When claims are made that certain animals known only by their fossils are "extinct," all that is really meant is that no living specimens have been found. For example, the oceans are the least explored area of this planet and undoubtedly contain many creatures that are passing into extinction without ever having been discovered. The plesiosaur may possibly be one such example. On the other hand, when species once abundant in historical times, such as the carrier pigeon, are no longer seen, it can be said with reasonable confidence that they are indeed extinct. Those discoveries that occur from time to time and stir public interest, and possibly controversy, may be divided into three categories:
1. Discoveries of living specimens of animals or plants that were first known as fossils and then declared to have been extinct for "millions of years." These are the classic "living fossils." For example, there was the paleotragus, a horse-sized creature related to the giraffe and said to have been extinct for 25 million years. Living herds of this animal were found in Africa in 1901, and it is now called the okapi; changing the name is one way to avoid attention and controversy. A large fish with four lobe fins – known as the Coelacanth – was fished up alive off the west coast of Madagascar in 1938; its fossil was alleged to be that of a "fish with evolving legs" and extinct for 70 million years. The live specimen was wreathed in controversy, but other "living fossils" such as the sea lily and the cycad tree have slipped by more quietly.
2. Later discoveries in the fossil record of life forms almost identical to commonly known living animals or plants, sometimes retrospectively called "living fossils." There are hundreds of examples – from the horse to the horse-fly – but others are the cockroach, the ant, dragonflies, starfish, the King crab and the ginkgo tree. Again, all these are claimed to have lived hundreds of millions of years ago, yet are to this day unchanged. The insects in this case are often preserved in the finest detail by being trapped in amber.
3. Totally unknown animals that occasionally turn up unexpectedly. Until 1861, the gorilla was a mythological creature only rumored since Roman days, then proved when a specimen was captured and shown at the London Zoo. A similar situation occurred in the cases of the giant panda, the snow monkey and the Manchurian brown bear; the latter was discovered in 1898. Although these are not called "living fossils," the fact that they are fairly large animals discovered long after humans had proclaimed themselves the masters of nature should give caution to the use of the word "extinction."
The following are some more recent discoveries in the above categories, all of which serve to cast doubt on the evolutionary time scales:
Fish in the Desert. Ever since the French bored their first artesian wells in the desert south of the Atlas mountains in the 1860s, it has been known that from time to time living fish have been found in the waters. The most common species is Haplochromis desfontainesii. Although this is not a "living fossil," it does raise questions about the Sahara having been a desert for tens of thousands of years. The Arabs have a tradition that the (Sahara) desert, as it now is, was well-wooded and well-watered when they first entered it in the seventh century A.D. and that it did not dry up until the thirteenth century. It is concluded that as the Sahara dried out to become a desert, the rivers sank beneath the sand and still followed their old courses but some 160 feet below the surface. Artesian well water is found at this depth in old river-beds. The fish found there are not blind and are identical with the species found as remote as the Nile and the River Jordan, indicating that the drying-up of the Sahara occurred in relatively recent times. (Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology 1867, 1:393, and Scientific American 1925, 133:110)
Another Plesiosaur? The dead creature had been dead in the water for about a month and was caught by a Japanese commercial fishing vessel in April 1977 near the coast of New Zealand. Some Japanese scientists and most creationists believed it to be a plesiosaur, or sea-dwelling dinosaur, well known in the fossil record and said to be extinct for 70 million years. Photographs and a fin sample were taken; then, unfortunately, the carcass had to be dumped back into the sea. However, during the next twenty years, similar carcasses have been washed up on beaches, permitting closer examination. It turned out to be a basking shark. (Koster, Oceans 1977, 10:56)
In December of 1992, Paul LeBlond, professor of oceanography at the University of British Columbia, presented a paper on the recent discovery of a cadborosaurus in the stomach of a sperm whale caught in the Pacific. Professor LeBlond explained that the sightings of this creature off the coast of British Columbia are too frequent to be ignored, while there are petroglyphs and wooden images of it which date back to A.D. 200. The dead specimen was three meters long and thought to be a juvenile, since sightings often report it to be seven meters long. The specimen had a long neck, short, pointed front flippers, a horse-like head and hair like a seal. While this creature has been named cadborosaurus, Professor LeBlond suggests it may be related to the plesiosaur. (New Scientist, January 23, 1993, 137:16)
A Giant Ground Sloth. The normal sloth is a slow-moving animal about the size of a small dog that hangs by its very large claws, with its back downward, from the branches of trees in the forests of Central and South America. However, there are fossils of a huge version of this creature, popularly known as the ground sloth because it was thought to walk on the ground rather than being strictly arboreal. It is said to have become extinct 8,700 years ago and was given the more formal name grypotherium by the anatomist Richard Owen. For years there have been rumors of a six-foot, 500-pound giant mammal with reddish hair in the western Amazon. Rubber gatherers have complained of this fearsome creature, which emits a hideous odor and seems impervious to shotgun or spear. It is said to be the legendary Mapinguari, and its description fits Owen's grypotherium. D.C. Owen, an American biologist working with the Goeldi Natural History Museum in Belem, Brazil, has been tracking down these stories, especially as it has been reported that gold miners in the Brazilian forests recently killed a giant ground sloth. D.C. Owen's expectations (not Richard Owen) are high, because in 1899 Don Carlos Ameghino announced the discovery of human remains together with that of a giant ground sloth said to be "as large as a rhinoceros" in a cave in Patagonia. The sloth remains included skin, fur, claws, etc. The same cave also contained sloth excrement over a meter deep, suggesting that the giant sloth had been "domesticated" or at least kept in the cave by humans. (Natural Science, 1899. 15:351; Scientific American, December 1993, 269:40)
Recent Existence of the Mammoth. Charles Wilson Peale opened his house in Philadelphia as America's first museum in 1786, and by 1801 he had on exhibit the bones of two huge mammoths that he had dug up in New York State. St. Petersburg Museum in Russia exhibited a really large specimen in 1860 while, since Roman times, there has been a steady trade in ivory tusks of the mammoth remains found in Siberia. To this day, the bones of mammoths are found in North America and in the Arctic regions, but it should be emphasized that in most cases these remains consist only of bones. In a very few instances, such as the Beresovka mammoth discovered in 1901, the creatures have been found intact with fur, skin and flesh and even stomach contents preserved by the low temperatures.
Late in the nineteenth century, cave paintings were discovered in Spain and Southern France showing mammoths as the object of the hunt. Clearly, intelligent humans had been familiar with the living mammoth and had made these pictures. The mammoth was presumed to be extinct, and the end of the last Ice Age, say 10,000 years ago, was assigned as the time of its extinction. Had the cave paintings not been discovered, the time of extinction would undoubtedly have been placed at hundreds of thousands of years earlier, but it was contemporaneous with intelligent humans.
In 1873, an article appeared in the Zoologist (2:8:3731) containing an interview with Cheriton Batchmatchnik, a Russian convict who escaped from Siberia and encountered 15 to 20 living adult mammoths in a valley of the Aldan mountains, Siberia. In his "Geological Report of Indiana for 1880," Professor Collett notes that mammoth remains were discovered in Iroquois County, Illinois, and although it was rotten and not frozen, its stomach contents indicated it had been eating vegetation similar to that still growing in the vicinity.
More recently, in 1990, during excavation of a new golf course in Newark, Ohio, the buried and rotting remains of a mammoth were discovered, and in 1991, researcher Gerald Goldstein of Ohio Wesleyan University announced that the bacteria in the partially digested stomach contents were still alive. There had not been contamination from the surrounding soil. This was reported in Discover magazine for January, 1992 (page 31), and at that time, the scientific report was still awaiting formal publication. Finally, B. Rosen, writing in Nature (1994, 369:364) pressed the paleoarchaeologist by pointing out that in a scene painted on the tomb wall of one of the Pharaohs there is a parade of exotic animals, including a dwarf mammoth. Rosen concluded that the dwarf mammoth of northeastern Siberia must have survived into historical times.
Dinosaurs: Recent Evidence. Of all the creatures that at one time lived on this earth, the dinosaur excites the imagination of almost everyone, young and old alike.
The scientific establishment insisted just a decade or so ago that these creatures have been extinct for 100 million years; however, that figure has been revised downward in recent years to 70 million years – still a very long time ago. And, of course, if that were true, there would be no possibility that humans and dinosaurs were contemporaneous. Museum exhibits, textbooks and popular science magazines use the ever-popular dinosaur to emphasize the millions of years as the central pillar of the evolutionary faith. However, this is being threatened by recent discoveries of nonfossilized dinosaur bones.
Normally, dinosaur remains – unlike the mammoth remains – are found completely mineralized in solid rock, but since 1990 dinosaur bones have been found preserved in the frozen ground of northern Alaska. Researchers have been keen to carry out biochemical analyses, and a graduate student at the Museum of the Rockies in Montana reports that she was examining a thin section of Tyrannosaurus rex bone under the microscope when she noticed visible blood cells, some even containing nuclei threaded throughout the bone. Mary Schweitzer said she got "goose bumps ... it was exactly like looking at a slice of modern bone. But, of course, I couldn't believe it … the bones, after all, are 65 million years old. How could blood cells survive that long?" (Science 1993, 261:160) Notice how the time of extinction has been scaled back once more, this time to 65 million years?
According to an article by Bryan Sykes, writing in Nature (1991, 352:381), the rate at which DNA breaks down has been well established, and after only 10,000 years there should be no identifiable traces of DNA left. Nevertheless, scientists from the department of microbiology at Brigham Young University have reported identifiable DNA from an unfossilized dinosaur bone discovered in a Utah coal mine. The bone was imbedded in rock 2,000 feet below the mine surface and supposedly 80 to 85 million years old. The DNA found is a short sequence from the gene encoding mitochondrial cytochrome b, and comparisons made with that of other living creatures shows that it doesn't group with any of them. (Science 1994, 266:1159)
Interestingly, a small team of scientists located in Columbus, Ohio, have secured an unfossilized hadrosaur head from Northern Alaska and sent it to a reputable Russian laboratory for Carbon 14 dating. The dating will be carried out on the collagen extracted from the bone to avoid any possible accusation that the specimen was contaminated, and the results will be formally reported in the Russian scientific journals. This work is currently in progress and whatever age is reported by the Carbon 14 method, it will be only a few thousands of years and not millions. As technology advances, it is exciting to see that time after time evidences from discoveries continue to challenge the millions of years so essential for the theory of evolution. At the same time, this very same evidence consistently supports the biblical account of creation and the flood.
A Living Trilobite. A case was reported in Science Digest for December 1957, p. 490, and an unreported case of an identified isopodes trilobitoides found in a torpedo tube of a US submarine.
Photo: Skeleton of Columbian mammoth. Courtesy of WolfmanSF. (CC-BY-SA 3.0)
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