Bone Sniffer

Here’s an interesting take on the soft tissue issue: Brian Thomas writes Can this Dog Sniff out Fossils?

Migaloo is a dog from Queensland, Australia, that has been trained as an “Archaeology dog” by dog trainer Gary Jackson. She sniffs for human remains, and apparently holds the record for the oldest bones found via this method – a 600-year-old Aboriginal grave. Jackson also claims to have trained a cancer-detecting dog, called Chance, but he has recently retired his research program due to expense and difficulty in finding test subjects.

A number of news articles have been written about Migaloo over the last year, some of which have mentioned that Migaloo has also found some fossil bone that is millions of years old. Thomas has seized upon this fact – if the bone still contains chemicals that can be smelt, he reasons, how could they be millions of years old? A good question.

The article that Thomas links to says on the matter:

Sniffing out human remains is one thing, but Migaloo’s recent discovery of fossilised bone in the Queensland bush is more difficult to fathom. Despite identifying the fossils as those of megafauna dating back between 2.6 million and 5.3 million years, palaeontologist Steve Salisbury, of the University of Queensland, remains unconvinced.

”It seems very feasible to me that there would still be odour attached to a corpse but fossil bone is another thing,” Dr Salisbury says.

”We’re talking millions of years old, where the original bone and internal structure has been re-mineralised and essentially become a rock. That’s why I question whether she can smell the difference .. I’d like to believe it. If she can find fossilised bone, then that would make our searches a lot easier. I’m ready to watch and be surprised – that would be really exciting.”

With some searching of my own I found a video from Jackson giving more details of this find (here’s a short article with a few more details):

For those unprepared to watch the video, it would appear that the Queensland floods of 2011 unearthed some bones of Australian megafauna. One of these bones was sent to Jackson, who used it to train Migaloo, and after this training was complete he put his dog to the test at the site where it had been found. Some of the bones in the area had been tossed together, which Migaloo found, but she also found some that had been untouched. It was also claimed that Migaloo indicated where some fossils were still buried, but this was not tested in any way and I have serious doubts about this aspect of the story even beyond the fact that they were not confirmed – we are not told where in relation to the surface finds these were, as we could expect that the exposed fossils were washed a distance from where undisturbed members of the same collection could be found, nor even how the “buried” signal was distinguished from a simple false positive.

Still, Migaloo did find some fossils. I don’t think, however, that we can so easily conclude that this was due to original organics in the bones. Remember that all of the fossils involved – both those found in the test, and the bone given for training – were from the same collection of bones which had all been exposed via flood action. It is not exactly unbelievable that these bones could have picked up some other odour than from original organic material. There are also reasons to be sceptical of sniffer dog accuracy in general, but I think it is clear that the dog is, in the video, identifying the bone in at least some manner without Clever Hans-type unconscious signalling from the handler.

Still, Thomas doesn’t seem to see that there could be other, much more likely explanations than that the bones are only thousands of years old. He says:

[Thomas excerpts part of Salisbury’s quote above.]

This doubt seems to arise not from the observable evidence—either from analyzing the fossils or from observing Migaloo—but from belief in unobserved millions of years.

But the dog can smell something different in those fossil bones. Maybe underground processes never did re-mineralize the bones. And if they still retain original organics, then maybe they are simply not millions of years old.

And concludes:

“I’d like to believe it. If she can find fossilised bone, then that would make our searches a lot easier. I’m ready to watch and be surprised – that would be really exciting,” Salisbury said. It sure would be, not just because dog noses would make fossils searches easier, but because original, unmineralized organic materials in fossils might force clear-thinking people to reassess fossil age assignments.

But not only are there plausible, if not quite probable, alternative explanations for what has been observed with Migaloo, I don’t even think that the “young fossil” explanation is as good as Thomas claims. You see, he said earlier:

If the original material wasn’t replaced by minerals, then it would have decayed and disappeared long before a million years elapsed—especially in the warm Australian climate.

He has a point there, but I think that it’s a bit too much of one. Could organics at detectable levels have survived even the four thousand years the creationists still require? Migaloo’s previous oldest find was the 600 year old grave, which is quite a bit younger. A figure from a paper Thomas has previously cited as evidence that proteins cannot last millions of years would have you believe that collagen can last around 10,000 years at the ~20 degrees Celsius Brisbane averages, but I would hazard that molecules producing smell would last much less time as they are being diffused into the air rather than staying in the bone.

Given all this, more and better testing is needed. Migaloo needs to find fossils still in the ground, which have not been dug up or otherwise identified by other means and which do not belong to a collection that she has been trained with. If she can then we may be on to something, and Salisbury will have a great aid for fieldwork. But it would be easier and a lot less messy, for our purposes, to just test bones we find in the ground for organics with more sensitive machines and bypass the dog altogether – if a dog can find bones this way with any reliability, we should be able to find plentiful organics in any and every bone we dig up. I wonder if the ICR is down for a new project?

3 thoughts on “Bone Sniffer

  1. An interesting case, certainly.
    Of course, even if the fossilised bones the dog discovered (presumably at shallow depth) in the Australian bush date from ‘Noah’s Flood’ just 4,300 years ago, it seems they are still mineralised fossils – so saying ‘this disproves millions of years’ or ‘this disproves very slow fossilisation’ still does not make young Earth creationism any more plausible.

    Or is Thomas trying to argue that ‘there must be some original, unmineralized organic materials still left in these fossils’? That appears to be his intention. But he appears to be ‘seeing’ things that nobody else has seen.

    • Just read Peter’s article after commenting above. I gather the some of the fossilised bones were uncovered and exposed by 2011 floods.
      “It is not exactly unbelievable that these bones could have picked up some other odour than from original organic material.”
      And dogs have an extremely good sense of smell and most are easily trained.

  2. Email as sent to AiG and others:

    “I note from his Facebook page that Mr Ham is about to instruct a load of ‘home-schooled’ young people and their parents on “biblical authority and apologetics to equip them to defend the Christian faith against the anti-god religion of evolution/millions of years and how to stand boldly on the Word of God with the increasing hostility in this culture against Christianity”.

    But, in this I hope interesting message I am focusing specifically on his rather unexpected comments there about a new book. (A book which I don’t claim to have read by the way.)

    If you wish, please take a look at this:

    Had I read the above in isolation, I might have thought that young Earth creationist Christians like Mr Ham would not wish to draw any attention to this book. However, I would not have been more wrong in making such an assumption!

    Here is Mr Ham’s message to his followers on his Facebook page:
    “Well I may shock you – I’m going to agree with an atheist – well in regard to a particular conclusion the atheist makes. A new book entitled “Evolving out of Eden” has two authors – one being an atheist who is described as a supposed ‘biblical scholar.’ You see these two authors accept evolution (one was trained in a very liberal approach to the Scriptures). They conclude (correctly I might add) that one cannot reconcile evolutionary belief with the Bible as it is written. I wish all Theologians, Christian academics and Christian leaders would realize that this is so, and give up the rampant compromise that exists in the church. This compromise is undermining the authority of God’s Word and a major factor as to why the church’s influence in this culture is waning and why 2/3rds of the next generation are leaving the church by the time they reach college age.
    Here is what the press release stated about this book:
    “Evolving out of Eden” Refutes All Attempts to Reconcile ‘Theistic Evolution’ with Science.”
    Now of course what they mean by ‘science’ is actually the BELIEF in evolution. And from what I’ve read about the book they don’t approach the Scriptures in the right way either! The press release continues:
    “A new book by two ex-Christians argues that Christian theology and evolutionary science cannot be reconciled, no matter how sincere the attempt. “Evolving out of Eden: Christian Responses to Evolution” (Tellectual Press, March 2013) is co-authored by biblical scholar Robert M. Price and Edwin A. Suominen.
    “When we first started on this book, I was a struggling Christian,” Suominen said. “I had accepted the reality of evolution, but could not see a way to resolve the conflict between science and my inherited faith. And now that the last page is written, I know that there isn’t one.”
    “The book began as a collaboration between Robert M. Price, a biblical scholar and atheist, and Suominen, who was a believing Christian at the start. Both accepted the reality of evolution, and agreed to research its theological implications and the various ways that Christian writers have tried to smooth over the conflict between science and faith… The authors, Price and Suominen, explain how Christians through the centuries have interpreted and re-interpreted these stories in order to make them fit with an ever-expanding scientific knowledge. Religion originally provided the explanations, they note, but now it is what requires so much explaining. And they illustrate how these attempts to combine science with Creationism have always failed.”
    You can read more about the book at:
    We will obtain a copy for our AiG library – I’m sure there are a couple of quotes I could use to challenge compromising Christians with”.

    Some comments:
    – this book appears to be no help whatsoever to the cause of biblical or young Earth creationism;
    – Mr Ham says he is quoting from a press release, but gives no link to such, and my online searches including of Mr Ham’s link did not turn up any document which contains the particular sentences that he cites (I also was assuming that my first link at the top of this message, not provided by Mr Ham on Facebook, was in fact the book’s press release);
    – in general he appears to be trying to mislead his followers somewhat, by implying that the book attacks theistic evolution more than his own cherished biblical creationism, but he could in fact be scoring an own goal by even mentioning this book to his fans and other more discerning readers of his Facebook page;
    – nevertheless he wishes for Answers in Genesis to search this book in order to quote-mine from it in future when ‘challenging’ other Christians;
    – this would apparently be as part of Ham’s strategy of attacking ‘compromiser’ Christians and try to make a case that it is ‘compromising’ the Bible with modern science (rather than the science per se) which is leading to a loss of Christian faith and belief;
    – this possible course of action would be followed even though one atheist reviewer has stated that the book also, among other positions, “clearly exposes the fatal flaws of biblical creationism” (see my first link);
    – likewise Mr Ham quotes the unidentified press release about the book as making clear that the two authors “illustrate how these attempts to combine science with Creationism have always failed”;
    – whilst Mr Ham ‘agrees’ with atheists about the incompatibility of the claims of modern science and the Bible (ie attempts by theistic evolutionists to ‘marry’ the two), these and other atheists and former believers most certainly would NOT agree with Mr Ham about his biblical creationism which he claims is true ‘science’ and they realise is no such thing!

    A H-R”


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