Penguin “Teeth” and “Modern” Birds: Ken Ham’s Misinformed Understanding of Fossil Birds

Errors repeated often enough take on the appearance of truth. This is what makes fake news so effective.   It can drown out informed opinion and accurate information.  At the root of many fake new stories are pieces of information that are either outright false but possibly surrounded with true statements or the facts they report may be accurate within their original context but are reported out of context.  Sometimes news stories are not intended by the author to be fake in any way but because the authors mistakenly rely on incorrect information, what they write propagates misinformation.   This can create significant problems if the authors are trusted by their audiences.  Their audiences are unlikely to question the original source of the information and so assume that the reported facts are accurate.

Examples of erroneous source information combined with constant repeating of that incorrect source information by trusted communicators in particular communities can be readily found in young-earth creationist’  (YEC) literature and presentations.  I’ve provided a few examples in the past. For example:  Lack of Citations: The YEC Peer-Review System Goes Awry Again, and When Peer Review Lets You Down: A YEC Quote Problem.

Recently I encountered additional examples of false claims propagated in Ken Ham’s blog though not necessarily by Ken Ham himself since the post is “written with the assistance of AiG’s research team.” The identical false claims were made the next day by three members of the Answers in Genesis’ FaceBook Live news program.

Our first example comes from Mr Ham’s blog post, “Missing Link Dinosaur” Is Just a Bird.” Here we find Ham downplaying any dinosaur-bird connection.  He acknowledges that many fossil birds found in dinosaur-bearing rocks often have fairly impressive sets of teeth and claws on their wings. These are features of ancient birds that are reptile-like.  But to apparently downplay the reptile-sharing features of these ancient fossil birds he states:

What they found was another fossilized Archaeopteryx specimen—a crow-sized bird with teeth and claws on its wings, as many now-extinct birds had (though penguins still have teeth and hoatzins have claws as juveniles).

Notice the phrase “though penguins still have teeth…”   His lay audience will surely assume that the word “teeth” here has an equivalent meaning to the term “teeth” in reference to fossil birds.  With respect to the function of the teeth, this may be true. The tooth-like projections in a penguin’s mouth–and in the mouth of geese as well–serve a similar function to fossil-bird teeth. However, these are not equivalent to the true teeth of fossil birds. This is like saying that bat wings and bird wings are the same things because they allow a bird and a bat to fly.  Yes, you could call them both wings, but they are produced by very different developmental processes.

Penguin teeth are not developmentally related to teeth in fossil birds which had true enamel and dentin-coated teeth just like reptile and mammals.   I just posted an article a few days ago about bird teeth (A Flock of Genomes Reveals the Toothy Ancestry of Birds) which reveals that modern birds, including penguins, do have genes, albeit broken ones, for making “true” teeth but none of the 10,000 living bird species make true teeth.  Ham’s “penguins still have teeth” claim is just false because he is implying that the teeth-shaped things in a penguins mouth are the same as teeth in fossil birds. (1)

The example above is a relatively minor error which is easily corrected by taking just a few minutes to research penguin teeth. (2)  What really caught my eye was a second claim from the same blog post. This is a claim I have heard many times but it is also false.  The claim is made as an attempt to downplay any evidence that the fossil record supports any evolutionary development of birds over time:

But the author of the article calls these birds “bird-like dinosaurs” because of the supposed evolutionary connection between dinosaurs and birds (even though modern and now-extinct birds lived at the same time as the dinosaurs, including parrots, loons, owls, flamingos, and more).

This sounds rather impressive for anyone unaware of the extent and nature of fossil birds in dinosaur-bearing rocks.  After all, how could “modern birds” be found with dinosaurs if the ancestors of modern birds were evolving during that time?  But this claim is just wrong and it is wrong in multiple ways. First, for most of the birds mentioned, no such fossils exist.  Second, the term “modern” is undefined but 99% of AiG’s readers will take this to mean that a “modern” parrot from the era of dinosaurs is a parrot similar to one alive today but whose bones are found mixed with dinosaur-bearing rocks.

So, are there fossils of “modern” parrots, loons, owls and flamingos found in dinosaur-era rocks?  The short answer – NO! But are there fossils in dinosaur-bearing rocks of ancestral parrots and flamingos that are recognizable as belonging to those families  or “kinds” as Ken Ham might want to call them or may be thinking in his “modern” term?  The answer is still NO!  There aren’t even any fossils that can be definitely identified as belonging to these families that are found with dinosaurs.

This same claim of “modern birds” living with the dinosaurs was made by three hosts (Georgia Purdom, Avery Foley and Bodies Hodge) of the AIG FB live news team who also commented on the same story about fossil birds. They stated that there are “modern bird” fossils found with dinosaurs including parrots, loon, and flamingos.  They also remarked that penguins have teeth implying that finding fossil birds with teeth were therefore no big surprise.(3)

So what is going on here?  These claims are not supported by the current paleontological literature.  Without even diving deep into the primary literature a quick check of Wikipedia or other general resources would quickly reveal that each of these modern bird claims are in error.

The problem lies in having too much faith in an original YEC source.  No one has vetted that original source and so YEC authors and speakers have copied it into their literature so many times that each of these AiG employees just assume these are observable facts that evolutionary biologists are ignoring.

You can trace the claim back to a Creation Ministries International (CMI) article from 2011 which included the following sentence:  “Contrary to popular belief, modern types of birds have been found, including: parrots, owls, penguins, ducks, loons, albatross, cormorants, sandpipers, avocets, etc.”    The person quoted here is a Dr. Carl Werner, a young-earth creationist’ family physician who had spent years visiting museums looking at fossils and interviewing paleontologists and museum employees.  He published a book in 2009 called Evolution: The Grand Experiment Part II Living Fossils in which he claims to show that many “modern” organisms have fossil counterparts much deeper in the fossil record than evolutionary theory would predict. Most of his data consists of looking at a fossil and finding a living organism that looks like the fossil and then claiming they are related to each other.  None of these claims holds up under even a moderate amount of scrutiny.

Dr. Werner has no obvious training in paleontology other than museum visits but had he read more of the primary paleontological literature he would have realized that his example of a dinosaur age flamingo is nothing more than a common name given to a fossil that has some characteristics of  a modern flamingo. But I can’t find any place where it has been argued that this bird really was a flamingo rather than an ancient bird with some similarities to one.  This is similar to naming a koala a “bear” because it looks a bit like a bear. But koalas are mostly definitely not bears.   The story is similar for loons, for parrots, and for owls.  Are any modern birds found? No!  Are any fossils that are thought to be in the same family of birds mentioned here found with dinosaurs? No.  There are fossils that have distinctly parrot-like features that are as old as 50 million years but interestingly, all possible older  parrot-like fossils don’t have the distinctive parrot-style crushing beak.  I wouldn’t say that “modern” parrot fossils are found in 50 million year old rocks. It would be more accurate to state that the fossil record contains ancestors of modern parrots but not “modern” parrots.

Many fossils for which one bone or a few fragments are found are linked to things they have similarity to, but that does not mean they are really related to them and often future bone discoveries reveal that the bird is very different from the modern group that the first bone was likened to.   These rare bones are a far cry from definitive discoveries of “modern” birds in ancient rocks.  Maybe some definitive fossils from one of these types of birds will be found someday in rocks of dinosaur-era age, but, as it stands today, it is deceptive to suggest that fossils of birds that are the same as birds we have today are found in dinosaur-bearing rocks.

What is most frustrating is that these claims can be so easily checked and corrected. This is another example of a peer-review problem within the YEC community.   YECs have been citing and repeating Dr. Werner’s fossil claims for years despite the fact they are so easily refuted.  If YECs truly believe that the evidence supports their interpretation of Scripture, it would behoove them to avoid using demonstrably false evidence to make their case.

Footnotes:

1. The hoatzin claim is also dubious. Yes they have claws on their wings as juveniles but it is not clear that these “claws” share homology with claws of fossil birds.  It is possible that hoatzin develop these claws  differently than do fossil birds though it doesn’t appear that much work has been done to understand claw development in these birds.  In a way they could be like penguin teeth. They perform a similar function but they develop from a different genetic pathway than do reptile claws.

2. This claim that penguin teeth are “still teeth” as if they are like fossil teeth seems to be rather novel, as noted in the comments below, to Ken Ham or whichever employee fed him the idea.  I don’t see this claim repeated on other YEC websites.

3. Teeth in fossil birds are a bit tricky to incorporate into the young-earth paradigm.  All true-toothed birds are found in rocks of dinosaur age.  YECs consider all these fossils the product of a global flood.  The question then becomes, if there were dozens of “kinds” of birds that lived in the pre-flood world that had teeth, and if Noah preserved each of those lineages on the ark, what happened to them after the Flood? Why are they all extinct today and why have they left no fossil record after departing from the ark?  Why would dozens or more of toothed kinds go extinct and only non-toothed survive?  Furthermore, as my previous article discussed, why do non-toothed birds all have genes for making teeth and yet all of those “kinds” of birds don’t make teeth nor is there any fossil record of any of them having had teeth in the past?  I believe the tooth problem is in the mind of Ken Ham and other members of AiG when they insert into their discussion “and penguins still have teeth” as if to imply that teeth in birds are no big deal.

An osprey taking off from its nest on the outer banks of North Carolina. Osprey are birds of prey and have impressive beaks but they don’t have teeth and birds of prey are not known in the fossil record until after the dinosaurs disappeared. Image credit: Joel Duff

Comments

  1. Creationists, I fear, don’t even want to purge their echo chamber of its straw men and zombie arguments. I used to think they were merely deluded, but am now coming to consider that that they are also dishonest

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As you note at the end of the article, YECs have not explained why no tooth-bearing birds survived the Flood. Even harder for them to explain is why we don’t see lots of toothless birds in the Mesozoic, when we should see lots of them, and many species of them, if their view is correct. None of their oft-repeated explanations for fossil succession (eco zonation, hydro sorting, and differential escape abilities) begin to explain it. I think you may be giving Ham and friends too much credit, for assuming they are just repeating an old YEC source about penguin teeth. That no modern birds have true teeth is such a well known scientific fact that it’s likely they know it too, and just hope that many of their readers don’t. Another thing they have trouble explaining is why many modern many birds show teeth during embryonic development, and/or have been shown to have latent genetic coding for true teeth. They can try to rationalize it in their illogical “hyperspeciation” claims, but those have been shown to be contradicted by many lines of evidence.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Chris Weiss says:

    I wonder how YECs would explain the activation protein experiments that show how birds can develop real teeth? When mouse cells are grafted to chicken embryos, they provide the activation proteins for the development of real teeth. Birds who naturally produce a mutation to form teeth typically are not viable. The mouse cell experiment is fascinating in revealing the genetic atavism in birds for teeth. This pretty much destroys ham’s argument without having to answer the spurious and often repeated question, “were you there?”

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    • Excellent observation. Taking it another step further, it also asks why would all bird lineages have this “genetic activism.” Common ancestry with a loss in the ancestor of function is an easy answer but for YECs, there are 196 separately-created living kinds of birds (according to AiG – Jean Lightner) that share no common ancestry. Maybe a YEC could say that a few of these had teeth in the original creation and then lost them due to mutations (degradation of the original perfect genome) but did God really created all 196 different kinds with teeth and all 196 lost their teeth due to mutations? Surely at least one lineage would have kept teeth because they were functionally important to them.

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  4. As expected, major YEC groups dispute the evidence for embryonic and atavistic teeth in birds
    https://creation.com/chickens-with-teeth
    https://creation.com/Teeth-developing-in-bird-embryosmdashdoes-it-prove-evolution
    https://www.icr.org/article/facts-bite-into-bird-tooth-story
    http://www.icr.org/article/8516/

    YECs also seem paranoid about admitting the existence of feathered dinosaurs, even though there is no reason why the creator could not put feathers on a dinosaur. But even some YECs are comming around to accepting feathered dinosaurs.

    https://siriusknotts.wordpress.com/2017/01/25/can-a-dinosaur-have-feathers/

    Another YEC recently wrote a longer article outright challenging his fellow YECs to accept the overwhelming evidence that some dinosaurs has feathers. I thought I bookmarked it but now can’t find it. Does anyone else have the link?

    An interesting summary of YEC confusion and misrepresentation on dino-bird evoution:
    http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2012/09/creationists_and_dinosaurs_answers_in_genesis_teams_with_dissident_scientists_to_deny_feathered_dino_fossil_record.html

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Here’s the article I was thinking of, where Todd Wood urges his fellow YECs to accept the overwhelming evidence that some dinosaurs had feathers.
    https://toddcwood.blogspot.com.br/2016/12/god-made-dinosaurs-with-beautiful.html
    What most other YECs tend to do is claim that most supposed feathers on dinosaurs are not really feathers, and any are real feathers, then the animal is by definition a bird (even if the rest of it’s anatomy screams dinosaur). Of course, by that tactic nothing ever could be a dino-bird intermediate, but that’s semantic game playing, not science.

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    • The semantics are no mere game, but crucial to the creationists’ absolutist philosophy. If bird and dinosaur are different kinds, then of course any specimen must be one or the other, and one cannot be descended from the other, because that would mean that there were parents of one kind and offspring of the other, which is absurd.

      Compare, Latin and Italian are different languages. Therefore it I could not possibly have evolved from Latin, because if it had, that would mean that parents speaking one language had offspring speaking another, which is absurd.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Todd Wood as usual sees the problem so much more clearly and provides the obvious YEC solution but other YECs just don’t seem to want to acknowledge him. What perplexes me is that YECs insist on the bible as the final word and if the bible doesn’t tell us about a particular event in history we are told “you weren’t there” and that we can’t trust historical science but them they turn around and seem to think that God decreed that only birds have feathers. Where is the bible verse that says that? If they had never seen a bat they would probably believe that mammals can’t fly – only birds can. There taxonomic decisions lack any cohesive criteria. What seems to be most important is that once they have proclaimed something (once Ken Ham has proclaimed something) then all future fossils finds must be crammed into that first proclamation. They are in too deep now and can’t turn the titanic around.

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  6. “What is most frustrating is that these claims can be so easily checked and corrected.”

    I think they neither want to check nor correct those claims. Willful ignorance is allergic to fact-checking.

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  7. The compulsion of creationists to pigeon-hole all theropod fossils as “dinosaur” or “bird” is misguided and futile, as well evidenced by the fact that they can’t even agree on which is which. A classic case is Archaeopteryx, which many YECs claim is a 100% bird, while others such as Walt Brown and Ian Taylor argue is just a small dinosaur onto which someone pressed fake feather impressions (something thoroughly refuted by many lines of evidence). Likewise, YECs insist all hominids are either apes, or “fully human” even though again, they can’t agree on which are which. What better evidence that the specimens actually show many intermediate features, which is in fact the case. Archaeopteryx shows many features intermediate between a typical theropod and a modern bird, besides it’s obvious teeth, clawed wings, and long bony tail; likewise, hominids such as Homo erectus and Homo habilis clearly show many features intermediate between earlier hominids and modern humans. And in all of these and countless other cases, the fossils occur in expected geologic horizons, and not all mixed up, as YECism would predict, even if they were separate “kinds.”

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Just want to say thank you for this article. I read them all. Makes so much sense and gives me memorable arguments when discussing with YEC’s–which I once was, because I did not know any other option.

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    • Gutti, I am involved in evolution education, and so I would really find it helpful to know (and so I am sure would others here) where you were educated without learning about evolution, how you were shielded from exposure to evolution science, how you eventually came across it, and how you felt about it. thanks

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      • Hi Paul. Happy to to be of any help and having a chance to write my story.

        I live in the Faroe Islands, a small North Atlantic country and was raised a Lutheran, attending our state Church. At Sundays in church the evolution topic was rarely mentioned and my mother and father never mentioned it or any problem regarding it. It was not really on their mind.

        My first school years, up to 13 years of age, were in the only Catholic owned school on our islands, the “nun-school”, as we called it.

        I was not shielded from evolution or the Big Bang theory, but when initially exposed to those, my reaction negative. First exposure to an Old Earth was in my sixth or seventh grade (around 1979 at the age of 12-13) when our teacher in geography told us that the origin of our islands was volcanic activity – and that sent me in a one-two years deep crisis of faith. Because, I resoned – didn’t God create our islands?
        My reasoning was also that if the Creation story in Genesis was not true, as the teacher implied (well–he didn’t say that!) then how can I trust the rest of the Bible?

        What kept my faith throuch this very difficult time, was the deep peace of knowing Christ in my heart.
        I remember thinking: “I feel God Presence, so He must be real. So hopefully there must be a solution to this terrible crisis.”

        I also vent to visit my Lutheran parish priest to hopefully resolve my crisis. He was a fine teologian, but he could not really see why anyone should have a crisis of faith over the theory of evolution/old earth issue. He offered no intellectual solution (and no mention of early Church writings) but suggested to me, why I not just believe the Creation account and discard the evolution issue altogether! I was very disappointed by his proposal, because how could I possibly throw away reason and logic? No real help there.

        But there was a small Christian pentecostal bookstore in town, so I hesitatingly went in there, and bought a book “Creation or Evolution” by a professor H. Enoch.

        I read it, and it gave a solution to my faith crisis and my faith was saved. I also ordered the “Genesis Flood” by Morris and Whitcomb and read some of the book.

        So for the next ten years I rejected evolution and Big Bang and promoted a Young Earth view in school too. But after getting hold of the book “Reason, Science and Faith” by Marsdon and Forster, I completely changed my view on evolution – mostly because in that book I saw how the Jews and the Early Church read the Creation account. The writings of the Early Church were (and are) seldom mentioned or discussed in our Lutheran society.
        It took three days to ponder and change my mind on the issue and I remember having pain in my stomac for the duration of those days!
        But a relief it was not to be fearful or resentful of science anymore. Whether it be archeology, biology or any other field. Now I could see a mainstream television program on the life of the dinosaurs and just enjoy it!

        For many years after my discovery though, I was not completely sure which position to take.

        I few times I have been met with distrust by fellow Christians after telling them that I thought if fine to believe that God created life through evolution.

        Today it does not bother me much being set under suspicion from some of my fellow Christians. I just shake my head a little that adults can be so uninformed or illogical – or how to describe this state of mind – in the age of the internet. But I am concerned by how the fake creation/evolution controversy impacts non-Christians.

        Though I bear with the young earth creationists – I once was one myself.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Gutti, thanks so much for sharing your story. I’m always struck by the many ways in which people have experienced changes in convictions with respect to their understanding of creation. I don’t have Marston and Forster book. I may need to add that one to my collection. Thanks again for your story.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks, that’s extremely useful information. I was brought up as a traditionalist Jew, and one of the many reasons that I so strongly dislike creationism is the utter incomprehension it shows of the nature and function of the beautiful many-layered text.

          I note that Forster is prominent in the Evangelical Alliance, and have ordered a cheap copy of the book through Alibris (whom I use when I can to preserve the independents against the tentacles of Amazon)

          Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Gutti, Thanks for the encouraging word. I am glad you found them useful. Best wishes to you as you continue to explore and ponder God’s creation. The transition away from YEC can be difficult because it provides such a comfortable set of answers in a complicated world but over time I think that a fully image of God’s sovereignty, creative power, and the story of redemption becomes evident when the unnecessarily restrictive box of the YEC world is removed.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. By his stance Ken Ham is – whether he intends to be or not – anti-science, anti-knowledge and anti evidence:
    https://answersingenesis.org/blogs/ken-ham/2018/02/05/missing-link-dinosaur-just-bird/
    Archaeopteryx was once classified as an extinct bird (very old and unlike modern birds), now it’s classified as a bird-like dinosaur. Yet Ham simply cannot countenance that birds are descended from some dinosaurs. Because the Bible suggests birds were created separately from non-flying land animals – not because of evidence.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archaeopteryx

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  10. Ham’s relying on the Bible for taxonomic guidance causes other problems too. For example, bats are listed among the “fowl”. Enough said. Likewise, since many ancient and modern birds are flightless, distinguishing birds and dinos based on whether they are “terrestrial” or “flying” animals doesn’t work either. Pterosaurs (flying reptiles) are not even mentioned in the Bible, even tho they were a large and diverse group (unless you count the highly dubious interpretations of the “fiery serpents” claimed by some YECs to be pterosaurs, but which are more likely just poisonous and/or reddish snakes. Then again, a few YECs like Carl Baugh and Jon Whitcomb (no, not the Genesis Flood author) claim pterosaurs are still with us, and even glow in the dark. I recently updated my long critique on that issue. If you’re interested (I’d appreciate any feedback–I know I need to shorten it up), it’s at: http://paleo.cc/paluxy/livptero.htm

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  11. I made an example out of Answers in Genesis on Quora.com as I can tell with your article that Ken Ham is going to be flat out torqued. Look up Creation Museum on Urban Dictionary and Answers in Genesis on the same site as Flood Geology is defined as they are made into self-righteous clowns on the site.

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  12. Urban Dictionary has similarly blunt definitions for “Creationist,” “Creationism,” and “Ken Ham.”

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  13. David Campbell says:

    On the claim of Mesozoic parrots, there was a claim from a conventional paleontologist that a tiny Cretaceous bone was a jawbone from a lory. Phylogenetically this is highly implausible – lories are derived within the parrots, and a more recent review notes that the supposed distinctive features have not been validated by thorough comparative analysis; the specimen is more likely to be a dinosaur beak.

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  14. For more about the alleged Cretaceous parrot fossil, see:
    https://qilong.wordpress.com/2011/03/02/a-cretaceous-parrot/
    The specimen is a single partial lower jaw fragment that most workers are not even sure is from a bird-ancestor let alone a lorry or parrot, and which they say may well belong to any number of other non-avian dinosaurs, Yet YECs casually refer to Cretaceous “parrots”– and are likely to keep parroting the claim for many years to come. Of course, even if it were an early parrot, it would not refute evolution, especially since the fossil occurs near the end of the Cretaceous, by which time other bird lineages had developed. In contrast, if YECism were true, there should be lots of modern birds of many species throughout the fossil record, or at least from the time we find early birds, rather than all the toothed toothed, long-tailed, clawed early birds we do find (besides the feathered dinosaurs–making any line between them quite indistinct). Of course, this is just one of countless features of the fossil record they cannot explain.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glen and David, thanks for the additional information. I had heard about the parrot fossil before but couldn’t put my fingers on that info when I wrote the article. YECs are able to get away with such blatant misrepresentation of the fossil record because there audience has no grasp of just what the fossil record looks like.

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  15. Ken Ham at it again (I see that since I last viewed this page that Cretaceous parrot fossil has been mentioned in comments):
    http://www.forums.bcseweb.org.uk/viewtopic.php?f=18&t=2967&p=51925#p51925

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