We live in a new golden age of fossil discoveries. It seems that every week a new and dramatic fossil find is revealed. This fossil renaissance can be attributed to the opening up of new fossil sources, particularly China and Mongolia but also South America and to improved technology for retrieving and analyzing fossil remains. One such remarkable fossil find from Mongolia was reported in late 2011.* This find involved 15 complete or nearly complete fossils of juvenile dinosaurs all preserved in what was apparently a large 2-3 foot wide nest. That fossil find is described in a research paper which I have read. The paper: “A nest of Protoceratops andrewsi (Dinosauria, Ornithischia)” by Fastovsky et al. (2011 in the Journal of Paleontology Vol 85:1035-1041) described the evidence that these dinosaurs were juveniles, that they were all likely the same age and thus were of one brood and were all huddled in the same nest. The significance of this for dinosaur biology is that it evidence that dinosaurs received some parental care after hatching. There was no egg-shell material in the nest and it could be that these juveniles were at least several weeks old. This isn’t just because no egg-shells remained but also because the bones were larger than those found of other fossils of the same species found inside of eggs and so growth of the dinosaurs after hatching is very likely. So, unlike reptiles which hatch and are almost always immediately on their own, at least some dinosaurs seem to care for their young. This isn’t the first evidence of such behavior but it some of the clearest evidence to date.
But how where they preserved? The paper discusses in some detail the evidence that these baby dinosaurs were covered by a fast-moving sand storm. The evidence includes grain size in the sedimentary rock and the fact that the sand grins were not found in flat layers but rather in angled layers like in a sand dune as it slowly moves and combines with other sand dunes. The way the sediments were laid down the direction the wind was blowing the sand could be determined and the little dinosaur babies bones were oriented as if the dinosaurs had their backs turned toward the wind to protect themselves as much as possible.
Preserved Dinosaur Nests and Young Earth Creationism (YEC)
In 2011 when I wrote about these fossils I stated that I was sure that within days Answers in Genesis and other creationists would be claiming these fossils as obvious evidence of a global catastrophe. I was absolutely correct and will show you their response at the end. But first let me observe that this obviously this is a case of rapid burial as their is little reason to believe that so many young dinosaurs of the same age would die in the same place and all oriented in the same direction in a nest under anything but unusual circumstances. But rapid burial doesn’t necessitate the jump to global flood. A watery death seems unlikely given that all 15 of these dinosaurs are in one nest, are of the same age (they didn’t just get washed there), and the sand grains of the rock they are embedded have the characteristics of sand dunes found today. A flood, whether placid or violent, would not be expected to result in this kind of preservation.
Irrespective of a watery or sandy death, the presence of a nest with juveniles in it presents a tremendous challenge to the global flood theory of creationists. Dinosaur nests have always been a problem because, just like this one, they are typically found in layers of rock that are sitting on top of 1000s of feet of sedimentary rock. Young earth creationists hypothesize that these layers of fossil-bearing rocks are the result of a global flood but most also believe that same global flood destroyed the dinosaurs. If this is the case then how then could so many thousands of discovered dinosaur nests with eggs in them (see image for an example) be found in layers in the upper portion of the fossil record?
The explanation from some YECs is almost hard for me to type it is so unbelievable. Generally what is described is a global flood in which dinosaurs have run from one place to another to escape flood waters. What is important to note here is that for most young earth creationists a global flood didn’t entirely cover the globe all at the same time but covered only portions at a time. I guess there were large tsunamis that went around the earth bringing destruction in one place but allowing for some habitable land in others even during the 40 days and after. So dinosaurs managed to hang on for a long time and then after 5000 feet of sediments were laid down in Mongolia some of them quickly migrated onto the new sediments. Many of them were apparently pregnant and laid their eggs in tens of thousands of nests. Just hours or possibly days later the next wave of the global flood came and covered these nest and killing the adults. Apparently the last wave was a really mighty one since probably hundreds of thousands of dinosaurs had managed to survive the initial devastation and the deposition of thousands of feet of sediments but they had to all be killed by the last wave since only the ones on Noah’s ark could be said to have survived the flood.
As challenging as this might be to believe, here we have an example that ups the ante on the elaborate and already unbelievable creationists explanation another 100 fold. Before us we have clear evidence of eggs that were laid, hatched and the dinosaurs grew for some time before being buried. And yet all of this still happened in the middle of a global flood! I don’t know what the incubation time of dinosaur eggs was but I doubt they hatched the day after they were laid so this probably means there were several months of time from nest-building to burial. But for young earth creationists this needs to have occurred far more rapidly since there are many layers of sediments exposed above these fossil nests sites. By their reckoning all these layers were also laid down well before the end of the flood year because they need the receding waters to erode the valleys that we see today that now expose those rocks with the nests in them.
In addition, consider that preserved dinosaur eggs have been found on all the continents. So this Flood that was causing world-wide destruction must have had rather placid intervening periods on every continent where animals that had escaped all the initial destruction would settle down and attempt to reproduce before they met their apparent demise. Invariably I find that Christians only hear the about huge fossils finds from creationist organizations and they are only told about how these bones look like they were buried quickly but not given any of the other details. When exposed to the details of the fossil finds the generic explanation hold little value with respect to explaining how these collections of juveniles dinosaurs came to be fossilized. If young earth creationists were held to explaining the details of these eggs and juveniles bones I don’t think many would find their explanations particularly compelling.
The YECs Attempt to Explain These Juveniles Dinosaur Fossils
So I was right that creationists simply are chalking this nest of juveniles up to being more evidence of catastrophic preservation and thus a global flood did it. Let me give you just one example. Elizabeth Mitchell at Answers in Genesis commented on this fossil find. After describing the fossil find she concludes with the following (bolded text is mine for emphasis):
Some Flood geology models have suggested dinosaurs could have laid eggs between the surges of rising water, and indeed they could have. However, the fact that the inhabitants of this dinosaur nursery are “not neonates” makes that a doubtful scenario for this particular “nest.” Without knowing the growth rate of Protoceratops, of course, we cannot completely rule it out.
Thus, the biblical Flood explains the preservation of this dinosaur “nest.” Genesis chapter 7 tells us that the Flood began when the fountains of the great deep opened along with the windows of heaven, in reference to volcanic activity and rain combining to violently cover the earth with water over a period of many weeks. The fossil graveyards of the Gobi with many creatures frozen in time were catastrophically buried in loads of sand dumped on them by violent winds and sediment-laden surges of floodwaters. Ultimately, water covered all, producing the characteristic cross-bedded striations typical of underwater sand-waves. The Upper Cretaceous layers are conventionally dated at about 70 million years based on unverifiable untestable assumptions from both radiometric dating methods and the evolutionary ages of the fossils in them, but God’s eyewitness account in the Bible tells us the Flood happened only about 4,500 years ago.
This is what passes for an explanation? She does acknowledge that the fact that these hatched dinosaurs makes the egg-laying scenario in a cycling flood “doubtful” but then what is the alternative? Apparently the alternative is to say that we don’t know the growth rate of Protoceratops and thus “The biblical Flood explains the preservation of this dinosaur “nest.”” It is really hard for me to make any sense out of here explanation. It seems that Mitchell does find the usual explanation put up by YECs as a “doubtful scenario” but then she has no idea what to do with this story so she just tacks on a final paragraph about how the bible explains these nests. What follows is copy and paste stuff from standard line of other YEC articles that really don’t address the specifics of this particular set of fossils at all.
*This post may sound familiar to some of you. This is an expanded an updated version of an article that I wrote in 2011 about these dinosaur nests.