Editors Note 2/22/19: This article has been updated to reflect recent discoveries.
One of the earliest complete fossils discovered was Ichthyosaurus, discovered between 1809–1811 by a pair of children in England. While parts of other Ichthyosaurus skeletons had been discovered previously, the English find was the first complete specimen. Since then thousands of ichthyosaur skeletons have been discovered, including numerous complete specimens. These unique creatures have captivated paleontologists for two centuries. They are well studied, and research on their skeletons has provided evidence for incredible design and the global flood.
The term ichthyosaur is loosely applied to the order Ichthyosauria which contains the extinct marine reptiles that resemble fish or dolphins. There are over fifty genera currently described and the number is growing as paleontologists find and describe new fossils and reevaluate old finds. As reptiles, they would have had to come to the surface to breathe. Their large eyes have caused researchers to speculate that they were nocturnal hunters or at least had strong underwater vision.1 In fact, their eyes were larger than any other vertebrate.2 This made them well adapted to potentially hunt in deep water and at night.3
The most obvious feature of design in ichthyosaurs is their body shape. Even Stephen Jay Gould, a preeminent evolutionist of the twentieth century, admitted this. “This sea-going reptile with terrestrial ancestors converged so strongly on fishes that it actually evolved a dorsal fin and tail in just the right place and with just the right hydrological design (emphasis added). These structures are all the more remarkable because they evolved from nothing—the ancestral terrestrial reptile had no hump on its back or blade on its tail to serve as a precursor.”4 In other words, this reptile resembles a fish in its form. This is an interesting observation since creationists believe it was designed fully formed and functioning right from the start to live in the water. Ichthyosaur fins strongly resemble those of a shark, complete with a broad caudal fin for propulsion and ventral fins for steering.
Ichthyosaurs were carnivorous in the post-fall world. One specimen, originally mistaken for a high-quality cast, was found to have cephalopod tentacles and fish scales in its stomach.5 The aforementioned creature was found on the same fossil slab as a belemnite and numerous bivalves.6 It is likely that the cephalopod tentacles in the stomach of ichthyosaurs are from belemnites. Other specimens have likewise been found with similar creatures in their stomachs, as well as birds and turtles.7 Thus ichthyosaurs could also be viewed as opportunistic predators and scavengers.
Evolutionists believe that ichthyosaurs are descended from land reptiles that went back into the water. They cite several reasons for this belief, leaving unspoken the implicit assumption that evolution is the only explanation for the origin of ichthyosaurs. The most commonly cited reason is that some ichthyosaurs have been found giving birth to their young head first,8 unlike water-dependent mammals such as dolphins and whales that give birth tail first.9 The paper on the subject said, “Although a case for terrestrial birth cannot be established in Chaohusaurus, the uniformly caudad skull orientation of its embryos does suggest that viviparity in Ichthyopterygia most likely evolved in their ancestor on land, where caudad embryonic skull orientation during parturition is the norm.”10 In other words, because the head of the ichthyosaur embryos is what emerges first, it must have evolved from a terrestrial ancestor.
Interpreting ichthyosaurs as fish, in spite of the evidence, is just as good a speculation as claiming they had a terrestrial ancestor in spite of the evidence.
Evolutionists do not have an idea what that ancestor was, particularly since they speculate that viviparity evolved independently at least 150 times.11 They believe it must have been a terrestrial ancestor because it seems if the delivery process were lengthy, the baby ichthyosaur would drown if it came out head first. Hence some evolutionists have suggested that mortality rates in ichthyosaur pups were high.12 However, this is purely speculative, something evolutionists even admit. The above quote indicated that when it said, “a case for terrestrial birth cannot be established.” Everything after that sentence is pure guesswork and does not match what is found in the rest of the ichthyosaurs. It is possible that this example is a breech birth, particularly since some other ichthyosaurs exhibit tail-first birth13 or curled birth like snakes.14 Interestingly, some sharks are born head first15 while others are born tail first.16 Perhaps the ichthyosaurs ought to be evaluated in this light, instead of assuming a land ancestor. Interpreting ichthyosaurs as a fish, in spite of the evidence, is just as good a speculation as claiming they had a terrestrial ancestor in spite of the evidence.
In fact, recent evidence has brought to light the possibility that the Ichthyosaurs were neither fish, nor reptile, but were actually warm-blooded mammals. A recent article in Nature points out that Ichthyosaurs had scaleless skin and points to the possibility that they had blubber. 17 Blubber is a feature of marine mammals, though it is found in at least one marine reptile, the leatherback sea turtle. This lack of scales combined with the presence of blubber could point to Ichthyosaurs being mammalian, which would turn the entire evolutionary phylogeny on its head, as the first mammals were not supposed to have arisen until 50 million years after the first Ichthyosaur.
Evolutionists have speculated that ichthyosaurs began to evolve over 248 million years ago and some evolutionists have put Cartorhynchus forward as a potential ancestor. However, the scientists who discovered it considered it a side branch of the evolutionary tree of life. Their cladistic tree of ancestry placed it at the end of a branch.18 It also had a significantly different body plan than most ichthyosaurs, and partially cartilaginous front fins rather than the bony fins of most ichthyosaurs.19 Its skull structure was also different, leading researchers to suggest it was not an active predator, but a suction feeder, very different than most ichthyosaurs. Thus, calling it a potential ichthyosaur ancestor seems speculative at best.
Interestingly one study made the following statement about ichthyosaur evolution: “[Z]ero branches (of the phylogenetic tree) have rapid rates of phenotypic evolution within either Ophthalmosaurinae or Platypterygiinae indicating that Cretaceous ichthyosaurs had slow rates of phenotypic evolution.”20 In other words, ichthyosaurs look about the same throughout most of their existence. The authors concluded that the rate of ichthyosaur evolution was slow. Looking at that from a creationist perspective, the authors are actually tacitly admitting that ichthyosaurs remain ichthyosaurs. That is not evolution. At best what it demonstrates is speciation within its kind, not change from one kind to another.
Some ichthyosaurs have been found with soft tissue preserved. This soft tissue has been thoroughly examined and found to be most similar to that of fish and sharks. “The closest comparison in fiber thickness and by inference strength, was seen in the collagenous fibers in the skin of the Brazilian naked catfish and in sharks.”21 In other words, the skin closely resembles that of fish. The author concluded his study by saying, “The findings in the present study on the skin fiber structure of tunniform ichthyosaurs, along with the information on a modified caudal peduncle, a tear-drop body shape and lunate tale support early speculation that these were hydrodynamically advanced and consequently fast swimming animals.”22 Stephen J. Gould was right to say that ichthyosaurs clearly appeared designed for the water.
Ichthyosaurs do far more than provide evidence of design, however. They also provide evidence for rapid fossilization in the global flood. Evolutionists often proclaim that it takes millions of years to fossilize an organism.23 One ichthyosaur has been discovered fossilized in the act of giving birth.24 Obviously it does not take millions of years to give birth, though to women who’ve given birth it may feel like it does! But birth takes only a few hours in some sharks.25 Because the ichthyosaur pup is still partially inside its mother, it could not have taken millions of years to be buried and fossilized. It had to have been buried incredibly quickly.
This specimen offers further proof that it was buried very rapidly: the study’s authors noted, “However, in the present specimen, neonate 1 lies outside the maternal body in the present specimen, suggesting that the mother had already given birth to at least one offspring before it died. Placement of embryos 1 and 2 near the pelvic girdle, respectively, suggests that embryos were at least full term. Considering these factors, we conclude that the mother likely died in labor.”26 In other words, one embryo had already been birthed and was buried alongside the mother while a second one was in the process of being born. This, again, requires incredibly rapid burial to capture both the birth process and a newly birthed pup before it could swim away. That kind of rapid burial is consistent with a catastrophic flood.27
While there are few ichthyosaurs found giving birth, hundreds have been found with embryos still preserved in the uterus.
While there are few ichthyosaurs found giving birth, hundreds have been found with embryos still preserved in the uterus. One such ichthyosaur fossil comes from Somerset in the UK, where it was found fossilized with ammonites and a plant frond.28 There are over one hundred examples of Stenopterygius with at least a single embryo still retained in the uterus.29 One Ichthyosaurus specimen was found with potentially six embryos in the mother’s uterus.30 Other such examples could be cited. These all point to rapid burial. As evolutionist Theagarten Lingham-Soliar writes, “[T]he underbelly is usually a ‘soft spot’ for scavengers . . . .”31 Yet this is exactly where the embryos are found. If the mothers had not been buried rapidly, the embryos would have been eaten along with the mother.
Fossilized pregnant and birthing ichthyosaurs are not the only problem for evolutionary proponents. One intact ichthyosaur skull discovered in Switzerland was found “standing” on its nose vertically32 through sedimentary rock layers that are believed to have taken hundreds of thousands to millions of years to have accumulated. This makes no sense, as the ichthyosaur would not have been buried and fossilized if the rock layers had taken millions of years to accumulate around it as evolutionary geologists claim, but makes perfect sense if they were laid down rapidly during the flood.
Rapid burial of ichthyosaurs worldwide and their fossilized remains come as no surprise to creationists. That is the expected result of the global flood as described in the book of Genesis. While evolutionists might cite a local flood if there were only a few ichthyosaur fossils found with embryos preserved, the fact that there are hundreds distributed over many locations effectively rules out this hypothesis. That leaves the global flood as the most reasonable answer to explain the widespread distribution of so many ichthyosaur fossils with embryos and in the act of giving birth. The worldwide distribution of ichthyosaurs is also evidence that the flood in Genesis was a global flood as described in Genesis 7:19–20, not a local flood.33
Ichthyosaurs exhibit incredible design. They are clearly designed for life in the water, something even those who believe they evolved from a terrestrial animal have admitted. They likely had very good vision and appear to have been effective hunters. They have no clearly defined evolutionary ancestor and most of their reproduction appears designed for living in the water. Further, their fecundity provides evidence for rapid burial, being fossilized with embryos in their uterus and even in the act of giving birth. The ichthyosaurs provide excellent evidence for both the design God put into his creation and for the Biblical flood.