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Evolution 'Ahead of Schedule'

on August 1, 2009

BBC News: “Fossil Is ‘Earliest Tree-Dweller’” Fossil specimens discovered in Russia 15 years ago have finally landed in the news—for reasons including the fact that they were millions of years “ahead of schedule.”

S. getmanovi has features that make it suspiciously mammal-like.

Let’s begin with the raw, undisputed facts: the fossilized skeletons (15 found together) have been named Suminia getmanovi, were found in Russia in 1994, and lived 260 million years ago. Okay, scratch that last “fact,” because that is where the story gets interesting.

The authors on the recent study of the fossils (published in July in Proceedings of the Royal Society B) base their date of S. getmanovi only by the rock layer the specimens were found in (late Permian). The date of 260 million years ago places S. getmanovi earlier than what are generally considered the earliest mammals, and far earlier than the rise of mammals some 200 million years later.

Yet S. getmanovi has features that make it suspiciously mammal-like. Most notable are opposable thumbs—the earliest evidence of them in the fossil record (according to old-earth interpretations). The authors state, “Unseen in any other Palaeozoic vertebrate [is] the widely divergent first digit with an angle of approximately 30–40° to the remaining digits[.]” Most animals that have five digits per appendage (as does S. getmanovi), with one opposable at that angle, are mammals.

Unusually, S. getmanovi had long hands and feet, making up approximately half the length of each appendage. Its limbs were long relative to its body as well; the latest fossils are only around 20 inches (50 cm) in total length from nose to tail.

Considering all the fossilized anatomical features, the researchers believe S. getmanovi was ideally suited for an arboreal lifestyle. “It’s exciting to see the evidence of an initial and successful evolutionary change or diversification that was successful and allowed these small animals to live in the trees,” explained Jorg Frobisch of Chicago’s Field Museum.

Noting that many of its features are mammalian, University of Cambridge paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris said, “It shows once again that things in evolution can happen far earlier than might be expected. In this case a vertebrate, specifically a synapsid—from which the mammals themselves emerged—was ahead of the game of climbing trees. In fact it was about 30 million years ahead of schedule.” (BBC News notes a 100-million-year “gap” between S. getmanovi and the earliest tree-dwelling mammals.)

S. getmanovi was designed well to live in a specific environment.

Our question is, what dictates that S. getmanovi was not a true, tree-loving mammal? It seems that the location of the specimens in the fossil record (and, hence, the constraints of evolutionary presuppositions and dating) is the key reason why the creature is considered separate from modern mammals, despite the similarities. (We must be clear, however, that we can not say for sure if S. getmanovi was a mammal.) In order to preserve the evolutionary dating scheme, the researchers must appeal to the unproven idea of “convergent evolution”—that the same features (e.g., opposable thumbs), sometimes evolve over and over again in separate lineages. (The paper states, “[A]daptations to life in trees evolved through convergent evolution[.]”) Whatever these creatures may have been, evolution is clouding and corrupting our understanding and taxonomic classification.

At the very least, it is clear that S. getmanovi was designed well to live in a specific environment. And one final note that we would be remiss to omit, even though we mention it incessantly: the burial of 15 S. getmanovi specimens immediately together is yet another challenge to the slow-and-gradual fossilization model presented by uniformitarians.

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