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Non Catastrophic and Modern Fossilization

by Glenn R. Morton

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Copyright 2003 G. R. Morton

Young-earth creationists perpetuate the  canard that fossilization only occurs in catastrophic conditions like the flood.  People like Randy Wysong have written what many creationists erroneously state:
"After the Pre-Cambrian void we see a vast fossil record in the sedimentary rocks (water deposited) showing huge arrays of life. Finally, today, and for the past few thousand years, no fossilization to speak of is taking place."   (Wysong, 1976, p. 364) 
This is false. Anyone who reads the literature can find numerous articles on modern fossilization. Those like Wysong, who believe the young earth creationist canard have not done their research or is hiding from the data.
Fossilization begins with the development of microbial mats which cover the dead organism.  These mats exclude oxygen and protect the matter. Wilby notes:
"Microbial mats are one of the factors most widely invoked to explain exceptional fossil preservation. They are believed to prevent carcasses from floating and to protect them from scavengers and currents. Microbial mats may also be sites of rapid mineralization, perhaps because they create localized oxygen-minimum environments." (Wilby et al, 1996, p. 787 )
This falsifies what Wieland wrote about fossilization:
         "Although these are spectacular examples of rapid burial, the evidence against the idea of slow burial of fossils has always been there in  the many millions of well-preserved fossil fish, often showing such things as scales and fins in exquisite detail.  This fits with the idea that they were buried before scavengers got to them.  We do not observe carpets of dead fish, or even their skeletons, on the sea floor today waiting to become fossils.  Also, if the sediment did not harden fairly soon after entombing the fish, oxygen and bacteria could still get at the specimens, causing decay and ruining the features." (Wieland, 1997, p. 52)
It is the bacteria which provide the oxygen free environment, contrary to Wieland�s claim. We will show how fish graveyards form later.
The development of microbial mats is a widespread phenomenon.   Dunn et al experimentally demonstrated the steps to fossilization and show a connection with fossil leaves. What they show is:
1. the formation of a biofilm of bacteria on the leaf surface
2. the deposition metallic ions on the leaf surface which preserves the leaf�s form for a long enough time for the rest of fossilization to occur.
They then demonstrate, in fossil leaves, that microbial structures consistent with the experimental data are observed. This demonstrates that the process they elucidate is the one which actually occurs.  Dunn et al, write:
"Terrestrial leaf fossils often form through authigenic preservation in which the leaf surface is coated by a variety of minerals, especially iron oxides. The mechanism of this fossilization is unclear, because the largely hydrophobic leaf surfaces do not readily bind metal ions. Previously proposed mechanisms for mineral encrustation include precipitation of minerals in sediment pore space and precipitation of iron oxides at the surface by decay-produced CO2. Here we demonstrate that diverse bacterial species rapidly colonize leaf surfaces and form a biofilm within days of the leaf's entry into a stream environment. Experimental mineralization of fresh and biofilm-coated leaves indicates that leaves without biofilm do not mineralize, but leaves with biofilms rapidly adsorb metal ions such as Fe3+ onto the anionic biofilm surface where the ions form ferrihydrite. Once these mineralized leaves are buried by the sediment, they are more likely to be converted to fossils than non-mineralized leaves. Examination of a fossil leaf surface by scanning electron microscopy shows bacteria-sized structures resembling those found in biofilms. These experimental data imply that bacterial colonization of leaves may be an essential prerequisite for authigenic preservation." (Dunn,et al, 1997, p. 1119)
Dunn et al, placed leaves in a river to see what happened as they decay.  They report:
"Platanus leaves placed in the San Marcos River for five days were colonized by a biofilm of naturally occurring bacteria containing 107 colony-forming units (CFU) per square centimeter of leaf surface. These organisms were not fully identified but consisted primarily of Pseudomonas sp. and other gram-negative rods. In contrast, fewer bacteria (<102 CFU per square centimeter) were present on freshly picked platanus leaves." (Dunn et al, 1997, p. 1120)
One other common creationist claim is that rapid burial is always needed for fossilization.  This is false. Dunn et al, note that the process can take months with the organic material still in tact.
"Under normal circumstances, leaves and other plant detritus are colonized and decomposed by a variety of microorganisms and macroinvertebrates. However, decay of whole plant organs such as leaves can take as long as months to years, which provides a window of time during which fossilization can occur. The caliber of leaf fossils is greatly enhanced if mineralization can commence before much decomposition can occur." (Dunn et al, 1997, p. 1119 )
Evidence of this process is seen in fossils when they are examined.
"Examination of some iron-encrusted fossil leaves shows evidence for both rapid precipitation of iron at the leaf surface and structures of probable bacterial origin. both are well-illustrated by leaves of Nelumbrites minimus, an aquatic angiosperm from the Lower Cretaceous Potomac Group of Virginia and Maryland. Iron-encrusted leaves of N. minimus can show fine scale surface detail including vein course, epidermal cell outlines, shallow doming of epidermal cells, and stomata. In addition, smaller-scale features of probable bacterial origin are present on the surface. These include 1-2 [micro]m structures resembling bacterial cells and material resembling a dehydrated biofilm matrix." (Dunn, et al, 1997, p. 1120)
In another study, Spicer (1981)  reported that the mineralization begins within weeks (Dunn et al., 1997). They write:
"Spicer noted that leaves in modern depositional settings can develop an iron encrustation within a few weeks of their entry into a stream depositional system. Iron-bacteria in particular Spherotilus sp., were present on leaves examined from England, and were proposed as the primary means of iron encrustation." (Dunn et al, p. 1121)
Spicer writes that encrustation and burial occur rapidly:
"It was noted that many leaves present in the Silwood stream become coated with a layer of sediment within 1 or 2 weeks of entering that environment. this encrustation, fully discussed in another paper, may limit external microbiological attack." (Spicer, 1981, p. 38)
Above: Permian aged Dicrodium leaves from Gondwana (my personal collection)
This is the way in which leaves are fossilized. But what of animals. In the oceans, microbial mats are also involved in the formation of exquisitely preserved fossils.  Briggs and Wilby (1996, p. 666) write:
�The most obvious difference between the limestones of Cerin (Kimmeridgian, Southern France) and other plattenkalks is the striking evidence for the growth of microbial mats on bedding plane surfaces.�
The microbes cause decay which causes a local change pH which then makes the deposition of calcium carbonate or calcium phosphate more likely.  This mechanism means that the decaying fish creates its own tomb.  This process was outlined over 50 years ago:
"There are probably few stagnant bottom environments where there is not some limited decomposition of organic matter, even if anaerobic. Bacteriologists and biochemists tell us that where there is anaerobic decomposition there is a localized concentration of ammonia or amines. This would markedly increase the pH; it would be sufficient, no doubt, to precipitate the bicarbonate in solution as carbonate. One of the tests used by bacteriologists to determine if the bacterial process is progressing is to see if ammonia is evolving." (Weeks, 1953, p. 171)
Fish from Santana Formation, Brazil (my personal collection)
This can be seen in fossils from the Santana Formation of Brazil (Martill, 1989, p. 204).  But it also has occurred during the present geologic age, the Holocene) in Greenland.  L. G. Weeks cited Bob Schaeffer (Weeks, 1953, p. 167):
"'The most recent examples of concretionary formation around fish remains are probably found in Greenland and northern Canada. These concretions are generally considered to be post-Pleistocene in age and are frequently shaped like the fish Mallotus contained therein.'"
Below is a picture of these concretions, I took at the British Museum of Natural History, London.
More recent work on fossilization shows a similar microbial path to fossilization. Briggs, et al (1993, p. 1035) write:
"The preservation of soft tissue by mineralization depends on a critical balance between decay and precipitation. Some decay is required to drive the process; too much leads to a loss of information. Subcellular details of the most labile tissues can only be replicated with a high degree of fidelity where mineralization is rapid relative to decay (the rate depending on a range of controls including concentration and oxidation state of the mineral ions, size and type of organic substrate, and pH)."
And once again, the fish don�t need to be buried instantly to avoid fossilization. And once again it is shown that decay actually drives the fossilization process. Briggs et al (1993, p. 1038) note:
"Where decay rate is inhibited (by salinity or temperature, for example) the process of phosphatization may continue for weeks as opposed to hours or days. In experiments at a temperature as high as 20o C mineralization of shrimp muscle was not evident prior to 2 weeks and the amount of precipitation continued to increase for at least 4 weeks after the start of the experiment. Thus there is no need to argue that mineralization occurred in life by a process such as 'calcinosis'."
What about the fossilization of land animals?  Fossilization of cattle bones is observed taking place on the Slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro.  Behrensmeyer (1991, p. 596), after studying this area, observes:
"Soils of the Amboseli Basin are generally alkaline and conducive to bone preservation, and bones occur in all stages of fossilization, unmineralized to completely mineralized. Fossil bones probably vary from Holocene to Pleistocene in age, but none have yet been dated."
. . .
"Observers recorded all bones seen along ninety-two straight-line transects covering about 9 km2 (1.5 percent of the total study area of 600 km2).
. . .
"The total sample consisted of over 20,000 bones representing more than 1,500 individuals. These represent attritional mortality over a period of 8 to 15 years maximum; most bones are destroyed by surface processes or buried within this period of time."
And once again, instantaneous deposition is not required. Behrensmeyer (1991, p. 606) states:
"Bone weathering on the surface varies according to microhabitat; critical factors include fluctuations in temperature and moisture. Bones in moist or shaded places may stay uncracked for years while exposed parts of the same skeleton go through progressive weathering stages and usually disintegrate entirely in 8 to 15 years. Weathering is inhibited by burial in Amboseli, and burial to a large extent is caused by trampling, especially during periods when the ground is wet. In most cases lower sides of bones are less weathered than upper, but kicking and trampling also has the effect of turning bones over periodically, so they weather evenly on both sides. Trampled bones are often oriented nearly vertically in the surface sediment. Compact bones, such as podials, seem to have relatively higher rates of burial and lower rates of weathering than skulls, pelves, and vertebrae."
Trees trunks are preserved and turned into fossil forests by being waterlogged.  Creationists make much about polystrate fossil trees, but these are easy to explain. In 1993, the Mississippi River basin flooded. Bottom-land forests were covered with as much as six feet of sediment, killing many of the trees.  The tops will indeed rot off, but the trunks, which were buried, will be preserved by being kept moist in the ground.  Water-logged wood simply doesn�t rot very rapidly. Below is a Neolithic forest (several thousand years old) from the coast of Wales.
Thanks to the anonymous friend of Dr. Joan Megson for this photo.
Examples of this long-term preservation can be cited from both historical and archaeological cases. The Vasa was a Swedish warship which was launched on Aug. 10, 1628. Immediately, the ship sank to the bottom of Stockholm harbor.  The ship was recovered in 1961.  The wood is exquisitely preserved after 333 years of submergence. .The Mary Rose, was an English ship which sank in 1545 and was raised in 1982 after 437 years. Once again, the wood was exquisitely preserved. .  But wood has been known to be preserved even longer. A wooden dugout canoe has been preserved for 8,400 years at Pesse, Holland (Clark and Piggott, 1965, p. 106). The oldest wooden arrow was found at Hamburg Germany and dates 11,000 years old. (Klein, 1980, p. 90). Barley, wheat, burnt wood, wooden utensils, acorns and other plant fibres were found in a village called Ohalo presently at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee and date to nearly 20,000 years ago (Nadel et al. 1994, p. 451). Water-logged wooden spears have been found in Europe which date to 125,000 and 400,000 respectively (Mellars, 1996, p. 227; Thieme, 1997, p. 810).  Thus, rapid burial is not a criteria for fossilization of wood or plant material.  Waterlogging will work just fine. 
Thus we see that the claims of the young-earth creationists are false.  They, as a group, ignore the vast literature on fossilization which shows that fossilization is occurring today without the need for a global flood.
Behrensmeyer, Anna K., 1991, "Vertebrate Paleoecology in a Recent East African Ecosystem," in Jane Gray, A. J. Boucot and William B. N. Berry, editors, Communities of the Past, (Stroudsburg: Hutchinson Ross Publishing Co.), pp 591-615.
Briggs, D. E. G., et al, 1993"Phosphatization of soft-tissue in Experiments and Fossils," Journal of the Geological Society, London, 150:1035-1038.
Briggs, Derek E. G., and Philip R. Wilby, 1996. �The Role of the Calcium Carbonate-Calcium Phosphate Switch in the Mineralized of Soft-bodied Fossils,� Journal of the Geological Society, London, 153:665-668.
Clark, Grahame and Stuart Piggott, 1965, Prehistoric Societies, (New York: Alfred A.Knopf)
Dunn, K. A., et al, 1997, "Enhancement of Leaf Fossilization Potential by Bacterial Biofilms," Geology 25(:12:1119-1122.
Klein, Richard, 1980. "Later Pleistocene Hunters," in Andrew Sherratt, editor, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Archaeology, (New York: Cambridge University Press).
Martill, David M., 1989, "The Medusa Effect:  Instantaneous Fossilization." Geology Today, (Nov. Dec.) 1989, p. 204
Mellars, Paul, 1996, The Neanderthal Legacy, (Princeton: University Press, 1996)
Nadel, D., et al.  1994, "19,000-Year-Old Twisted Fibers from Ohalo II," Current Anthropology, 35:4(1994), pp. 451-457.
Spicer, Robert A., 1981, �The Sorting and Deposition of Allochthonous Plant Material in a Modern Environment at Silwood Lake, Silwood Park, Berkshire, England,� Geological Survey Professional Paper 1143 (Washington: United States Government Printing Office)
Thieme, Hartmut, 1997, "Lower Palaeolithic Hunting Spears form Germany," Nature, 385(Feb. 27).
Weeks, L. G.,  1953,"Environment and Mode of Origin and Facies Relationships of Carbonate Concretions in Shales," Journal of Sedimentary Petrology, 23(1953):3:162-173.
Wieland, Carl, 1997, "Frozen Feeding," Creation,19:2:52
Wilby, Philip R., et al, 1996, "Role of Microbial Mats in the Fossilization of Soft Tissues," Geology, 24:787-790 

Wysong, Randy L., 1976, The Creation-Evolution Controversy, (Midland Mich.: Inquiry Press)

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