On Monday Brian Thomas wrote Scientist Stumped by Actual Dinosaur Skin. The topic is a sample of “intact” dinosaur skin – one of only three known worldwide – which is to be examined by the Canadian Light Source* (CLS) synchrotron. This is therefore a “soft tissues” topic, a subject which we last examined only last week.
Thomas’ title is pleasingly alliterative, but it is clear that he is misrepresenting the tone of the CLS press release – which seems to be all the source material we have to go on, unless this Flickr link starts working again before I finish here [just in time, it has - here's the relevant gallery, including the picture above right, though it doesn't tell us much that we don't already know]. The scientists are not “baffled,” but they are instead intensely curious, and there is quite a difference between those two responses.
What’s going on in this particular case? We have a preserved piece (now pieces, as one broke off) of 70-million-year-old hadrosaur skin. This skin has been described as “intact,” and Thomas has leaped on it as an example of preserved tissue that could not have survived millions of years and must therefore be only 4000 years old and date from the Flood. I think this assessment is premature, to say the least.
Suppose we have a bone. It gets buried whole, and fossilised, and then gets dug up millions of years later unbroken. You could consider this bone to be “intact” – but that doesn’t mean that it must be carrying anything along with it that couldn’t have survived the interval. The process of fossilisation replaces the original organic component of bone with inorganic material, which is to say that it gets turned to stone. Stones, for their part, can last quite a long time.
It is considerably harder to preserve skin and other “soft” tissue in the same way, but it is not impossible. It is almost certainly what has happened to this skin fragment, though the requirements to call it “intact” are a little less stringent. Without knowing its composition we don’t actually know whether or not there are any organics within the skin that we might – might – expect to have decayed in the 70 million years that this fossil spent in the ground.
This is, however, a question that we may soon know the answer to. This is what the CLS is involved for. According to the press release:
Using light at the CLS mid-infrared (Mid-IR) beamline, Barbi and CLS scientists are also looking for traces of organic and inorganic elements that could help determine the hadrosaur’s diet and why the skin sample was preserved almost intact.
For the experiment, the sample is placed in the path of the infrared beam and light reflects off of it. During the experiment, chemical bonds of certain compounds will create different vibrations. For example, proteins, sugars and fats still found in the skin will create unique vibrational frequencies that scientists can measure.
“It is astonishing that we can get information like this from such an old sample,” said Tim May, CLS Mid-IR staff scientist. “Skin has fat and lots of dead cells along with many inorganic compounds. We can reflect the infrared beam off the sample and we can analyze the samples to give us very clear characteristics.”
From my reading, this says that they are yet to do this (or, at least, at time of writing), not that they already know that the organics are present (they might by now, but they’re not saying). They might find them, they might not – but they haven’t yet, so the celebratory party in Dallas should be postponed a bit. It’s also possible that they will simply find “remnants” like in the egg story from a couple of weeks ago, which could confuse things further for us even though they will probably be perfectly useful for the researchers’ aims.
Suppose they do find organics? Thomas would say that these are evidence that the fossil is not 70 million years old, but this would fly in the face of the evidence that it is that age. Despite all the attacks creationists level at radiometric dating the standard methods of determining such an age hold up quite well. In contrast our knowledge of the preservational ability of organic compounds is quite poor, though we do know that it varies wildly with environmental conditions and that lab studies aren’t all that accurate as predictors. Given conflicting evidence from each source you would have to go with the results radiometric dating, unless you were firmly wedded to the notion that the fossil is quite young.
Moving on slightly, Thomas says:
Which research question carries the most mystery? “But perhaps the greatest question Barbi is trying to answer at the CLS is how the fossil remained intact for around 70-million years.” Barbi declared, “There is something special about this fossil and the area where it was found, and I am going to find out what it is.”
Special indeed. But finding the right answer works best by first asking the right question, and focusing on some special quality “about this fossil” that enabled it to persist “for around 70-million years” does not appear to be the right question. That line of research will leapfrog a far more fundamental and relevant mystery: How long could actual dinosaur skin tissue possibly last?
But this find is special: there are only two others like it, out of many thousands of fossils from around the globe. If you’re arguing that the find is young then that only turns the question on its head. Why aren’t there many more sites like this?
I’ve heard creationists speak of conspiracy in these matters, of scientists actively concealing such finds to prop up the old Earth (see, for example, the “brooming under the rug” post). Worst conspiracy ever. If it actually existed we would have to conclude that it is very good at hiding positive evidence of its own existence, but very bad at hiding the finds that it exists to conceal. There may be more finds out there, unexamined in cupboards, that contain “soft tissues” – I don’t think we’re at the stage where every fossil is tested for soft tissues – but it is highly unlikely that they number large enough for the creationists to have a sound position.
There is another aspect to the research, beyond looking for information about diet. They also want to hunt for melanosomes – organelles that contain pigment – to find out what colour the skin originally was. Thomas seems to think that they could not have been preserved, though in the past I have seen no reason why a “fossilised melanosome” and accompanying evidence for pigmentation should be so exceptional and don’t intend to change my mind now. Why could they not have been preserved in some manner, Thomas?
Similarly, questions that assume some special factor in the skin or in the earth could preserve original organic dinosaur remains for even one million years ignore what is already widely known about skin protein decay. A candle’s flame can be extinguished and relit, but skin decays continually and relentlessly until it is completely gone, becoming dust in thousands, not millions of years. The research questions so far proposed typically exclude the very best explanation—these fossils look young because they are young.
Thomas’ evidence against the preservation of skin proteins seems to be largely his own personal incredulity – he provides no citation whatsoever for “what is already widely known about skin protein decay,” or any other claim about preservation time. His last line reads:
Good luck answering your greatest research question, Mauricio Barbi. Research that ignores the most sensible solution to the dinosaur skin dilemma signals a poor start.
Greatest question this might be (though who knows what else Barbi is investigating) but the “most sensible solution” is not a young Earth.
*When I first read that name it sounded like something they made up on Ask a Canadian. “How, Karl, do you distribute this precious resource during the long winter months? And why can’t you just use the reflection off of Phil Plait’s head like everyone else?”, as Doctor Atlantis might say.