Everyday a new piece of earth’s history is uncovered. And everyday those discoveries add a new puzzle piece for young-earth creationists to try to fit into their 6000-year picture of earth’s biological and geology history.
Yesterday’s new puzzle piece comes in the form of seven large footprints on a slab of rock. They were found under nearly a meter of water in a “swimming hole” in a river on the south island of New Zealand. The larger puzzle is determining the origins of the footprints.
The footprints raise a number of questions: what made these footprints, when were they made, and how did them come to be where they are today?
First, there seems to be little doubt that these footprints were left by a large species of flightless bird called a moa. These are the only bird species known to New Zealand that were this size (more than 10 feet tall!) and had this shape of foot (11 inches in diameter).
The preservation of these large footprints is spectacular. But what I want you to notice is the rock to the right that sits above the footprints. You can’t see all of it, but in other pictures it is obvious that at least four feet of rock sit directly on top of the rock. Furthermore, another 15 feet of rock and sediment are found on the slope above the immediate rock sitting upon these footprints. And yes the footprints go straight into a rock wall and almost certainly continues on the same plane underneath that rock.
Think for a moment about the history that has taken place since a moa was walking along a muddy bank of an ancient stream. When that moa made these prints we can be confident that none of the 15+ feet of rock that overlook this stream-bed existed. Rather, the region was quite likely a broad low-lying area. A very large moa left tracks on some fresh mud. Those tracks must then have been covered by new sediment. Many new layers of sediments were added over time, probably by annual flooding of the region. Over a long period of time—the group investigating the tracks are saying a 1 million years or more—those sediments, including the ones the footprints are preserved in, became cemented together to form the sandstone and mudstones found in this region. Finally a new river in the area eroded the overlying rocks finally reaching the layer in which the footprints were preserved.
The steps in the process of making and preserving these footprints take time. A lot of time in most cases. Where will young-earth creationists (YEC) find that time?
There are several puzzling pieces of information that the YEC must explain in their model:
- If these are post-flood rocks, which all YECs I think will agree they are, then these footprints must have been made after the Flood less than 4500 years ago.
- The footprints match fossils of moa feet. The large moa were known from thousands of fossils to lack wings so how did they get from Noah’s ark in the Middle East to New Zealand?
- The footprints are covered by many feet of rock. How did sediments get deposited on top of these moa footprints, become cemented together to form rock and then erode in less than 4500 years?
These questions all pose difficult challenges for the YEC model. Let’s explore these a bit further focusing mostly on #2 – how did moas get to New Zealand – and more generally what are the origin of moas?
New Zeeland was once home to some of the largest flightless birds every to have walked–not flown–on the earth. To date, nine species classified in six genera of these odd creatures have been described. Despite their having been extinct–probably due to the influence of human settlers in beginning around the 15th century–since the late 18th century they have been well-studied. Bones found in caves representing these birds have been found in hundreds of locations and DNA studies performed on samples that are estimated to be hundreds to tens of thousands of years old. What makes the moa most fascinating is the very large size of some species (over 10 feet tall) and the fact that they were utterly devoid of wings unlike other flightless birds. In other respects they are similar anatomically to other large flightless birds such as the emus from Australia and ostriches from Africa.
A puzzle for creationists: large flightless birds on a remote island
YECs assume moas, collectively, are a created “kind” and and thus must have found room and board upon Noah’s ark. Two representative moa are thought to have then departed that ark less than 4500 years ago. No moa fossils nor or any other evidence of moas has every been found outside of New Zealand. Thus, the first puzzle is how did the moas from the ark get to New Zealand and why did they not leave any relatives somewhere along the way? The first part has two possible answers: 1) the pair of moas on the ark had wings and they flew to New Zealand and 2) the original moa were wingless and they rafted to New Zealand on large vegetation debris mats left over from the great flood. I should note here that everyone agrees that New Zealand was never connected to any other land mass by a land bridge even during the Ice Age when the ocean level was much lower.
Young earth creationist’ David Catchpoole wrote an article ““Moa’s Ark” vs. Noah’s Ark” published on the website of Creation Ministries International (CMI) which takes position#1. He believes the original moa was a flighted bird that flew to New Zealand after departing Noah’s ark and once it made a home there the birds experienced a “mutational disorder” such that it could no longer fly. Because there were no important predators on New Zealand at this time this “unfit” feature would not have been deadly and so they were able to adapt to this new land. Conventional biological theory doesn’t disagree with this general scenario but of course has difficulty with the timelines (4-5 million years vs. less than 4000 years ago in the young earth scenario).
A common mantra of all YEC articles like Catchpoole’s is that characteristics like loss of flight are the result of loss of information and thus are a form of downward evolution (devolution) and is to be expected as a result of a fallen world. But are the lack of wings really a devolved characteristic? Superficially moas might just look as if they lost wings but losing something like a wing is much more difficult than it might sound and requires thousands of mutations occurring to many different genes. If it were as simple as a “mutational disorder” as Catchpoole calls it why then do we not see birds in captivity for thousands of years losing their wings? Furthermore, just look at the size of some of the moas. They were taller and larger than any person is and they have dense heavy bones. They didn’t simply lose wings they also “evolved” many new features in adapting to their environment. When the original moa flew to New Zealand it surely was not as large and it would have had hollow bones like other flight capable birds. The loss of wings would have to have been compensated for by a change in posture, thickening of the bones both in diameter and the filling of their cortical bone, increased size in the beak and changes in the distribution of feather type.
These changes are not trivial. They require rewiring genes for new roles and enormous changes in regulatory genes for development and changed physiology. Bones simply don’t become dense via a loss of information or by just a simple mutation. This requires a network of genes working together in development. If God created the moa with hollow bones to aid in flight then the formation of dense bones would not be a loss of information but would be the gain of a new feature. Were it so easy to change the structure of a bone, then the many tens of flightless birds from other groups of birds such as some ducks and chicken-like birds that have become flightless in the past couple thousand years would also have dense bones but they do not.
Ultra-fast Evolution of Moas in New Zealand?
If the creationist’ speculation is correct that an original moa-like bird flew to New Zealand and then lost flight through mutations then a number of additional problems are created. How might they explain the many species of moas on New Zealand? These new fossil footprints show that one of the biggest moas was already present on New Zealand a long time ago. It would be extraordinarily difficult to explain the footprints origins within a 4500 year time span but surely any attempt at an explanation would have the footprints being made almost immediately after the first moa arrived in New Zealand. But this footprint suggests the largest of all moas was then the first to arrive? Dr. Catchpoole and other YECs would surely have imagined the moa’s on the ark as small flighted birds that after losing flight gained their great stature. These footprints suggest the opposite.
YECs much also consider that all nine described species lack wings including even even a vestigial portion of a wing. They all have dense bones and lack flight feathers. In addition, although there were very large species there are also smaller species. If the original moa flew it must have evolved all these features very rapidly and prior to that population splitting into many sub-populations which then became the separate species and genera of moa. There are thousands of bones of these birds and because they all share these central features (no wings and dense bones) it strongly suggests that the moa species all looked like this for a very long time.
To put this into more of a genetic context, the creationist line seems to be that God created some moa-like bird with the genetic ability to morph into these large heavy boned wingless birds however in the 2000 years from the Creation to the Flood they didn’t experience such a change (or at least we have no evidence of that since no moa remains have every been found in Flood deposits). Then just one pair of moa were preserved on the ark, flew to New Zealand and transformed themselves in to these dramatically different birds in just a few hundred years. How could they do this starting with such a limited gene pool of only two individuals? The genetic divergence of moa from one another is very large (we know this because some DNA has been extracted from fossils and sequence) and thus the millions of mutations that they have in their genome all must have happened since a global flood and before their extinction. The YEC must propose absolutely fantastic rates of mutation and subsequent adaptive selection of those mutations. No evolutionists would dream such incredible rates of divergence are possible as is proposed by creationists. Young earth creationists so casually toss out hypotheses about the diversification of hundreds of species from a single founding pair of the “kind” but I have yet to see the genetic models showing that these changes are plausible. The rates of change are absurd and not reflected in any known genetic mechanism.
Rather than putting the pieces together to make a coherent picture of earth’s biological and geological history, it appears that the YEC has many puzzle pieces which don’t have a place in the finished puzzle they have in their mind.
Addendum: Could footprints only be preserved during a global flood?
At an Answers in Genesis conference I attended a few years ago, the young-earth creationist’ speaker mocked the idea that footprints of dinosaurs could be preserved by any process that occurs today, pointing out that it would be silly to think that footprints on a beach or even a muddy lake edge would last long enough to harden into rock and be preserved. I understand these are over-generalizations made as a rhetorical tool to point the audience to a “better” solution to a falsely created “footprint problem,” but even the top YEC geologists, Dr. Snelling, at Answers in Genesis has made similar statements in print. Here he addresses dinosaur footprints:
“Biblical geologists, on the other hand, say it is the conventional geologists who, in fact, face a dilemma. If geologic change takes place slowly, surely footprints made in mud would be obliterated by wind and rain long before the prints were covered by new sediments and hardened into rock…. How can today’s slow-and-gradual geologic processes over millions of years explain the preservation of delicate impressions in mud before they are washed away? Does the Flood provide a better explanation?”
Dr. Snelling’s answer to the last question is yes but only because he has intentionally created a false dichotomy for his audience. In addition to painting a false picture of what geologists believe about the principle of uniformitarianism, he portrays the conventional geological understanding as unable to explain the occurrence of footprints and thus if he can provide an explanation for any footprints at all it must be better.
The moa fossil footprints are a clear example of the error of Dr. Snelling’s reasoning. As we pointed out above, these footprints aren’t even found in rocks that Dr. Snelling believes were formed during a global flood. Hence, Dr. Snelling should be well aware that is is possible for footprints made in mud to be preserved apart from a global catastrophe.
Cover image credit: Moa footprint images are from the Twitter account of Ian Griffin @iangriffin who is the director of the Otago Museum in New Zealand. It is this museum that is overseeing the extraction of the footprints to preserve them from further erosion.