Nyasasaurus parringtoni

Triassic globeNyasasaurus parringtoni, a dinosauriform from the middle Triassic, may or may not be the oldest dinosaur known to science. It was originally dug up in the 1930’s, but a proper description has taken until now to be published.

The description, in Biology Letters (open access well it was when I originally opened the tab – pdf here), is very conservative about claiming the “earliest dinosaur” title – they repeatedly insist that the fossil is merely “either the earliest known member of, or the sister–taxon to, Dinosauria.” This conservatism has apparently rather confused Mr Brian Thomas, as he alleges in his article World’s Oldest Dinosaur Fossil? that it’s all an evolutionary attempt to save face.

The previous record holder for oldest dinosaur was Eoraptor lunensis, at 231 million years old. Nyasasaurus is more than 10 million years older, at 243 million – only 9 million years after the mass extinction that began the Triassic, the largest in history. The fossil also conveniently comes from a period of dinosaur evolution we know very little about, and according to a Nature News article the find is significant whether or not it is truly a dinosaur:

Michael Benton, a palaeontologist at the University of Bristol, UK, agrees that Nyasasaurus sits near the base of the dinosaur family tree. “The authors have taken a properly conservative stance in not being 100% certain it’s a dinosaur,” Benton says, but the discovery nonetheless confirms an earlier origin for dinosaurs.

According to Thomas:

Clearly, the uncertainties arise “given its age,” but Nyasasurus’ age is based on evolutionary belief, not science. Within this scheme, true dinosaurs should not be found this far below other fully formed dinosaurs because they were not yet supposed to have evolved.

The researchers are uncertain as to whether or not it is a dinosaur, what pre-dinosaurs may have looked like, or how this dinosaur—or most others found in congruent rock layers—relates to other dinosaur forms within evolutionary assumptions.

All these uncertainties arise from evolutionary doctrine, not from dinosaur data.

There are two aspects to Thomas’ thesis: first, as he says above, that the “uncertainties arise from evolutionary doctrine”, and second that the uncertainty is being promoted because the find doesn’t fit evolutionary expectations.

The second can be quickly dealt with. As the paper says:

The occurrence of a late Anisian [the geologic period which this fossil comes from] ‘stem’ dinosaur or true dinosaur has previously been predicted by the sister–taxon relationship with the Middle–Late Triassic silesaurids.

This is the very opposite of a discovery that goes against what was expected. Thomas also says:

The study authors compared the humerus bone with others, finding that it best matches theropods—dinosaurs with lizard-like hips and three toes. According to the Natural History Museum, a well-known dinosaur that’s attributed to much “younger” rock layers “is the early dinosaur Eoraptor, which Nyasasaurus may have looked like.” If it looks like a theropod, why not just call it a theropod?

Clearly that would not fit evolutionary teaching, which predicts that pre-theropod ancestors (an uninhabited category) should be found below theropods, and that even more generalized pre-dinosaurs should be found below the pre-theropods in Nyasasaurus layers.

Instead, they got a well-formed theropod at the very bottom of the dinosaur fossil record.

There are a number of problems in these three paragraphs. Firstly, so far as I can tell it is not the humerus that would tie Nyasasaurus the theropods. Instead:

[T]he referred specimen bears two character states in the cervical vertebrae consistent with, but not exclusive to, theropod dinosaurs (deep fossae lateral to the neural canal in anterior view, deep lateral fossae).

“Consistent with, but not exclusive to” – that’s not really enough to say that the fossil is a theropod, especially when there are only two of them, and certainly not to call it “well formed” (whatever that would mean). The reason why the classification of this fossil is so difficult is a combination of the “fragmentary nature of the find” and the general lack of examples of what early dinosaurs of the time looked like. Most of the features described seem to be of the “dinosaurs have it, but so do some other things” variety. There are only a small handful that are apparently unique to dinosaurs, but it’s worth remembering that this fossil splashes down in a dark spot. There might have been an unknown non-dinosaur – but very closely related to dinosaurs – lineage to which this animal belonged that shared these features with their famous cousins. Caution is well placed here.

This lies at the opposite extreme to the Darwinius masillae business, which was as much hype as science if you remember. So far as I am aware no documentaries are currently in the offing about Nyasasaurus, though it mightn’t have been all that hard to persuade someone to do so. There is a genus called Revueltosaurus that was originally believed to be an early dinosaur based on its teeth, but since more of it has been discovered this is no-longer the case. Caution is well placed here.

Nevertheless, Thomas says:

So, to keep evolution’s plausibility, the Current Biology authors nursed the idea that Nyasasaurus could have been almost a dinosaur despite its perfectly dinosaurian anatomy.

Again, this is the opposite of the truth. For once, at least, he tries to give his own explanation of a finding that he has dissed. It just gets funnier and funnier:

In contrast, how well would the creation and Flood model of earth history and rock layers explain Nyasasaurus?

First, as a beast of the earth created on Day Six of the world, it should already be in a recognizable dinosaur form—and it is.

Second, as a creature that drowned in the Flood of unprecedented catastrophe, instead of scavenged or rotten on earth’s surface, its remains had a chance to be fossilized—and they were.

Third, as a creature that may have lived in a swampy environment—not a sea creature nor a dry land walker—it was buried above layers that contain mostly sea creatures deposited earlier during the Flood.

I can only shake my head at that.


4 thoughts on “Nyasasaurus parringtoni

  1. Peter/Eye on the ICR

    I have just emailed scientist Donald Prothero, copied to Tas Walker and also to (this will interest you more) the Institute for Creation Research. My message relates partly to our discussions under your recent blog posts on Solnitsata and Preserving Dinosaur Cells re how you and I were both censored by Your Origins Matter (part of the ICR):

    This is my email:
    “How YECs often censor challenges – but do publish praise

    Donald Prothero

    I know you feel you have better uses for your time than responding to
    every criticism on YEC blogs and websites, but you may wish to be aware
    of the following:

    On 29 November I tried to submit the following further comment under
    this blog post – but it was censored:
    “I’m referring to the sum of historical records too (including the
    lack of non-biblical records of recent Earth recolonisation).
    My comment was not alluding to dates as I was accepting the claimed
    YEC flood date – arguments about dates are largely irrelevant in this
    My metaphorical cap is on already.
    The idea that the well-sorted geological record results from a
    catastrophic flood is laughable. No YEC article has persuaded me
    This failure to publish my response gave the false impression to
    others that I did not respond to the challenge.

    By contrast today a late comment – supporting the post in question-
    has just been allowed under another recent blog post on the same
    The new post refers to your ‘sly experiment’ but does not – with his
    comment about some of the waters ‘going’ more slowly as the floodwaters
    apparently receded – convincingly (or definitely biblically for that
    matter) state why or how it was a ‘sly’ or misleading experiment.
    Note also the earlier comment back to me by Tas Walker where he wrote:
    “Remember, this was Prothero’s attempt to simulate the conditions that
    existed at the time. I think he also agrees the water table was higher
    and so water would not have disappeared into the sand as occurred with
    the bucket” (I flagged this text to you by email just before
    Thanksgiving, as I was unsure whether it accurately presented your
    viewpoint, but received an automatic message saying your emails would
    not be read for five days; I gather that another participant at the
    BCSE community forum also flagged the comment about you by Mr Walker at
    your Facebook page).

    Ashley Haworth-Roberts
    PS I was also recently censored here (YOM is part of the ICR’s
    On 9 November or thereabouts I tried to respond to YOM’s challenge to
    me of that date; I seem not to have saved my exact text because – at
    the time – it appeared on my screen marked ‘awaiting moderation’. But
    the gist was that I (a) flagged this science paper http://adsabs.
    harvard.edu/abs/2007NIMPB.259..282T and this recent blog post http:
    and (b) commented briefly that many diamonds are formed deep
    underground rather than from subducted organic matter that would
    contain some atmosphere-derived carbon 14, so there would be NO reason
    for such diamonds to ‘contain’ carbon 14 and therefore it must be from
    machine contamination.
    Again this gave the totally false impression that I had no answers to
    some searching questions. The discussion was halted when it was in
    ‘full flow’! I challenged this behaviour but was ignored. Blatant
    ‘Eye on the ICR’ (I don’t know his email address) was also similarly
    censored without explanation despite offering a very detailed response
    – see the eighth comment under this: http://eyeonicr.wordpress.
    Details and specifics seem to be something YECs do not like, even
    though science is all about these.”

    • Yeah, above a certain threshold number of links it automatically puts you in the moderation queue – I don’t know how to change that. It’s the spam list you want to avoid. I never check that, but I almost always let through stuff that has to be moderated.

      Did you get any replies?

    • Thanks. Nothing from Don Prothero or the other copy recipients – so far at least. (I take that it you would not start censoring a YEC in mid-discussion – unless they were abusive and obnoxious in some way, which they usually aren’t.)


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