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The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

Fish Fossils

Post of the Month: September 2002

by Keith Littleton

Subject:    Re: Pitman's Pathetic Geology.
Date:       September 29, 2002
Message-ID: visl9.348736$ (Sean Pitman M.D.) wrote:

>Glenn Morton
>I got to thinking about your fossil fish argument.
>I even went to your web page where you discussed this
>argument in detail. Really, it is a very interesting
>argument. It seems quite reasonable. Like you said,
>I haven't heard it discussed much. Given this, I do
>have some questions or thoughts for you.
>I'm sure you know of the Coelacanth. The Coelacanth can
>be found in the geologic column as far back as "360
>million years" and as recently as "80 million years."
>Then, it disappears from the fossil record entirely.
>It was thought to have been completely wiped out with
>the dinosaurs, until 1938 when living Coelacanths were
>found alive and well off the east coast of S. Africa.

I know the "coelacanth". I know enough about them to know that the coelacanths found in Madagascar are neither the same type of coelacanth fossils that have been found in rocks that are 360 million years old nor the same type of coelacanth found in shallow marine strata that are about 80 million years old. The 360 million year old coelacanths are smaller, lack certain internal structures found in modern coelacanths and belong to a different genera and suborder. The modern coelacanths belong to a different genera than the 80 million year genera. Technically speaking, the modern coelacanth of the genus Latimera has no fossil record. Only the order and suborder that it belongs to has.

If a person either goes to the nearest college library to research this topic or requests books by interlibrary loan, he / she can find:

Coelacanth. W. W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 1991. ISBN 0-393-02956-5.

On page 78, last paragraph of that book, he would have read:
"One point has to be emphasized; The living coelacanth is not a living fossil in the very strict sense that members of the species L. chaumnae itself have ever been found as a fossil. In fact, no other species assignable to the Genus Latimeria has been found as a fossil either. Latimeria and the Cretaceous fossil Genus Macropoma are quite closely related, and we could possibly include them in the same family. Beyond that, all fossil coelacanths belong to the order Coelacanthini."

>Why then did they disappear from the fossil record after
>such a long presence there? Some argue that they used to
>live in environments "conducive" to fossilization, but
>now they live in caves and under the overhanging marine
>reefs of volcanic islands that are not so conducive to

This might be quite true, but there is a lack of such Tertiary, Mesozoic, or Paleozoic fossil bone beds that occur within sediments, which have accumulated in the caves and overhangs in reefs of volcanic islands. This is because these deposits have either subsided with the volcanic islands that they are associated with or have been subducted with the volcanic islands beneath continental plates. In the former case, the deposits associated with still extent volcanic islands are now underwater and buried beneath younger sediments that have continued to accumulate on top the islands as they sank. In the latter case, fragments of some volcanic islands have been scraped off during subduction, but for the most part, these fragments are metamorphosed to the point of badly mangling, even destroying any fossils that they might contain.

Similarly, the deep sea sediments that might contain the fossils of coelacanths also have been largely subducted with slices and slivers of these sediments being plastered against the continental margin and being just as mangled and metamorphosed as the volcanic islands. The deep sea sediments that are still undeformed lie at the ocean bottom and buried under younger sediments where nobody can get at them.

>Interesting argument I think.

It is interesting. I would be very interested in why Mr. Pitman expects paleontologists to be able to find fossils in sediments that are either underwater and buried beneath younger sediments or consist of badly deformed, even metamorphosed sediments. If this argument is invalid, Mr. Pitman should have absolutely no trouble at all pointing to specific outcrops of sedimentary strata where a person could look for the remains of coelacanths.

>Fossilization requires rapid burial or else decay will
>obliterate all traces.

This is not completely true. Bones can survive for over a year before being buried. In the case of shells, they can be washed around for decades, even hundreds of years, before they are finally buried in the sediment to become fossils. Only in the fossilization of soft parts is immediate burial required. This all has been documented by direct field observation and other studies. Contrary to what Mr. Pitman incorrectly claims, the hard parts of animals can persist for a significant period of time before being finally buried. In fact, the degree to which many fossil shells are either encrusted or have been bored by other organisms and bones which show signs of either weathering or gnawing demonstrates that they were not rapidly buried before being fossilized. Of course, a bone or shell eventually has to be buried to be preserved.

>It seems to me that fossilization is catastrophe

At this time, enough research has been done by geologists and paleontologists that the proposal that fossilization is catastrophe dependent can easily be demonstrated to be completely refuted.

For example, in case of the preservation of bone, catastrophes have nothing to do with fossilization. Location instead of catastrophe is an important part of whether a bone becomes preserved. A person need only look at the abundant fossil bones found in the Pleistocene to Holocene age fluvial sediments that underlie Yellow House Draw and many other stream and river valleys in the Southern High Plains of Texas and New Mexico (Holiday 1997).

The bones of bison and other animals that fell on the uplands of the Southern High Plains between river valleys have decayed away. In these uplands, they lay exposed on the surface where weathering and scavengers destroyed them.

However, where these bison and other animals died upon the active floodplains of rivers and streams, the bones of a number of them were eventually buried in the sediments and some of these were indeed preserved. No catastrophe was involved. Rather, the day to day, year to year accumulation of sediments in lakes, in rivers, on floodplains, and as dunes in these river valleys buried and preserved these fossils. These fossils range in age from bison contemporaneous with the colleagues of Buffalo Bill to bison hunted by successive generations of Native Americans back to Folsum and Clovis cultures and mammoths, horses, and megafauna predating the Clovis cultures. These bones consists of both natural bone beds and kill sites. In the bottoms of Yellowhouse, Blackwater, and other draws in the Southern High Plains is an abundance showing that that the statement "fossilization is catastrophe dependent" is scientifically bankrupt. In these draws, fossils have been constantly formed for the past 12,000 years without any need for imaginary catastrophes. In case of Yellowhouse Draw, the occasional deposition of fluvial, lacustrine, and wind blown sediments along with very calcareous soils is enough for fossils to have been created over a long period of time (Holiday 1997).

References cited:

Holiday, V. T. (1997) Paleoindian Geoarchaeology of the Southern High Plains. University of Texas Press, Austin. Texas.

Lubbock Lake Landmark State Historical Park

The people lurking and reading this thread can find and read papers that demonstrated fossilization can happen under non-catastrophic conditions in:

Briggs, D. E. G. (1995): Experimental Taphonomy. Palaios. vol. 10, pp. 539-550.

Briggs, D. E. K. and Crowther, P. R. (1993): Paleobiology: A Synthesis. Oxford Blackwell Scientific Publications, New York.

Briggs D. E. G. and Kear, A. J. (1993): Fossilization of Soft Tissue in the Laboratory. Science vol. 259, pp. 1439-1442

Briggs D. E .G., Keara, J. A., Martill, D. M., and Wilby, P. R. (1993): Phosphatization of soft-tissue in experiments and fossils. Journal of Geological Society vol. 150, pp. 1035-1038.

Dunn, K. A., et al. (1997): Enhancement of Leaf Fossilization Potential by Bacterial Biofilms. Geology, vol. 25, no. 12, pp. 119-1222.

Seilacher, A., W.-E. Reif, F. Westphal (1985) Sedimentological, ecological and temporal patterns of fossil Lagerstatten. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, vol. B311, pp. 5-24.

Weeks, L. G. (1953) Environment and Mode of Origin and Facies Relationships of Carbonate Concretions in Shales. Journal of Sedimentary Petrology, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 162-173.

Wilby, P. R., et al. (1996) "Role of Microbial Mats in the Fossilization of Soft Tissues." Geology, vol. 24, pp. 787-790.

>From my understanding, practically all fossils of fish
>show evidence of catastrophic burial... en masse. In
>other words, the fish were alive and well when they were
>suddenly buried alive.

If Mr. Pitman would research the fossilization of fish, he would find the statement "practically all fossils of fish show evidence of catastrophic burial" to be a rather gross exaggeration of what the facts show. For example, the research by Maisey (1991) of the origins of the Santana fossil fish clearly demonstrates the lack of catastrophe in their formation. Rather, they represent fish that died and sank to the bottom of a large anoxic lake over a period of thousands of years. The decay of the fish on the bottom precipitated carbonate minerals that preserved them as fossils. In the case of the fossil fish found in the Old Red Sandstone of Scotland, studies by Trewin and Davidson (1995) demonstrated that these fossils are not the result of some mythical catastrophe. Instead, the fish died when the lake they lived in dried up and as the fish decayed in the muddy bottom of the lake, carbonate mineral precipitated around them and preserved them as fossils. Finally, there are cases of massive fish kills resulting in the accumulation of entire schools of fish at the bottom of a lake where they were eventually buried. However, as documented by Weigelt (1989) way back in 1927, fish kills occur without the need for any catastrophe.

Having sailed and fished the bays, bayous, and rivers of Louisiana, I can personally vouch that natural fish kills involving entire schools of fish are quite common in nature. In them, the fish die in a state of agony without the need of a catastrophe. This observation is documented in numerous published papers. As Weigelt (1989, page 163) observes:

"Reports of enormous fish kills are plentiful: Almost every ten years, a red mite appears in Walvis Bay, South Africa and causes a fish kill of such magnitude that the water is said to be completely covered with dead fish.

Poisoning by minerals and gases have likewise often been observed. Another example is the massive die-off of fish during the iron 'bloom' in Siberian rivers, which Baron von Toll has reported in detail. In west Texas and in many other areas, when the water level in the rivers is low, there is a bloom of algae, and vast numbers of fish die from carbon dioxide poisoning. Changes in salinity very frequently cause fish to die. Freyberg (55) observed in Mar Chiquita, Argentina (a basin of concentrated salt solution into which, however, a completely isolated source of fresh water emptied) large accumulations of fish that had died and been preserved by the salt solution and had then floated ashore, where they were mummified. Freshwater fish in coastal lakes die off when there is an ingress of salt water. The most well-known instance occurred when the narrow neck of land that separated the Limfjord from the ocean to the west broke in 1825. After a storm tide, salt water entered and killed all the freshwater fish, which floated ashore in unbelievable numbers; some were even buried along with eelgrass beneath the sand carried ashore by the storm tide."
Weigelt (1989, page 164) also observed:
"Andree (9) reports on the natural mass death of the fish Mallotus villosus Muller, which occurs annually after the breeding season and which, according to A. Jort, regularly coincides with radical temperature changes in the Barents Sea. The floors of calm bays and inlets of the harbors at Disko and Lodden, Greenland, can be completely covered with fish carcasses. Remains of Mallotus villosus form the growth centers of concretions known as 'marlekor' found in the late glacial, polar sea clays in Greenland and Norway."

If a person looks at the taphonomy and sedimentology of the fossil fish beds in detail, the evidence for them having been formed catastrophically either turns out to be wishful thinking or not credible evidence at all of any catastrophe having created them.

References cited:

Maisey, John G. (1991) Fossil forensics. In J. G. Maisey, ed., Santana fossils; an illustrated atlas. T.F.H. Publ.. Neptune City, New Jersey.

Trewin, N. H., and Davidson, R. G. (1995) An Early Devonian lake and its associated biota in the Midland Valley of Scotland. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh: Earth Sciences. vol. 86, Part 4, pp. 233-246.

Weigelt J. (1989) Recent Vertebrate Carcasses and Their Paleobiological Implications. University of Chicago Press. Chicago, Illinois.

>There are even some fossils of fish in the middle of
>eating other fish.

There two problems here. First, these fossils are extremely rare. So rare that they are only indicative of very rare events. Finally, these fossils only demonstrate how some Young Earth creationists are incapable of recognizing a fish that choked on trying to eat a fish far larger than it could swallow.

>Also, many of them show statistically significant
>alignment with each other. In other words, they are
>generally found in the same plane of orientation such
>as would be expected from a current deposit.

Bottom currents are not unique to catastrophes. There are currents at the bottom of lakes, streams, and so forth. Just a regular flood will create such orientations. Also, you greatly exaggerate the degree that such fossil deposits show orientations. For example, the Santana fossil deposits and the Old Red Sandstone fossil fish don't show such orientations. Many of the Miocene diatomite fossil fish don't show such orientation. Basically, the presence of a current is not evidence of a catastrophe and not all fossil fish deposits even show the alignment and orientation that indicated the presence of a current.

>The same orientation can be generally seen with other
>types of fossils such as plants, shells, dinosaurs, etc.

Some of the bone beds in the fluvial sediments underlying Yellowhouse Draw near Lubbock, Texas in Southern High Plains show the exact same type of orientation. It would be foolish to argue that because these bones are oriented, that they were deposited by a catastrophe. They, like the oriented dinosaur bones and plants, are not oriented because of a catastrophe. Rather, they were deposited by the currents of either the river or flood that moved them around and preserved them by dumping sediments on them.

>How then did the Coelacanth avoid such catastrophic
>burials when it hadn't been able to avoid them for
>hundreds of millions of years?

There weren't any catastrophic burials. The problem is that very little of the rock, in which the fossils of coelacanths would occur, is available for people to find their fossils in. Also, with a relatively small numbers of coelacanths, their fossils would be very hard to find even if large amounts of these rocks were available for inspection.

>With these thoughts in mind, let me pose a hypothetical
>for you to shoot down (That's the whole point of
>hypothetical questions you know... to be shot down. That
>is the goal of the scientific method. Once a person stops
>trying to shoot down hypothesis and theories of
>science, science is not longer science.).
>What if the fish found in the lower layers of the geologic
>column were "sorted" according to various factors such as
>environmental habitat and body composition (to include
>size, shape, and density)?

....stuff about hydraulic sorting omitted...

What I would like to know is how hydraulic sorting can distribute intact fossil reefs throughout the entire geological column. How does hydraulic sorting explain the biostratigraphy of microfossils?

What I would like Young Earth creationists to explain is why microfossils which lived in the same ocean are so nicely stratified according to age. First go read "Microfossil Stratigraphy Presents Problems for the Flood" by Glenn R. Morton at:

He gives a few of innumerable examples where foraminifera and other microfossils are found in the same stratigraphic sequence over large areas, even world-wide. A person cannot explain this in terms of either location or habitat zonation. Since they are essentially the same size and weight, hydraulic sorting cannot be used as an explanation. The only explanation is that the foraminifera are found neatly zoned by depth is because they lived at different times as the strata accumulated.

The Young Earth creationist global flood model cannot account for vertical distribution of microsfossils as illustrated in the "MMS GOMR Resource Evaluation Paleontological Laboratory, Biostratigraphic Chart." with a link at "Scientific and Technical Papers of the Gulf of Mexico OCS Region" at:

This chart can be downloaded from:

This chart shows the vertical sequence in which all over the entire northern Gulf of Mexico how over a 100 different microfossils occur within a pile sediments over 15,000 to 20,000 feet thick. In oil well after oil well and in surface exposure after surface exposure, the sequence of microfossils shown in this chart can be found. For example, Hyalina "B" is always found in the sediments above the sediments containing Angulogerina "A." It, in turn, overlies sediments containing Cristellaria "S", Globorotalia miocenica and Globorotalia menardii, and Bolivina imporcata. These microfossils are found above sediments containing Lenticulina 1, Cassidulina "L", and Saracenaria "H". In addition, the geologic periods also occur in the same order in oil well after oil well as well as in surface exposures. Hydraulic sorting cannot explain this vertical distribution of microfossils as Glenn argues on his web page.

Have Fun
Keith Littleton
New Orleans, LA

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A Christian Responds

Post of the Month Editor's Pick: September 2002

by James Hutchins

Date:       September 13, 2002
Message-ID: deag9.227088$

Hi, I'd first like to say that I'm a Christian. I believe in a God and I believe that Jesus is still a living presence that can be experienced. I also believe in evolution by means of natural selection. I do not believe in the absolute inerrancy of the Bible. These are not contradictions.

That being said, I'd like to apologise to all the atheists and agnostics for the fundamentalists. They don't represent us! Many of us serious Bible readers interpret the stories of the Old and New Testament as stories and myths relating the story of the ancient Hebrew people's relationship to God. They contain profound truths both spiritual and philosophical, but they are not historically or scientifically accurate in many cases. I repeat, the fundamentalists do not represent the mainline Christian churches!

To the fundamentalists I'd like to say that you're embarrassing the Christian faith by making us out to be pre-modern ignoramuses. Shame on you all for turning thoughtful people away from Christ.

Thank you, James

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