A few weeks ago I criticized Ken Ham and several of his Answers in Genesis’ colleagues for stating that some living birds have teeth like those of fossil birds. I pointed out that none of the 10,000 living bird species produce true teeth. However, there were some birds that lived alongside dinosaurs during the Cretaceous Period that produced and used true teeth. I was reminded of this fact last Saturday when I took my family to the American Museum of Natural History dinosaur and ancient bird exhibit at CoSi in Columbus, Ohio. It’s a fantastic new exhibit that puts the latest paleontology discoveries on display though we had to pay admission to CoSi to gain admittance.
While walking through the exhibit I took a number of pictures, primarily of ancient birds and feathered dinosaurs. One of the latter species was a feather-covered velociraptor (a small theropod-type dinosaur made famous in the film Jurassic Park). Right as I was preparing to take a picture I spotted the Louisville Cardinal mascot walking past my subject. Apparently the mascot was there along with several other NCAA mascots to participate in a photo-shoot for the NCAA women’s basketball final four tournament that was being held that weekend in Columbus.
When I got home and looked at the picture I noticed, for the first time, that the Cardinals mascot clearly includes enamel teeth as part of the outfit. Cardinals, like all modern species, do not have teeth but this mascot is so familiar to many people that it would be easy for someone to believe that cardinals do have teeth if they had never stopped to look at one closely.
But all kidding about anatomically incorrect college mascots aside, it was the fossil birds and other feathered dinosaurs on display that I was thinking about while at the museum. Much of what was on display was related to topics that I have discussed on this blog in the past month. In particular the displays had much to say about the presence of birds and their diversity at the end of the dinosaur age.
There were several displays at this exhibit that depicted ancestors of modern birds (Neornithes), close bird relatives (Enantiornithes and Euornithes) and feathered theropod dinosaurs and that all lived in the late Cretaceous Period just before most dinosaurs went extinct. Some young-earth creationists have claimed that museum displays don’t show modern birds living along with dinosaurs because that would a problem for evolutionary theory. For example, Troy Lacey writing from Answers in Genesis last week about “Modern Birds in the Cretaceous?” states:
“In an evolutionary paradigm, it would take time for therapod dinosaurs to evolve into archaic birds, and then more time for those birds to transition to modern forms. Finding all three types of creatures in sedimentary layers from approximately the same time period would not be something the evolutionary model would expect.”
No expected? Why? Mr. Lacey clearly believes evolution normally proceeds linearly with replacement rather than as a bifurcating process. This is one of the most common misconceptions of evolution. Nothing about evolutionary theory says that we shouldn’t expect to find all three types of creatures living in the same time period. If Lacey were to take a look around the American Museum of History exhibit as CoSi he would will clearly see that evolutionary biologists are not surprised or embarrassed to find theropod dinosaurs, toothed and feathered intermediates that share characters with birds and dinosaurs, and beaked birds that have a suite of characteristics we associate with modern birds today all living at the same time. Why? Because “modern” animals can live side-by-side with descendants of their ancestors that have retained more characteristics of the ancestor than they may have. For example, all domestic dogs are descendants of wolves but wolves are alive today even though the wolves alive today are probably very similar to the animals that gave rise to domestic dogs. We are not shocked to find remains of domestic dogs and wolves that are 100 years old and thus living at the same time. Likewise, birds with teeth can live alongside birds with beaks or ostriches can be found living beside modern birds even though their ancestors are from a more ancient group than modern birds. The common ancestor of both beaked and toothed birds may have had teeth but one descendant lost their teeth while the other didn’t just like one descendant of the common ancestor of wolves and dogs retained all of the features of wolves while other descendants of that same ancestor now look like Dalmatians.
Unfortunately, the remainder of Lacey’s article about “modern” birds found in the Cretaceous is similarly filled with misunderstandings of either evolutionary concepts or the terminology used by scientists in the field. Most importantly, the word “modern” has multiple meanings which play an important part in the interpretation of some scientific literature. In this case it is important to remember that the word “modern” refers to all birds in the entire Neornithes group and not to particular families of birds that we recognize today. “Modern” birds have all the general attributes we associate with the whole group of living birds except the ratite birds such as ostriches which are in a different group and not considered “modern” birds despite being alive today.
I would recommend that Lacey take a trip to Columbus and spend some time at this exhibit. It would be helpful to see some of the characteristics of ancient birds and what they have in common with modern birds and where they differ. I want to also remind Lacey and my readers that fossil birds from the Cretaceous are very diverse and much more common than most people realize. Our knowledge of bird and bird-like dinosaurs has increased dramatically within the past decade and hundreds of new fossils will be described in the next decade.
The challenge of feathered dinosaurs
Young earth creationists have found explaining feathered dinosaurs very challenging. There are as many opinions among YECs about how to classify these odd animals as there are YECs that have considered them. I have written several times about the difficulties that YECs have had in sorting out the fossil evidence and placing these animals into discrete bins of “dinosaurs” or “birds.” A few YECs still attempt to deny that any dinosaurs had feathers of any type. Others try to lump every fossil with evidence of feathers together as a bird even if most other features of the same animal say “dinosaur.” I have often wondered why they don’t just put them in their own separate category as non-dinosaur and non-bird animals.
Here are links to a few of my other posts that discuss the challenge of feathers and bird taxonomy for YECs:
How Have Young Earth Creationists Responded to Feathered Dinosaurs?
The Dangers of Poor Scholarship: A Creationist’s Take on Feathered Dinosaurs
Penguin “Teeth” and “Modern” Birds: Ken Ham’s Misinformed Understanding of Fossil Birds
If it Walks Like a Duck… Ken Ham Doubles Down on His Misunderstanding of Bird Fossils
Consider the Ostrich—Comparing Theistic Models of Biological Origins
A Flock of Genomes Reveals the Toothy Ancestry of Birds
Below are a few pictures from the exhibit that show what paleontologists now believe that many birds and bird-like dinosaurs may have looked like in the Cretaceous Period.