A firm step from water to land, Nature 440(7085):747–749, 6 April 2006. Return to text.
  13. Sample, I., Tiktaalik fossils reveal how fish evolved into four-legged land animals, theguardian.com, 13 January 2014. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

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by Dr Carl Werner
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Readers’ comments

J M.
I shared this article with an unbelieving acquaintance and here is his response:

"Nearly all of Nunn’s points are either wrong or irrelevant, the latter because no one is arguing that Tiktaalik walked on land like a fully formed tetrapod. In the Wrong department, he implies strongly that Tiktaalik is nothing more than a typical bony fish, but that description is such an oversimplification as to be a falsehood. Tiktaalik possessed a neck, lacked a dorsal fin, and featured an amphibian-like skull (e.g., shape and size, mouth and dentition, internal and external nostrils, etc).

Additionally, the older tracks in Poland don’t pose any problem for evolution, as the Canadian Tiktaalik population could be descended from the same (or similar) population that gave rise to the Polish tetrapods. Further, Nunn contends there’s nothing exceptional about Tiktaalik’s pelvis, even though it’s a perfect example of what’s expected in a transitional form.

As remarkable as Tiktaalik is as a specimen, the manner by which Shubin’s team discovered it is IMO even more remarkable: They were deliberately searching exposed, late-Devonian rocks — in the tundra of Ellesmere Island, no less! — because they had the idea that said rocks provided the best opportunity to discover the fossilized remains of a creature that no one had ever seen before (or, truthfully, would otherwise ever have reason to think even existed). That creature was an animal w/traits common to lobe-finned fishes as well as amphibians, an idea inspired by 150+ years of observations, data-quantifying, hypothesizing, testing, reformulating, retesting, and doing it over & over again.

When the animal in question was precisely what the team found, the prediction that had been made across deep time and global space was confirmed."
Shaun Doyle
First, we didn't say it was a typical bony fish, but that it was an unquestionable bony fish. Tiktaalik's 'transitional form' status is simply a deduction from evolutionary premises; it is not the only possible interpretation of Tiktaalik. Moreover, the crucial transformations required to turn a fish pelvis into a tetrapod pelvis are absent in Tiktaalik because it's a functional modification of the basic sarcopterygian (lobe-finned fish) form. This reflects the conclusions of Shubin et al., and it is entirely consistent with biblical creation.

Second, the problem the older tracks from Poland pose is not merely one for Tiktaalik, but one for the entire fish-to-tetrapod transition. It was previously postulated to occur in a tightly constrained 20 Ma window 385–365 Ma (million years ago), whereas now the entire cladogram has to be pushed back at least 20 Ma despite the fact there is no fossil evidence consistent with such a time shift—other than the tetrapod tracks, of course, which is precisely the problem. It makes Tiktaalik and all the other 'fishapods' of the Frasnian (early Late Devonian, 'dated' 383–372 Ma) as irrelevant as Cretaceous 'feathered dinos' are for the dino-to-bird transition.

Finally, given that Panderichthys was well known from Late Devonian formations decades before Tiktaalik was found, it is not really that surprising to find something clearly closely related to Panderichthys in such a formation. Shubin's claim of 'prediction' is rather overblown. And again, the Polish tetrapod tracks 'dated' 400 Ma in 2009 throw out the Frasnian as the key time for the fish-to-tetrapod transition, so the timing part of his 'amazing prediction' was falsified within three years of publication. Tiktaalik's morphology remains an interesting mosaic, but it's timing is now problematic.
Tony M.
When evolutionists assert that reptile-like features mean that the Tiktaalik was evolving into a reptile, they fail to take into account the vast diversity of features that exist in the kinds of fish.

If tiktaalik's "reptilian" pelvis bone proves it was evolving into a reptile, does the carpenter shark's nose prove it was evolving into a chainsaw?

Does the angler fish's lantern prove it was evolving into a flash light?

The point is, there is a vast variety of morphologies in the fish world, (especially in the deepest parts of the oceans). Just because one fish has a morphological feature that isn't seen in other fish does not mean that this particular fish is evolving into some other kind of organism.

Victor L.
Anyone see a recurring pattern with ‘missing links’ (Tiktaalik, Lucy, Archaeopteryx, Ambulocetus, Coelacanth, Eohippus, etc…):
1. Determine one group must have descended from another group of organisms
2. Hunt for the missing link
3. Find an incomplete specimen that appears to have features of both groups
4. Publish findings, get famous as a discoverer of a missing link. Appear in National Geographic, Nova, Time, etc. Museums create new displays. Text Books get updated.
5. Someone finds more complete specimen that contradicts the earlier assumptions (i.e. Australopithecus with ape feet)
6. Someone finds a much earlier fossil that totally negates the validity of the link (i.e. Protoavis)
7. Despite the further evidence, ignore as much as possible – DO NOT make a report to the public and do not update the museum displays and text books (i.e. horse evolution diagrams still in popular science books)
Gary H.
Aren't you forgetting all the 'walking fish' of today like the common species of Mudskipper or the Epaulette shark. That most real scientists would say, is evolution right before our very eyes. Powerful evidence of the ability of fish to become amphibious, to move from the water to the land when they need to. It must hurt creationists deeply to see these marvellous animals crawl their way out of the ocean to go about their business, yet you dismiss it as: "God made them that way". This is deliberate ignorance of the highest calibre. Evolution is an unshakable truth, even endorsed by thousands of clergymen including protestant Pastors and Rabbis in the U.S [Weblink removed, as per feedback rules—Ed.], devout men and women of God and of science who all reject young-earth creationism.
Shaun Doyle
Had you taken the time to use the search function, you would have seen we have commented on both epaulette sharks and mudskippers (see also Mudskippers—marvels of the mud-flats!) before, and we said a whole lot more than "God made them that way". We also show why the evolutionary story attached to these fish doesn't work. Does that mean you are guilty of "deliberate ignorance of the highest calibre"?

As for compromising clergy, it's not exactly news to us, but the mere existence of compromising clergy doesn't mean their position has any merit. This is the classic bandwagon fallacy; are you "deliberately ignorant" of that too?

If you're going to insult a position, at least make sure you actually refute it in the process instead of spouting fallacies and bald assertions.
Liam R.
The argument of the article fails in a very clear way because experts are very well aware that fossils are almost always merely closely related to direct ancestors, rather than being direct ancestors. Life has many, many side branches and most of these die out. As a result fossils are mostly from side branches, simply by the laws of chance. However, these are very often close enough to lines of ancestry of current organisms (or later fossil organisms) to be of interest.

It is a surprisingly common blunder of creationists that they believe that evolutionary ancestors of organisms are obliged to be directly replaced by them and then vanish. Evolution is as much about diversification into new niches as improving in a single niche. Just because a lungfish has descendants that can walk on land is no good reason for some of the other descendants to stop using the niche of shallow water. In this case, Tiktaalik is likely an example of a later descendant of an organism which also had descendants which became land animals. As a broader example there are still a lot of fish in the sea, and some of these are very like ancient fish, despite some of their descendants having made it to land!
Shaun Doyle
We have not used the arguments that you rail against. We are well aware that in the evolutionary scheme evolutionary descendants don't have to replace their ancestors, especially if the descendents move into a new ecological niche.
We are also well aware that evolutionists do not equate the terms 'transitional form' and 'direct ancestor'—e.g. see Cladistics, evolution and the fossils and Ventastega—not a leg to stand on. It would behove you to note, however, that evolutionists do typically use genealogical language in cladistics, and they often don't make plain the difference between their specialized use and the ordinary use of such language, often leaving the public with the false impression that palaeontologists routinely demonstrate a direct reproductive lineage. In other words, if anyone is to blame for the confusion, it is the evolutionary propagandists.
Mark B.
Your article contains at least one error. No scientist, including Shubin, has ever claimed that Tiktaalik could walk on land. The best it could do was a pushup to stick it's head out of the shallow water in lived in.

It doesn't matter that the pelvis couldn't support walking. You are using a straw man argument.

No creationist article deals with the real issue - that Tiktaalik has a mixture of tetra-pod and fish features. What fish has a neck? What fish has a horizontally flat head? What fish has so many bones in its from limbs/fins?
Shaun Doyle
It does matter that Tiktaalik's pelvis can't support walking because it has a fish-type architecture because it proves that the crucial biomechanical transformations needed to move from water to land are simply not present in Tiktaalik. That journey requires the basic tetrapod pelvic architecture evinced even in Acanthostega. This means that the larger pelvic girdle in Tiktaalik is a sideshow to the main event that evolutionists need to demonstrate happened between Tiktaalik and Acanthostega to make the series even remotely plausible. Tiktaalik is little more than a distraction.

If you read the articles in the 'related articles' section, you will see that we have dealt with the mosaic nature of Tiktaalik's unique combination of traits before. Our basic response is that it's as irrelevant for the evolution of tetrapods as the mosaic structure of mudskippers is irrelevant for the evolution of land vertebrates. See Mudskippers and apemen and Mudskippers—marvels of the mud-flats! for more information.
Peter H.
Like fish, evolutionists are too slippery to pin down. When I pointed out the supposedly earlier Poland tracks, the evidence was dismissed because of the geographic distance from the Tiktaalik finds. The time frame supposedly faster in Poland.
Dave R.
It's really quite breath-taking how anyone, let alone someone highly trained in "Science", could ever believe that we somehow developed from these animals.
The spoof video of the Tiktaalik song [Weblink removed, as per our feedback rules—Ed.], by the University of Pennsylvania, doesn't clarify exactly whether its contributors do actually believe the message of its lyrics, but many people will.
Personally, I would take offence at being called "fish-face" but, logically, it should not be in the least way offensive to such believers.
Thank God and His Holy Spirit for His totally reliable Word and for CMI in giving us the true scientific facts and a better, saner grasp of how we and all things came to be.
Terry F.
Evolutionists are always making square pegs fit into round holes. They have to. It makes their fairy tale seem real. It is obviously not.

Thank you for the translations of the scientific terminology into understandable English. It seems to be one of the techniques Creationists frequently run into when lies are masked through the use of terms that have application in the realm of science.

Even though they were basically admitting that Tiktaalik is nothing more than a fish, it makes their lie appear to be scientifically based. The next claim is that Creationists don't understand the science of evolution. Now we do. Tiktaalik is yet another scientific straw grasped for by desperate evolutionists who have painted themselves into a corner as their "evidence" increasingly falls apart.
Leslie G.
I think Aesop did it much better than Shubin and Co.
John P.
Obviously tiktaalik was designed by God as a fish, no matter how much evolutionists wish it wasn't. Same with the cuttlefish, they show God's amazing glory as a Master Designer and Creator.
The problem with Shubin et al is their religion of evolution/humanism blinds them to the truth: design is in front of their eyes and they still deny it, once again fulfilling Bible prophesy on the wrong side of the ledger.

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