Animal tracks preserved in stone are found in great abundance in many parts of the geological column. You might be asking yourself, aren’t the chances incredibly small that any individual track made in mud would be preserved over long periods of time? You would be right. The vast majority of footprints won’t survive the ravages of time. You would have a far greater chance of winning a Powerball lottery than an animal track has of becoming preserved in stone.
So the millions of preserved tracks today all lottery winners. How can that be? I explained last week (A Fossil Paradox? Footprints in Stone are rarely preserved and yet so common) that this is not difficult to explain in the context of an ancient earth. But how might young-earth creationist (YEC) explain the abundance of tracks preserved in stone when they can’t appeal to the most obvious explanation: the accumulation of rare lottery winners occurred over long periods of time? For the YEC, the odds of animal track preservation must be so high that it is the equivalent of saying that the odds of winning the lottery are so high that winning is not the exception but rather the rule.
How so? Let’s compare these models of earth’s history by doing some simple estimates of how many tracks – I will call them footprints – each model predicts could have been preserved in the fossil record. We will focus on just one group of footprints: those made by dinosaurs.
Calculating the number of expected dinosaur footprints assuming the earth is millions of years old
To gain an appreciation for how many footprints have been formed over time and what frequency of preservation is necessary to account for today’s observations, I have done some simple calculations. Below are my calculations and assumptions that stand behind my numbers:
Number of species alive at any one time: Thousands of species of dinosaurs have lived at some point in earth’s history but at any one point in history only a small number would have been alive. Today there are 10,000 species of birds alive and several thousand reptile species. Let us be very conservative and propose that at any one point in time there were only 50 living species of dinosaurs.
Number of individual dinosaurs alive at any one time: How many individuals of each species were alive at any time? Consider that 100 years ago there were estimated to be 1-3 million African elephants alive at one time or that in the 1800s that there were 20 million or more bison alive just in North America, or that there are 30 to 50 million domestic dogs alive today. Dinosaurs weren’t all large and so a conservative estimate would be an average of 1 million living members of each species. That gives us 50 million animals alive each year.
Footprints made per individual per year: Many individual dinosaurs may have never walked on soft mud, wet soil or volcanic ash in any individual year. But surely 1 million of our 50 million dinosaurs would have lived in environments in which they would have left thousands of footprints – if not hundreds of thousands – each year. Let’s say 1 million animals made 1000 footprints each – yet again a very conservative estimate. That would be 1 billion (1 million x 1000) footprints per year. You could probably make an argument that 40 million dinosaurs made an average of 50,000 footprints each year which would yield 2 trillion footprints per year but I will use the very low 1 billion number.
Total footprints made by individuals over millions of years: Now we need to multiply our total footprints made by individuals in a single year by 100 million years of dinosaurs roaming the earth. I realize that dinosaurs are estimated to have roamed the earth for 165 million years but we are making our calculations very conservative and easier at the same time.
So we have 1 billion footprints per year x 100 million years which yields 1 x 10 _17 footprints or 100,000,000,000,000,000. That is 100 quadrillion footprints formed. If should be apparent by now that had we used slightly less-conservative numbers we would be looking at numbers in the quintillions or even septillions but let’s keep going with this lower-bound estimate.
How many footprints could have been preserved? What if 99.999% of these 100 quadrillion footprints were washed away and not preserved? That would leave us with 10,000,000,000,000 or 10 trillion footprints in the fossil record. That is an enormous number and probably many more than actually exist. However, what if 99.999999% or only 1 out of every 1 million footprints were preserved? That would still leave 10 billion dinosaur footprints preserved in the fossil record. To preserve just 10s of millions of footprints had a quintillion or more footprints been formed would require that only 1 of every 100 billion footprints be preserved.
We have thus far only considered dinosaurs. We haven’t taken account birds, mammals and reptile footprints. Put the number of all these organisms that have lived over 250 million years and it quickly becomes obvious that, though very infrequently preserved, footprints should be very common in the fossil record. Even if only 1 out of every 100 trillion footprints made in mud or volcanic ash were ever preserved we would still expect billions of footprints to be found in the fossil record. And this is exactly what we observe. Footprints are a common form of trace fossil.
Footprints in the young-earth model of earth history
Now consider the flood geology scenario of earth history. First we note that all of the footprints of dinosaurs in the fossil record (1) must have been formed during the time of a global flood. These footprints had to have been formed only by the animals alive at the time the Flood was initiated. Rather than quadrillions of animals over millions of years making quintillions of footprints, every preserved dinosaur footprint we find today had to have its origins during the Flood just 4350 years ago.
So let’s use our same estimate of animals living at one moment in time, which was 50 million dinosaurs. These dinosaurs lived over most of the land surface when suddenly water began to surge catastrophically over the face of the whole earth. Thousands of feet of sediments – none with dinosaur footprints! – were laid down. Later – maybe days or weeks – some dinosaurs which somehow had survived the initial days of the Flood by swimming or rafting on vegetation hopped off on to temporary pieces of land – possibly between tsunami cycles – and ran around making footprints in the mud. That mud then had to dry sufficiently so that when the water rushed back it wouldn’t obliterate the footprints thus allowing them to be preserved between the two layers of sediment.
In case you think I made up the scenario above here is a prominent YEC, Michael Oard (meteorologist by training), defending a young earth dinosaur view of track preservation this way:
“Desperate dinosaurs would likely have found only a series of shoals and banks. Either swimming, floating on debris mats, or trapped on higher land nearby, the adult dinosaurs would have climbed onto the freshly deposited sediments, made tracks, and quickly laid eggs. When the water rose once again, they would have desperately tried to escape, forming straight trackways on single bedding planes. The rising floodwaters would also have rapidly buried the tracks—a necessary condition for preservation. In fact, the very existence of dino tracks is evidence for rapid burial”
We see in this quote the common YEC rhetoric that rapid burial is necessary for preservation of tracks. It could be that Oard understands that rapid burial could mean days or weeks as I demonstrated in my last article, but I am sure his audience, and probably Oard himself, understands “rapid” to be nearly instantaneous such as during a global flood.
Surely only a few dinosaurs could have survived long enough to have made any footprints at all. Had millions and millions of dinosaurs survived the majority of the chaos then one would expect–statistically speaking – that some would have survived on rafts for the entire Flood but this would contradict the YEC expectations of what the Flood was supposed to accomplish – 100% destruction except those preserved on Noah’s ark. So, if only 1% has survived to the point that they could drag themselves onto brief times when land was available late in the Flood event then there may have been 500,000 soggy and tired dinosaurs romping around on barren sand flats. In a few days they could have made millions of footprints.
Yes, YECs are correct about one thing, when you walk on the beach the next wave which your tracks will obliterate all evidence you ever walked there. They are all gone! But isn’t this exactly what we would expect to happen to nearly every footprint made in sand or mud created by a dinosaur running from oncoming flood waters in a global flood? We would expect that they would have been destroyed just as we expect 99.99999999999% of all footprints made today to be destroyed by even less dramatic forces we observe today. The global-flood scenario would not provide a mechanism or opportunity for preserving many footprints at all.
Given the number of dinosaur footprints already discovered in the very small portion of the rock record that we can observe, there are surely millions and millions of dinosaur footprints preserved in the fossil record. In the conventional geological understanding of earth history these footprints reflect the accumulation of rare events – lottery winners – that lead to preservation. However, in the young earth scenario rather than a tiny fraction of footprints making their way into the geological record, the vast majority of footprints made by dinosaurs would have to have been preserved and even that might not account for all the footprints. This is as unrealistic as the majority of lottery players winning each week.
What conditions are best for footprint preservation? As we have seen, mudflats around temporary ponds especially in semi-arid environments are good opportunities for preservation. Water attracts animals. They leave their footprints in the mud around drying lakes and flood plains. When the mud dries the footprints may take weeks, months or years to erode providing an opportunity for them to be covered by a new layer of mud when the pond suddenly fills or a local flood occurs. This is not an environment that would have existed during a global flood. The bits of land appearing temporarily above the water would have been saturated with water. The air would have been very humid. Mud or clay – if these were even possible sediment types during the Flood – would not have time to dry and harden before being inundated again.
Yet again, we can clearly see the testimony in the rocks beneath our feet. Preserved footprints – and mud cracks as we will see next – are not only explainable by old earth models but are expected. A young-earth scenario does not lead us to expect to find any footprints at all. Hence their great abundance has been met by a concoction of unrealistic ad-hoc hypotheses.
It would seem a natural expectation of Flood geology models that nearly every dinosaur alive at the onset of a global flood would be preserved but very few of those would leave any trace fossils such as footprints as they ran from the flood waters. Even in the scenario in which some dinosaurs managed to find a few patches of land to walk on – and even lay eggs – only a small percentage of those footprints could be expected to survive. In our scenario above if 50 million dinosaurs were alive at the time of the flood we expect to find that many fossils and no more but how could a small subset of those dinosaurs be responsible for making many 10s of millions of footprints – every one of them needing to be preserved–during a destructive flood?
So, not only does YEC flood geology fail to explain why dinosaur bones are found only in a small portion of the geological column (where all footprints are also found, but rarely in direct association with dinosaur bones), but now we see that the ratio of bones to footprints is not what one would predict had the Earth’s fossil record been formed soley by a single recent large flood.
Footnote 1: Although YECs believe that some of the geological column was produced after a global flood by post-flood events, I know of no dinosaur tracksites which YEC believe were formed after the Flood.
Footnote 2: Always wanted to make this point and never had a place to do it so I’ll stick it here. If millions of dinosaurs where adept enough at hitching rides on floating vegetation rafts to survive most of the Flood year and then left millions of footprints, why is it that if millions of people were alive when the Flood struck that at least a small percentage were also able to climb aboard rafts and survive just as long as dinosaurs and many other animals. But no fossils of humans are found in presumed global flood deposits and no footprints left behind. Were they really less able to avoid the flood than dinosaurs?