About a week ago at his blog Naturalis Historia Joel Duff discussed the recent discovery in Argentina of the 240 million year old fossilised remains of a communal dinosaur latrine [EDIT: silly me, they’re not dinosaurs but Dinodontosaurs]. I suggest you go there for the details, but the most important point is that we have a number of sites of ~900 square metres in area and containining tens of thousands of individual coprolites (fossil poop). When originally reading his post I thought to myself that if I ended up writing my own piece on the subject it would be called “giant steaming piles of dinosaur shit” – while I have clearly changed my mind since this will still do for a subtitle, for reasons that will become clear.
Duff asked: “how [do] young earth creationists (YECs) interpret this fossil find?” Timothy L. Clarey, in Digging Into a Fossil Outhouse, provides an answer. He opens his article:
A group of paleontologists reported the discovery of concentrated fields of fossilized dung, called coprolite, in northwest Argentina. The closely-spaced dung piles are seen as evidence of gregarious behavior from large herbivores. However, does the great Flood provide a better explanation?
The research, for those interested, is published in the open access Nature group journal Scientific Reports. Clarey first explains the basic outline and then explains the reasons why the researchers believe that the coprolites were shat out where they lie:
The scientists found the dung heaps in the lower Chañares Formation, part of the Middle-Late Triassic system of rocks which likely correlate to middle-to-late Flood sediments. They believe the coprolites were not transported into the piles but were deposited in situ for several reasons. First, the “clump type geometric accumulation of each latrine” suggests limited transport. Secondly, the bottom surfaces of the coprolites “are smooth, with small pits and holes produced by tiny stones and detritus on the soil surface that contacted the dung immediately after defecation.”2 And lastly, the lack of broken coprolites also suggests they were deposited in place.
In other words Clarey isn’t about to claim that the coprolites were deposited in piles by the Flood. But he does note that the researchers say that they were buried fairly rapidly:
In a supplement to their Scientific Reports paper, the authors even suggest that the dung piles were buried rapidly because many of the coprolites exhibit no weathering or bioturbation, e.g., dung beetle or earthworm activity, from long-term exposure. They wrote that the coprolites “represent ‘biogenic concentrations’ associated with a catastrophic sedimentation that entomb the assemblages in a mass deposition” and suggested a mixed volcanic and sedimentary mudflow covered and preserved the dung.
The quote there is supposed to be from the supplementary information, though I can’t seem to find the specific line (words to that effect are there, however).
We now get to what Clarey thinks happened:
So, what really happened? In Genesis 7:17-24 we read that the waters increased greatly upon the earth for 150 days. But the Flood waters didn’t immediately cover the entire earth. Tsunami-like waves moving across the continents would have rapidly laid down fresh sedimentary layers. But, as the waves came and went, there would have been islands of exposed higher ground above the earlier submerged areas in the first 150 days of the Flood. Creation researcher Mike Oard calls these “briefly exposed diluvial sediments.”
Any remaining Dinodontosaurus would have naturally congregated to the safety of the higher exposed land as the waters closed around them. The concentration of coprolites found in the rocks in Argentina suggests the reptiles were surrounded and trapped by rising water for several days. Eventually, as Scripture implies, these creatures, along with their dung, were also flooded and entombed in mud-laden sediments driven by catastrophic waves that buried the temporary island havens.
So the tsunami waves of the Flood piled up sediments, including the lower ten metres or so of the Chañares Formation, and then temporarily receded to create a couple of islands. Upon these islands life was almost normal – rivers flowed, insects burrowed, and plant roots grew through the soil – but clambering onto these piles of mud and bones were groups of Dinodontosaurus which, being scared out of their wits, promptly shat themselves. This lasted for a short while, but then the whole thing was flooded by another tsunami which inexplicably failed to scour off the future coprolites. Said tsunami actually managed to look a lot more like the result of a volcanic eruption, but by the time it had finished depositing its sediment its identity crises had been resolved.
Except, if we continue to include geological details that Clarey has missed, even this rather strange series of events doesn’t work. The sediment below the concretions formed by the volcanism also contains fossils, but these were buried under much less catastrophic conditions . What’s more, while it’s true that some of the coprolite collections were buried by the ash there are others below that were not, showing in the process cracks and other marks of weathering and prolonged exposure. The rivers and other signs of daily life exist both above and below the ash.
Indeed, what it looks like is a lakeside area of sedimentary deposition, with herds of gregarious Dinodontosaurus making sure to poop in the one location to avoid getting it where they eat, a behaviour shared by many modern mammals. At some point a nearby volcano erupted, burying the area in ash both directly and indirectly from mudflows sourced to volcanic materials deposited elsewhere, ensuing that the faeces directly beneath it would be well preserved. But after this “catastrophic” event life went on.
This, broadly speaking, is the “evolutionary” explanation. I’m sure it would be the creationist one too if it wasn’t for the fact that none of this could have happened during the Flood, and therefore Clarey must posit extraordinary events like tsunamis and islands to explain what was really a pretty ordinary event. His explanation isn’t very good, but in fairness he did say “better,” a relative term. Consider that while the Wellington Phoenix are a pretty terrible football team, as they go, they are still “better” than your local primary school soccer club. But what Clarey wants to be better than is the simple, ordinary evolutionary explanation. The only way for that to happen is to discredit this alternative, and he offers what he thinks is evidence that the whole formation was lain down in the flood:
The Chañares Formation also left another surprise. Not only did this rock layer contain concentrated areas of fossil dung and the bones of large herbivores, but it also held the remains of a fossil ray-finned fish and crocodile-like reptiles. The authors of the Scientific Reports paper offered no explanation for this seemingly inconsistent mixture of land, swamp, and sea creatures. However, the Flood could have mixed land and sea animals within the same sedimentary strata as powerful waves rapidly advanced across the land, carrying ocean creatures inland and depositing their remains along with terrestrial animals.
The Chañares Formation, being a formation and not simply a single layer, was not lain down all at the same time. The authors do not attempt to explain the “seemingly inconsistent mixture” because it’s not a problem. You see, rivers, lakes, and alluvial plains – the three depositional environments here – do not stay in the same place, and so the skeleton of a fish can easily be deposited in the geological column atop that of an animal that couldn’t even swim yet below a pile of land-deposited dung. There is no problem.
This is a bit of a rambling post, but the idea that I’m trying to get across is that, for all their claims of following the evidence, young Earth creationists are obligated by their dogma to force catastrophic interpretations on events that do not require or even tolerate them. This results in explanations that must be so convoluted that they fail Occam’s Razor many times over. Introducing temporary islands to explain behaviour that we see around us today is not the recipe to a “better” explanation, but to nonsense.