Saber-toothed skulls surprise paleontologists.
A small extinct saber-toothed mammal dubbed Cronopio dentiacutus has paleontologists excited about the features it combines. The two partial skulls and jaws, recently freed from their stony tomb of Cretaceous rock, were found in Argentina in 2002 in rock layers dated 100 million years old by evolutionary reckoning. The mammalian skulls, only about 27 mm long,1 came from La Buitrera where dinosaurs and a variety of other fossilized vertebrates are found. They are said to be the second oldest mammalian skulls yet found in South America,2 “bridging a previous 60-million-year gap in the fossil record.”3
“During the age of the dinosaurs, no mammal was bigger than a mouse,” says author Sebastian Apesteguia. (There is apparent hyperbole here, since evolutionary catalogues of mammals do include many examples of dinosaur-age mammals larger than mice, though many are on the small side.) Evolutionary paleontologists believe these small mammals were early in their evolutionary history.
Fossilized mammals in the same layers as the dinosaurs are rare finds, according to these researchers. Therefore, they believe the fossil record for early mammalian history is “woefully incomplete.”2 “Imagine trying to reconstruct the history of life with that information,” lead author Guillermo Rougier says. “We’re certain there were hundreds of [genuses], but for now it's like trying to reconstruct the brilliance of James Joyce with just ten of his words.”2 The authors add, “Such discoveries of remarkably complete Mesozoic fossils always represent giant steps” in the study of mammalian evolution. “In fact, one reasonably preserved Mesozoic mammalian skull in a critical stratigraphic and geographic position can be more relevant to our understanding of mammalian evolution and biogeography than hundreds of isolated teeth.”
The saber-toothed Cronopio is not a squirrel but an extinct mammal called a dryolestoid. Dryolestoid fossils are found all over the world. Up until now, however, dryolestoids have been known primarily by isolated jaws and teeth, so this chance to see a number of skull features together is a paleontologist’s dream.
Particularly surprising to the researchers was the combination of long fangs with ordinary molars typical of insectivores. These canines—the so-called saber-teeth—have been found in one other dryolestoid, but Cronopio’s are longer. Cronopio also had a long snout and big eyes, and it probably had to twist its jaw to chew its food “at the expense of a powerful bite.”1 “The back teeth, the molars, are the kind of teeth that you will find in an insectivore, an animal that eats insects of different kinds, and even very small invertebrates, or perhaps small lizards, which were present in the same place,” Rougier explains. “But we have no idea why he needed such huge canines. Those tusks are a big surprise.”4
The researchers say the creature probably resembled the character “Scrat” from the movie Ice Age. Rougier adds, “The comparison with Scrat [the animated movie creature] is superficial, but it just goes to show how diverse ancient mammals are, that we can just imagine some bizarre critter and later find something just like it.”
Dryolestoids are believed by evolutionists to belong to the “lineage leading to modern marsupials and placentals.”3 The researchers conclude, “Cronopio is an integral part of the evolutionary history leading to the South American mammalian communities of the Late Cretaceous. . . . Cronopio and other mammals yet to be described from La Buitrera locality are, because of their good preservation and relative completeness, our best hope to address the origin and early evolution of the Mesozoic mammalian faunas of South America.”
Cronopio, however, despite its presumed antiquity, fails its audition for the role of common mammalian ancestor. These Cronopio skulls show dryolestoids lacked the expected “skull morphology characterizing the hypothetical common ancestor of marsupials and placentals.”1 Instead, “Cronopio’s skull shows a combination of primitive mammalian features and highly specialized traits.”1
The researchers’ interpretations and comments reveal their worldview-based opinions. They see the geologic column as a timeline of evolutionary development rather than the order of burial in the global Flood. Many evolutionists think the existence of small mammals in the same strata as dinosaurs proves mammals were early in their evolutionary history. And why would a primitive mammal necessarily be small? Actually, larger mammals are found in those “old” layers too. In fact, Nature in 2005 commented that such a view—that primitive mammals were “constrained from evolving diverse body types and sizes” until the dinosaurs were out of the way—is “outdated.”5
When a mammal with “highly-specialized” structures such as these saber-teeth appears in “older” layers, evolutionists scramble to determine when and why those features evolved. They are puzzled by the juxtaposition of “highly specialized” traits and “primitive” ones. In reality, these are not “primitive” characteristics or creatures, just those that happen to have been buried with the dinosaurs by the Flood.
Cronopio just happens to have some features in common with living insect-eaters, some features in common with other fossilized extinct creatures, and enough unique features to give its discoverers the prerogative of naming it as a new species. It is not a transitional form. The Bible tells us God created all the kinds of animals to reproduce after their kinds. These fossils have added to our knowledge of the dryolestoids as an extinct kind and revealed their diversity—diversity that happens to include some species with long canines. We would expect such diversity by the time of the Flood. But this discovery can tell us nothing about the evolution of mammals because God created the mammal kinds without evolution during Creation week about 6,000 years ago.
From egg-thief to devoted mother to fan-dancer, Oviraptor reputation soars in Vegas.
The Society for Vertebrate Paleontology’s annual meeting in Las Vegas has provided a forum for paleontologists to share their latest findings, including another reputation rehabilitation for Oviraptor. Alberta graduate student Scott Persons presented his research on the misunderstood dinosaur’s tail, producing a visual image sure to make it into animated fantasy features.
When originally discovered dead-on-eggs in 1924, the Oviraptor was thought to be an egg-thief, hence its descriptive name. About 70 years later other oviraptorids were found apparently incubating nests of their own eggs. Those finds repaired the maligned dinosaur’s reputation, if not its name. Only the original fossil is known with certainty to actually be an Oviraptor.
Persons has examined “the tails of various species of Oviraptor” and reports that the tail is shorter than those of other theropods because the bones are densely packed. “The tail of an Oviraptor by comparison to the tail of most other dinosaurs is pretty . . . short,” he said. “But it's not short in that it's missing a whole bunch of vertebrae, it's short in that the individual vertebra within the tail themselves are sort of squashed together. So they're densely packed.” He imagines the close packing of small bones would make the tail flexible enough to wave a feathered tail fan.
He adds, “If you combine that with having a muscular, very flexible tail, what you have is a tail that could, potentially at least, have been used to flaunt, to wave that tail-feather fan.” He suggests we think of this dinosaur, said by many to be the most bird-like of the non-avian dinosaurs, like a peacock. He further speculates, “If you think about things like peacocks, they often use their tails in courtship displays.”
Oviraptors, like the rest of the dinosaurs, are not actually proven to have had feathers. There is only one definitive Oviraptor specimen known, and it does not have feathers. Of other creatures classified as oviraptorids, at least two6 are generally conceded to be flightless birds. It is unclear from the published accounts of Person’s presentation which species he examined, but the reports mention evidence of a feathered fan, suggesting he included these birds. But so-called feathered “relatives” of the Oviraptor are just birds, and it is only the unsupportable and unwitnessed presupposition that dinosaurs turned into birds that prompts anyone to call these animals “relatives.” The classification system that groups them together as oviraptorids is, after all, a human invention subject to human bias.
One purported “relative” of the Oviraptor has a pygostyle, a set of fused vertebrae that evolutionists claim evolved into the actual tail feather supporting pygostyle of modern birds. But Persons does not indicate oviraptors had a bird-like pygostyle but rather a very flexible set of tail bones. The implication, of course, is that these closely set vertebrae were on their way to evolving into the bird pygostyle like the one found on its “relative.” Since an evolved trait would need to have some valuable function to be preserved by natural selection, Person’s assertion that the highly flexible muscular tail supported a feather fan to enhance its courtship behavior would supposedly give the creature a reproductive advantage. In truth, however, these dinosaur tails weren’t on their way to becoming anything but part of some really neat fossils.
Person’s assertion that this dinosaur’s tail supported and wafted a feathery fan is also a product of imagination, not facts. There is no reason to assume that the Oviraptor had any feathers to wave any more than there is support for the notion that a flexible set of unfused vertebrae were some sort of pre-pygostyle. Only the determination to connect the evolutionary dots with fanciful lines leads to these sorts of conclusions.
According to the Bible, about 6,000 years ago God created dinosaurs the day after He created birds. Each kind of creature had the features it needed. Attempts to mentally transform dinosaurs into birds are imaginative exercises that ignore their drastic differences (such as the pelvic structures and the respiratory systems).7 Such suggestions acquire the air of authority when they produce a fanciful picture (like this peacock-o-saurus-like Oviraptor) that will doubtless make it into kids’ schoolbooks. But the genuine authoritative eyewitness account of the origin of dinosaurs and birds is found in the Bible’s first book, Genesis.
Bizarre bravery in rats explained . . . with serious implications for the human brain.
Toxoplasma gondii, a common protozoan parasite prevalent in 10–20 percent of UK humans and about a quarter in the U.S. ,8 is known to provoke uncommon bravery in rats encountering cats. In fact, infected rats are literally attracted to the smell of cats. The logical result of such foolhardy behavior gets the parasite into the cat digestive system where it can complete its life cycle and escape to infect more mammals, including humans.
“A complex range of interactions exist between a pathogen [such as Toxoplasma gondii] with its host, which may include manipulation of the host for the pathogen’s own advantage,” write University of Leeds researchers led by Dr. Glenn McConkey. The aim of their study was to figure out how the parasite does it.
Dr. McConkey’s team has now demonstrated this parasite can affect dopamine levels in mammalian brains. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. It relays information about movement, thought, behavior, and pleasure. Abnormalities in dopamine are associated with schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease. Curiously, dopamine-affecting drugs used to treat schizophrenia will inhibit reckless rat bravery.
McConkey’s group showed that Toxoplasma gondii encodes for the production of a key enzyme involved in dopamine production. They also found infected brain cells in mice produce excess dopamine. “Based on these analyses, it was clear that T. gondii can orchestrate a significant increase in dopamine production in neural cells,” says Dr. McConkey. “Humans are accidental hosts to T. gondii and the parasite could end up anywhere in the brain, so human symptoms of toxoplasmosis infection may depend on where parasite ends up. This may explain the observed statistical link between incidences of schizophrenia and toxoplasmosis infection.” Although the relationship of dopamine regulation to schizophrenia remains unclear, “observed effects on dopamine metabolism could also be relevant in interpreting reports of psychobehavioral changes in toxoplasmosis-infected humans.”8
So how does the parasite manipulate its hosts? Natural selection “rewards” those parasites whose effects include alteration of a neurotransmitter that happens to affect host behavior in a way that optimizes parasite spread. Of course, much more remains to be learned about how the parasite triggers dopamine production and which target cells produce behaviors advantageous to its propagation. And clearly, while infection with this parasite could be a contributing factor in some complex conditions as schizophrenia, it cannot be blamed as the cause since most people hosting the parasite in their brains are not schizophrenic. The researchers readily admit that much work remains to be done. Nevertheless, the dopamine link in this bizarre parasitic manifestation is a giant step forward.
From the Bible we know that God created a perfect world without death or disease. Therefore, the microorganisms in it originally were harmless. Since man first sinned, a complex combination of mutations, horizontally transferred genes, environmental changes, and host changes have left us with a number of harmful microorganisms in addition to those that still fulfill vital ecological roles. Parasites, particularly those that enslave their hosts, are reminders of the way natural selection has functioned in this fallen world. They are a grim reminder of the awful effects of sin on all of God’s creation.
A second look at Laetoli still asks the wrong question.
The Laetoli footprints are back in the news. Discovered in Tanzania in the 1970s by Mary Leakey below rock dated at 3.6 million years, the trail of tracks has classically been interpreted as the “first family” of upright-walking human ancestors. The tracks appear to belong to two individuals walking side by side and another behind. A presentation at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s annual meeting has revealed new information showing the tracks may belong to four individuals who were not walking together.
The tracks have long been re-buried for their preservation, but last February a portion was re-excavated to evaluate the area for a future museum. Only casts of the prints have been available to study for many years. But now, modern high-resolution three-dimensional photography has produced high-quality pictures for scientists to reexamine. Researchers at the Bureau of Land Management studied those photos and presented their findings at the meeting in Las Vegas.
The 3-D views reveal an extra set of toe prints inside one set of the prints. Furthermore, all the prints are the same size, without a smaller set attributable to a juvenile as previously thought. “So instead of having three individuals of different sizes, with the sizes related to different ages, there are probably four individuals of the same size moving through this area, perhaps not traveling as a group,” paleontologist Brent Breithaupt explained.
Until now “any secondary interpretations had to be made from the first interpretations or from a cast or reproduction,” Neffra Matthews added. “So not having access to that primary set of data kind of channeled the way the interpretations would go from then on.”
Denver paleontologist Martin Lockley, commenting on the study, pointed out how modern biases had crept into our interpretation of the famous footprints. He said, “There's a temptation to say, 'Well, we've got this data and it must mean something. And where do we get our meaning? We get our meaning from our cultural experience. So we say, ‘We've got happy families today, here's a family 3.5 million years ago.’ . . . The whole concept of the family, possibly two adults and a baby, it's kind of like the three bears: mama, papa and baby.”
While correctly pointing out that scientists do interpret fossil evidence through their own biases, Lockley doesn’t go quite far enough. The right question should not be “how many went for a stroll across the volcanic ash?” The real question for the evolutionist is “what were they?”
The Laetoli footprints are sandwiched between rock dated at 3.6 and 3.8 million years old by potassium-argon dating.9
Current evolutionary wisdom maintains the earliest Homo human ancestor evolved about 1.90 million years ago. (There was a 2.33 million year old candidate, but it recently lost face. Read more about it at Sediba with a little sleight of hand.) Thus, the Laetoli footprints cannot be interpreted as human, since humans weren’t supposed to be around yet. Even if they look human!
And in fact they do. Despite many evolutionists’ insistence that the footprints belong to an extinct human ancestral ape called Australopithecus afarensis, the footprints appear to belong to modern humans, albeit barefoot ones. “Lucy” was found in faraway Ethiopia, although some possible Au. afarensis mandibles were found around Laetoli. But apes are knuckle-walkers and, even when walking upright, leave tracks distinctly different from humans. The ape pelvis and musculature is such that an ordinary bipedal gait is impossible. Yet the Laetoli tracks show an ordinary human bipedal gait. The tracks also have ordinary human arches and, when examined by evolutionist R. H. Tuttle10 were found to be completely consistent with barefoot modern-type humans.
Controversy has raged about whether Lucy walked upright.11 Did “she” even have an arched foot?12 Yet thanks to dating dogma, even anatomical evidence that Lucy’s family could not have been bipedal13 carries no weight. The afarensis apes must have walked upright at Laetoli, proving themselves to be viable human ancestors, because humans at Laetoli would be the ultimate anthropological anachronism. The popular interpretation of Laetoli, to be enshrined in a new museum, is slavishly committed to the evolutionary worldview. Even the anatomical facts dare not fly in the face of the dating game.
The Bible tells a different story. In the Bible we learn from God’s own eyewitness account that He created animals on the sixth day of creation about 6,000 years ago. Then the same day He created Adam and Eve in His own image.14 Human beings did not evolve from apes or anything else. God made each kind of animal, as well as the first people, and designed them all to reproduce after their kinds. And even if a truly bipedal apelike animal with an arched foot and human-like stride had walked across Laetoli, that would not mean that humans evolved from bipedal apelike animals. A bipedal ape, if it existed, would just be an animal. But human beings are not animals. Human beings have a spiritual nature, and it is sinful human beings—descended not from apelike animals but from Adam—that Jesus Christ died to redeem.
Defining the differences . . . assuming the reasons
We have been hearing for years that chimp and human DNA is 98.5% identical, as if that proves our common ancestry. Later we learned that “junk DNA” serving a regulatory function is likely responsible for many of the differences. A new study from Georgia Tech biologist John McDonald’s team has examined such “junk DNA” in detail and correlated its presence with differences in gene expression.
McDonald writes, “Although humans and chimpanzees have accumulated significant differences in a number of phenotypic traits since diverging from a common ancestor about six million years ago, their genomes are more that 98.5% identical at protein-coding loci.” Acknowledging the enormous difference between humans and chimpanzees, he adds, “This modest degree of nucleotide divergence is not sufficient to explain the extensive phenotypic differences between the species.” In his study, he sought confirmation that “the genetic basis of the phenotypic differences lies at the level of gene regulation and is associated with extensive insertion and deletion (INDEL) variation between the two species.”15
The team was able to use the improved quality of chimp genomic information now available. They identified 26,509 INDELs, each a large sequence (80 to 12,000 base pairs long) present in either chimp or human DNA but not both. Of these the majority consisted of large repeated transposable elements. Furthermore, there were significantly more regulatory sequences in human DNA. Most importantly, the majority of identifiable differences in gene expression did correlate with the presence of such regulatory sequences. They concluded that these pieces of regulatory DNA arose from mutations after divergence from the common ancestor and were the differences on which natural selection operated to produce humans and chimps, acting as a significant “driving force behind human regulatory evolution.”15
“Transposable elements were once considered 'junk DNA' with little or no function. Now it appears that they may be one of the major reasons why we are so different from chimpanzees,” McDonald explains. “Our findings are generally consistent with the notion that the morphological and behavioral differences between humans and chimpanzees are predominately due to differences in the regulation of genes rather than to differences in the sequence of the genes themselves.”
So have these researchers proven that humans and chimps share a common ancestor? No, not at all. They simply assume such evolution as a fact. Even the vocabulary used to describe the differences as insertions and deletions reflects the evolutionary assumption.
Their analysis suggests that many genetic differences detectable with present technology consist of certain genes being switched on or off. (See How Genomes are Sequenced and Why it Matters: Implications for Studies in Comparative Genomics of Humans and Chimpanzees for a thorough explanation of the way genomes are actually compared to learn how many more differences get overlooked due to the practical limits of sequencing technology.)
Many people mistakenly think that such research puts to rest the creationist assertion that one kind of organism cannot acquire the genetic information to become another kind of organism. After all, they think, evolving seems merely a matter of flipping switches. What they fail to see is that all of these regulatory sequences—both the sequences themselves and their placement—are information also, information that would have to be acquired to change kinds. Furthermore, the source of the original information—both the protein-coding genes and the regulatory DNA—cannot be explained by evolution.
Determining the genetic basis for many differences between humans and chimps does not explain the origin of those differences or prove our divergence from a common ancestor. What humans and chimps do share is a common Designer. God used many similar bits of genetic information to produce anatomical features needed in similar sorts of organisms. God created each kind of organism and equipped each with the DNA information to reproduce after its kind. We know from the book of Genesis that God did not use one organism as raw material for the next but instead spoke each into existence over the course of a few days. Chimpanzees and human beings were each created on the sixth day. And human beings have a spiritual nature chimps have never had and will never have. Ancestral biology cannot explain even the origin of the information for physical and cognitive differences, much less the spiritual differences. The Bible, however, does.
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