The sedimentary rocks of the Earth hold vast quantities of fossils. Hundreds of years of careful observations have shown that fossils are far from random in their distribution but rather they appear in the geological column in a distinct pattern or order referred to as fossil succession. How can we explain the observed distribution of fossils in the geological column?
One attempt to explain the origin and observed distribution of fossils comes from young-earth creationists (YECs). The young-earth view proposes that much or most of the thousands of feet of fossil bearing rocks—and the fossils themselves—that make up the world’s land masses were deposited during a single catastrophic world-wide flood approximately 4350 years ago. In reference to that Flood, Ken Ham and other YECs are fond of asking:
If there really was a Flood, what would the evidence be? Billions of dead things, buried in rock layers, laid down by water, all over the earth. After which Ken Ham continues: Well, that is exactly what we see – billions of dead things, buried in rock layers, laid down by water, all over the earth!
Ken Ham is right about one thing. There are billions of dead things buried in sediments laid down in water although this is a vast underestimate of the number of fossils. But how long was required to preserve all these fossils, how did it happen and how might we be able to discern these past events?
YEC Global flood proponents have proposed three possible mechanisms to explain the observed succession of fossils in the geological column: 1) Hydrodynamic sorting, 2) Differential escape, and 3) Ecological zonation. None of these general proposals hold water when fossils and their geological context are examined in detail.
I have already provided numerous examples of the utter inadequacies of hydrodynamic sorting including my articles about diatoms (Life in a Glass House: Diatoms shatter young earth flood geology), forams (Diatoms and Forams: Testing the Young Earth Flood Geology Hypothesis) and my article in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (Flood Geology’s Abominable Mystery). Recently, differential escape seems to have fallen out of favor in YEC circles for good reason. It required that organisms running away from the Flood were preserved in the fossil record as a result of the organisms differing abilities to escape (eg. birds are higher up in the fossil record than the amphibians etc…). Any close examination of the fossil record will quickly dispel this as a viable hypothesis.
The last mechanism – ecological zonation/sorting – has maintained its popularity among YECs. YECs recognize that fossils are not randomly distributed in rocks with respect to the types of fossils found in any particular fossil formation. For example, usually fossils in a layers of rock are either marine or terrestrial in origin. They propose that groups of fossils representing ecological communities would have been preserved in the fossil record such that deep ocean, shallow sea and then terrestrial fossils might be found as one moves up the geological column (see figure to the right). However, why and how these might be stacked directly on top of one another in the geological column is not at all clear.
Most of the YEC’s audience is unfamiliar with the fossil record knowing it only from museums and movies. Ken Ham’s description of fossils and simplistic models of a massive flood sweeping organisms to a quick death and preservation sound plausible to those unfamiliar with the fossil evidence. So it may be a natural reaction among many followers or young earth creationism to wonder, why don’t scientists recognize the evidence of a single great catastrophe in earth’s history?
To illustrate one reason scientists do not consider the YEC model even plausible I want to take you on a trip to Wyoming and show you a portion of the fossil record. I tell people that they go and look at fossils for themselves and ask: how did these particular fossils come to be in the place they are today? A global flood doesn’t provide a realistic or even possible explanation for most of the fossils they will see. Those who have spent time collecting fossils and examining the geological context of where they are found quickly realize that flood geology models fall well short of providing any plausible mechanisms for explaining the observed distribution of fossils.
Until you are able to plan your own fossil observation excursion to witness this for yourself, I will do the next best thing and take you to some fossil sites that I visited not long ago. I will provide some details about the locations were they are found and what kinds of rock they are found. After we have made some observations we can ask the question: What is the best explanation for the origins of these fossils? Were they all laid down in a recent global flood or deposited over long periods of time in a shallow sea?
Short Summary: Fossils are found in discrete units of the geological column. They are typically found in natural ecological assemblages rather than random collections of ecologically unrelated species. The fossils described here were not deposited over a short period of time by hydrodynamic sorting, differential escape or ecological zonation. The communities of fossils found in central Wyoming are best explained as the product of long periods of accumulation in alternating shallow seas, tidal flats and beaches caused by changes in sea level and continental uplift over time. These preserved communities of organisms are not a chaotic assemblage nor are they sorted by size or mass. These communities are stacked on top of each other therefore not the result of zonation in the pre-Flood world. These fossils, like billions of others, demonstrate that young-earth flood geology is void of explanatory power and thus not a viable working hypothesis.
All of the locations I am going to take you are places that I found myself along with my family on summer vacation. I hiked many miles in the badlands of the Bighorn Basin in Wyoming. On those hikes I looked for fossils and took pictures and samples at places where I found them. I have already shared pictures of several of these locations and some of the fossils that I found (see links in discussion below). Here I want to share a few more fossil sites that I found and compare multiple fossil locations.
Below I provide an overview of the fossil locations and then I examine what we can learn from the fossils in Wyoming about the history of the earth.
Above I note on this Google map screenshot the approximate location of places were I collected Jurassic Period fossils in June of 2016. There is an additional sight just below the map east of Worland. The distance between the furthest locations is about 40 miles apart. All of these locations had multiple species of fossils.
Let’s take a quick look at some of these sites.
Site 1: Sheep Mountain, Wyoming
I shared many pictures from this site before (see: Hiking through the Jurassic Period in Wyoming). Below is a picture I took that I have annotated to show where my sons and I collected fossils.
Below is a picture of the surface shown on the left side of the picture above. These are Gryphaea fossils which are a bivalve clam.
Below is a picture of the ground representing what we saw on the other side of the ravine in the first picture. These are fragments of a flat bivalve shell—not Gryphaeae —and remains—called Belemnites—of an extinct squid. In my post about hiking through the Jurassic I talked about these Belemnites in more detail.
Site 2: Red Gulch Region
Below is a picture I took after climbing a large hill overlooking the Red Gulch dinosaur trackway site. A few weeks ago I wrote about the Dinosaur tracks found here and the other fossils in the immediate vicinity (see: Walking in the Footprints of Giants). Just above the dinosaur tracks in hard limestone rock are several dozen feet of soft shales that are loaded with Gryphaea clam shells. In the picture below I have indicated the general area where Gryphaea fossils can be found in great abundance eroded out of the rock and sitting on the surface. As I climbed the hill above these rocks I encountered rock with no discernible (i.e. visible to the naked eye) fossils and then I came upon a portion of a hill-side that was covered with fossils.
Below is a picture of the hillside covered with pieces of bivalve shells and Belemnites. Does that sound familiar? I saw the same fossils in the same order at the location on Sheep Mountain but I was about 20 miles from that site here at Red Gulch.
Below is a closeup of some of the Belmnites on the surface of the side of the hill. I did not notice them at the time but there are also a couple of pieces of crinoid stems on the surface as well. Crinoids are animals that also lived in shallow seas and left behind copious numbers of fossils in the geologoical column.
Down the hill but just above the dinosaur tracks in the hard limestone we found many Grypheae fossils. In the picture below most of the layers of rock you see above the dinosaur tracksite have Gryphaea fossils. Here are a couple of my kids working to pick a few small ones out of Sundance Formation shales that make up the side of the hill.
On the flat surface just above where my kids are above, many more pieces of Gryphaea fossils can be found.
Site #3: Tensleep, Wyoming dinosaur region
Below Hyatsville, Wyoming we took a small side road and eventually reached a hill my van could not climb. We then hiked about two miles further west into the badlands. Eventually we worked our way up another hill and stumbled upon millions of shell fragments and Belemnites. The soil type and the fossils appeared the same as those I had seen at Red Gulch and Sheep Mountain but we were another 20 to 25 miles south of the Red Gulch site.
Below is a picture of the surface on the hillside showing abundant Belemnite fragments.
A closer image of the Belemnites in this region.
Other sites: Shell, Wyoming and near Tensleep, Wyoming
Near Shell, Wyoming we found a hill with the same order of fossils. Grypheae fossils in the lower portion of the hillside and then some broken bivalve shells and Belmnites higher up on the hill side. Also, just west of the town of Tensleep, Wyoming I saw some Gryphaea fossils but at that location there was no higher ground since it had eroded away so there was no opportunity to see if the same Belemnites would have been in that area before it was eroded.
What did I observe and what can we learn from these fossils?
Fossils represent communities of organisms not a random assemblage of species: Where I found Gryphaea bivalve mussels they appeared as natural populations. There were large (2 inches) and tiny (<1/4 inch) complete shells and fragments of large and small shells. It is as if this was a shallow sea where a community of shells lived with old, young and deceased members all together. Separate from the layers of rock that contained these Gryphaea communities I found an abundance of different bivalve shells and Belemnites. Both of these fossils were represented by diverse sizes (1/4 inch to >5 inches) representing vast populations of each species. Since squid would have lived in the water column but the bivalves would have been living in the sediment there is no reason to expect to find these fossils together in a flood model which uses hydrodynamic sorting or differential escape to predict fossil distributions. Why would trillions of the same species of Gryphaea or Belemnite be preserved in one set of sedimentary rock but other species of the same kind of organism be found – according to other fossil hunters – in layers above and below these layers? In a chaotic worldwide flood how would massive populations including babies and adults all be swept together apart from billions of other specimens of a different species?
The same order of fossils can be observed over a hundred square miles: Without any foreknowledge of most of the fossils that I would find when I visited Wyoming I came across multiple locations up to 60 miles apart in which I found the same community of fossil types in the same stratigraphic order. In 30 to 50 feet of shale I found Gryphaea fossils and some crinoids and then there was rock above these which contained no visible fossils. Above that were another 30 to 50 feet of shale that contained abundant bivalve shells, Belemnites and a different species of crinoid. These observations are in contradiction to any hydrodynamic sorting explanation. Why would different species of crinoids which are the same size and approximate shape be separated into different layers with none found in a layer of rock in between? Why would Belemnites of every size only be found in one layer of shale and not found in the layers of shale below if all these layers of sediment were deposited in one large flood?
The fact that these communities of species can be found stacked on top of each other directly contradicts the ecological zonation/sorting hypothesis of flood geologists. At the same time hydrodynamic sorting and differential escape are nonsensical explanations for these fossils.
A far simpler explanation is that these fossils represent the remains of populations of organisms living in communities in a shallow sea for long periods of time. In this case, a plausible scenario includes: Gryphaea fossils living near shore were exposed to successive inputs of new sediment into that sea and the build of up small-bodied micro-organisms (eg. coccoliths) which gradually covered and preserved many shells. As sea levels rose, Gryphaea bivalves no longer found the area a good environment for survival and different communities of organisms arrived in the now deeper waters. Several different species of flat bivalves now took residence on the sea floor and squid swam in the shallow seas. As the squid died and their flesh decayed the hard rostrums collected on the sea floor along with the shells and were preserved. Later as the seas was filled with sediments and/or sea level fell the entire area was exposed to the air and now deposition of sediments from streams from the surrounding mountains continued to add new sediments on top of the marine sediments. These new sediments record footprints of dinosaurs, dinosaur bones and other terrestrial organisms.
The shale rock of the Bighorn Basin record for us an easily read history of the waxing and waning of a shallow sea not a chaotic global flood. Lest anyone think that maybe this is just the preservation of a pre-Flood environment as it was the day the Flood began, you should know that more than 6000 feet of additional sedimentary rock – mostly marine – is below the layers that we are concerned with today. Those rocks also contain fossils and so they had to all be deposited before these layers could be put down. How could a global flood deposit more than one mile of sediment and then have what appears to be deposits from a placid sea filled with just a few species of which somehow escaped being preserved before but then were ALL preserved at just this one moment in time?
Standing on a hillside in Wyoming with the evidence of the fossil record sitting right at your feet, the absurdity of the YEC flood geology model becomes all too clear.
The following amendment to Ken Ham’s saying is required: If the Earth really is millions of years old, what would the evidence be? Quadrillions of dead things, buried in rock layers, laid down by water, volcanic ash and landslides, all over the earth. Well, that is exactly what we see – quadrillions of dead things buried in rock layers laid down by water, volcanic ash, and landslides, all over the earth!
This article was originally written for and published on this site August 20, 2016