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.”
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.
“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?