Not long ago I wrote this post criticizing Ken Ham and his research team for their outright errors and misinformed understanding of ancient fossil birds. Subsequently, Ken Ham, with help from his research team, penned a second blog post entitled, “The Duck-Relative That’s Just a Duck.” In that article Ken Ham doesn’t correct his erroneous comparison of penguin “teeth” to true teeth in fossil birds but he doubles down on his previous misunderstanding of ancient bird fossils. He believes he has found evidence that his previous statement about “modern birds” being found with dinosaurs is correct. However, his article again demonstrates poor scholarship and lack of understanding of paleontology and evolutionary biology terminology.
He again tells his followers that ducks, parrots and flamingos lived among dinosaurs. To make his case he cites a popular press article that refers to a duck-like fossil found with dinosaurs and then states:
“And, contrary to what the article states, these ducks are certainly not the only example of modern birds buried with dinosaurs. We find fossilized parrots, albatrosses, loons, owls, flamingos, penguins, sandpipers, and more buried in the same layers as dinosaurs. And one evolutionary researcher claimed that such evidence supports the idea that “most or all of the major modern bird groups were present in the Cretaceous” (a so-called “dinosaur layer”). While these fossils are rarely displayed in museums, they exist and are a serious challenge to the evolutionary timeline.”
He then goes on to recommend that his readers purchase the “excellent book” by Dr. Carl Werner (who is not a paleontologist) which is the source of these claims of parrots, loons, flamingos and penguins existing in dinosaur-aged rocks. These are naive claims at best and deceptive and baseless as worst.
I don’t know if Ken Ham or his research team read my critique of his previous statements about fossils birds. If they did, they completely ignored or didn’t understand my advice and obviously have not researched the claims of Dr. Werner, who they used as their source of information. If so, they are willfully spreading error and appear unwilling to “Test all things; hold fast to what is good” (I Thes. 5:21). Why won’t a young-earth creationist (YEC) perform a rigorous examination of another YEC’s work? Why, other than confirmation bias, do they seem to afford Dr. Werner the privilege of being treated as an expert witness beyond questioning, especially when he has no obvious training in the field of paleontology?
I could sum up the gist of Ham’s article with the following modification of a popular saying: “Dr. Werner said it, I believe it, That settles it!” I’m sure Ken Ham does not want to equate the words of man with the inspired Word of God but his unwavering acceptance of man’s word makes it appear that way at times.
Making a case for “modern’ birds coexisting with dinosaurs?
Ken Ham and the research team that wrote his blog post reference two “secular” articles to support their assertion that “modern” birds are found in dinosaur-age rocks. Let us take a closer look at both of these sources:
Parrots flying around with dinosaurs?
We will address Ken Ham’s second fossil bird claim fist. Ken Ham refers to a published research article as evidence that “modern” parrots flew around with dinosaurs. At first glance this seems like compelling evidence of a uniquely identifiable living bird living with dinosaurs. The reference is from the well-respected journal, Nature, and reports a 35mm fragment of a fossilized beak that they author believed was from a parrot ancestor that lived in the Cretaceous. As an aside, notice that the claim of a parrot in the Cretaceous is from just a small piece of a jaw-bone. Usually YECs are extremely skeptical of any claims that a fossil can be identified by a fragment, but apparently if they think it supports one of their own beliefs, they are happy to put enormous confidence in a tiny bone fragment.
What Ken Ham doesn’t tell his audience is that the majority of—if not all—paleontologists no longer accept the conclusions of this paper. This is an old (1998) references and there have been multiple more recent research papers that have re-considered the same fossil. Mr. Ham’s research team didn’t even have to do a deep search of the scientific literature. They could have just checked Wikipedia (which references it sources) and read the following: “However, other studies suggest that this fossil is not from a bird, but from a caenagnathid oviraptorosaur (a non-avian dinosaur with a birdlike beak), as several details of the fossil used to support its identity as a parrot are not actually exclusive to parrots, and it is dissimilar to the earliest-known unequivocal parrot fossils.” The author of the 1998 paper defended his thesis in 1999 but since then has published many papers on other fossil birds and doesn’t appear to have ever included this fossil in those discussions. It would seem that now even the original author agrees that his initial findings were not supported.
Furthermore, if Ham’s research team had searched a bit further, they would have found a 2006 paper that talks about the misidentification of the Cretaceous parrot and much more about the parrot fossil record. Figure 1 shows the most recent view of bird relationships and their appearance in the fossil record. You can see that parrot fossils are recognized by ornithologists as only being present from 50 million years ago to the present. Even the oldest fossils are not parrots like you and I would recognize. Parrots of the modern type don’t show up until about 30 million years ago. The beaks and legs don’t have distinctive features that parrots have today. That said, within the YEC framework of rapid speciation within kinds, these ancient fossils (50 million year old ones) could be considered the ancestors of all of today’s parrots (a whopping 363 species!–That is some rapid evolution that YECs are proposing!).
Significantly, even if he is misinformed about the evidence, what does Ham’s insistence that a parrot-like and duck-like bird lived with dinosaurs mean? He is confirming that the further we go back in time the greater the differences in how animals appear compared to their modern counterparts.
There does seem to be good evidence that distant ancestors of both parrots and perched birds of today lived with the dinosaurs. Those birds would have looked superficially like many of the thousands of modern species of perched birds but would not have been a “parrot,” “loon,” or “flamingo” as we understand these groups today (which in the YEC paradigm are all classified as different “kinds”). This “duck” (which wasn’t actually a duck as we shall see) and this “parrot” (which probably wasn’t even a bird) were far different from any of the varieties we see in modern groups and so Ham’s article is tacitly accepting massive amounts of change over time.
This is what any scientist would call “evolution.”
A duck-like fossil found with dinosaurs?
Ken Ham’s first reference is to a popular-press article about a new duck-like fossil found in the late Cretaceous period. He ends his article by saying: “Oh, and ducks have always been—well—ducks!” There is no doubt he is under the impression that this fossil is just a duck. But was it really a duck in the sense that this bird would be classified as modern duck? Not at all. This fossil is “like” a duck but no one has claimed it is a duck. While it may have had some similarities to modern ducks it also has features not found in modern ducks–such as heavy bones, similar to those found in penguins. In fact, it is about as much “like” a duck as a fossa (Figure 2) is “like” a civet or bobcat or a hyrax (Figure 3) is “like” an elephant or a manatee: they are thought to be close relatives and thus share many characteristics, but they are definitely not identical. The fossil named Vegavis iaai that is talked about in the article that Ham references is not classified in the duck family by ornithologists—scientists who study birds.
Ham’s associates could have done a simple search and found the Wikipedia entry on this fossil and discovered that, “Among modern birds, Vegavis is most closely related to ducks and geese (Anatidae), but it is not considered to be a direct ancestor of them.” Furthermore, a link at the bottom of the article refers to the fossil bird belonging to a “new clade,” the order Vegaviidae.
Had Ham’s research team looked a bit further than Wikipedia they would have discovered that there are more recent analyses of this fossil that Ham thinks is duck-like, (for example, Worth et al 2017 reference below) that include more comprehensive sets of characters. These analyses support the contention that the so-called “Vegaviids” are not “just a duck” as Ham emphatically states in his post, but they are a sister group (i.e. related as “cousins,” sharing a more recent ancestor with each other than with any other group) not only to ducks, geese and swans (which Answers in Genesis considers to make-up a single “kind” and thus, according to them, all related by common ancestor), but also to two other families of waterfowl, the screamers and the Magpie goose. In fact, Worth, et al., place this fossil bird from the Cretaceous in its own family and order. Typically, such a distinct classification would cause YECs to immediately respond that this is a separately created kind but Ham (or, at least, his writers) seems to think this is a modern duck.
Answers in Genesis considers the three families of waterfowl to be separate “kinds” and thus not sharing a common ancestor. So what we have here with the “modern” Cretaceous fossil appears to be related to the ancestor (a missing link, transitional fossil, intermediate fossil—take your pick) to living birds that Answers in Genesis considers to be three different kinds. For more about transition fossils, see the section below the references.
This fossil is not the remains of a duck. Though it would have cost him his rhetorical point, rather than insisting that the fossil comes from a member of the “duck kind” Ken Ham could have been consistent with his own literature and realized it is instead more likely, using AiG’s somewhat nebulous criteria, a separate “kind” of bird altogether, not related to ducks, geese, swans or any other living kind of bird. To make things worse for Ham’s claim, the analyses of Worth et. al. (2017) suggest it is also possible that the Vegaviids are more closely related to an extinct group of dozens of giant flightless waterfowl rather than to the ducks, screamers and magpie “geese.” But however future scientists identify the original animals, one thing is clear, this fossil is not “just a duck.”
Why does the popular article referenced by Ham call this fossil a “modern bird”?
Now let’s tackle the “modern bird” reference. I explained this in my past post, but will explore it further here. Ham and his research team can be forgiven for initially assuming that “modern” birds means that members of particular species, genera or even families of birds alive today have been found preserved alongside dinosaurs.
While birds which might be identifiable as being grouped with Anatidae (ducks, geese and swans) lived alongside dinosaurs, none of these ancient animals are still found today. Birds that resemble chickens and ducks have occupied similar ecological niches for more than 70 million years. None of this is surprising or presents a “serious challenge to the evolutionary timeline.” Explaining this is a bit challenging, but the word “modern” here has a particular meaning to taxonomists that is different from what a person in another field may ascribe to it.
The popular article that Mr. Ham references does provide a hint that the word has a special scientific meaning. The very first line of that article begins, “Records of Modern birds (Neornithes) from the Age of Dinosaurs or Mesozoic Era, are very scarce and patchy.” Another article about the same fossil find described modern birds this way: “The modern birds (Neornithes), a group that includes all the current species of this type, are different from most primitive birds because the beak has no teeth, there is a reduction of the hand bones (without claws) and a short tail formed by a small pygostyle that supports the tail feathers.”
As illustrated in the figure above, the word modern is defined as being a member of the Neornithes/Neognathae. “Modern birds” are any representative of the lineage from which all living birds except ostriches, kiwis and emus which are members of a second bird lineage called the Paleagnathae; see figure below. Modern doesn’t mean that any of these birds from the Cretaceous are the same as any specific living birds. Rather they are part of the “modern” lineage that contains hundreds of types of birds collectively.
Now take a look at the time scale in figures 1 and 4. There are some broad lineages (e.g. collective groups of ground and water fowl) of “modern” birds that stretch all the way back to 70 million years ago. That is the very end of the time of the dinosaurs (geologically speaking). However, the birds in those lineages are not “modern” species or families but are distant ancestors/relatives of multiple families or orders of living birds. The best current scientific understanding of those fossilized birds indicates that they gave rise to what Answers in Genesis believes are at least four unique and separately created kinds (https://answersingenesis.org/creation-science/baraminology/an-initial-estimate-of-avian-ark-kinds/). This doesn’t fit the YEC understanding of “kinds” of birds. By insisting that these fossil birds are the same “kinds” and thus are “modern” birds YECs are either ignoring or distorting the evidence or are stretching the definition of “kind” well beyond what their own literature claims is possible.
The claim that this fossil is “just a duck” turns into an admission—completely unintentional, I am sure—that there is evidence for a common ancestor to many different “kinds” of birds and this common ancestor is a great example of a missing link between “kinds” that YEC spokespeople have insisted doesn’t exist.
To be fair, Ham’s research team is not very familiar with the lingo of taxonomy and systematics. They might not be expected to understand that using the term “modern” to describe common ancestors of major modern lineages is a relative term and perfectly appropriate from an evolutionary perspective. It distinguishes ~9,500 living species that, according to the standard evolutionary model, the descended from a single common ancestor and are all “modern” birds from the more ancient lineages of toothed birds and the even older lineage that survived to become the ratites (ostriches etc.).
Answers in Genesis advertise that they can provide solid answers to questions Christians have. They want to be treated as experts. But if they wish to be treated as experts they should spend some time to rechecking to ensure what they are saying is accurate. As it is, without realizing it, their literature forms a complicated self-contradictory thicket of claims and assertions that are not reliable.
YECs claim we all have the same “facts” but just interpret them differently. Well, here, and in many other cases, we don’t even agree that we have the same facts. Flamingos, parrots and ducks found with dinosaurs?—Ken Ham says, Yes, they were there. The rest of the world says, No. These differences in perspective are not solely a difference of interpretation. Someone has their facts wrong and therefore it isn’t just our interpretations that differ.
Waterhouse, David M. “Parrots in a nutshell: the fossil record of Psittaciformes (Aves).” Historical Biology 18, no. 2 (2006): 227-238. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08912960600641224
Worthy, Trevor H., Federico J. Degrange, Warren D. Handley, and Michael SY Lee. “The evolution of giant flightless birds and novel phylogenetic relationships for extinct fowl (Aves, Galloanseres).” Royal Society open science 4, no. 10 (2017): 170975. http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/4/10/170975
A Few Notes about Common Ancestry and “Missing Links”
Here is a helpful description by Lars Cade of what evolutionary biologists mean by common ancestry and how that relates to “missing links”.
“Allow me to describe what is commonly referred to as a “missing link” or “transitional fossil.” Often, those who are not very familiar with evolutionary theory will think it means that scientists expect to find a “catdog” or a “crocoduck,” i.e. an organism that is exactly part of one identifiable group and part of another.
However, common ancestry means that organisms that have differing traits today exhibit these differences because their shared ancestral population was split into two or more different populations, which can happen for any number of reasons. After the split, each new population continued evolving separately, accumulating distinctive modifications to those ancestral traits that were not shared with other groups because of the earlier split.
Thus, a transitional fossil would be one which exhibits traits that it inherited (in modified form) from an earlier population and which are shared with other populations that also inherited modified forms of those traits. This does not necessarily mean that the latter group is directly descended from the transitional species, only that they exhibit the same distinctive traits that were modified further in the later group.”
We can relate Lars’ description of transitional fossils to the “duck-like” fossil (Vegavis iaai) from the Cretaceous by noting that this fossil has some characteristics that it shares with modern waterfowl but is different from any living birds. This fossil may be a descendant of the common ancestor that gave rise to the extinct lineage of birds from which the fossil came and from which several lineages of living waterfowl also descended. It is a transitional fossil because it shares a history with birds that experienced modifications that would become multiple related lineages of birds today.
P.S. A nitpick—but how does Ham know that ducks have always been ducks? Since his employees have written that ducks, geese and swans are all part of the same “kind” could it not be that ducks were not always ducks but rather were geese or some not-exactly-duck/swan/goose that led to ducks? How does he know what ducks’ ancestors looked like that became ducks, geese and swans? Surely he was not there to see. So how does he know? Maybe they looked like none of those things but just a generic waterfowl. Of course, the generic waterfowl population could also have been ancestral to many different sort of birds that are members of many different “kinds.” But then that would mean they are not “kinds,” as AiG defines the term.
P.P.S. It is also interesting to note that Ken Ham doesn’t bring to his audience’s attention the fact that there are many bird fossils in rocks dated 65 million years ago to the present but if you look at the entire time-span of the dinosaurs there are but a handful of bird fossils, most of which are not “modern” birds, and none of which appear prior to Jurassic strata. Ham makes no attempt to explain this pattern other than saying that birds could fly and so they avoided the Flood waters. This makes no sense, since he has said that penguins and some other birds have always been flightless and so they should not have been able to escape the Flood waters in the same way.
Cover photo: Wood ducks, Canton OH, Photo by Joel Duff
Editing provided by LC