Lizards Trapped in Amber Said to Show Evolutionary Links

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Abstract

Did lizard evolution “follow the yellow brick road”1 mapped out in Myanmar amber, or do these fossils tell a different story?

Burmese amber has been a popular international commodity since AD 100 when it began to be mined and traded with China. A rich variety of insects and even tiny flowers trapped long ago in tree resin are preserved in amber from the region. Lizards from a private collection of Burmese amber also offer evidence of diversity and complexity in a lost world, a world lost to time. But what time? And what can these lizards teach us about lizard history?

When it comes to lizards, “The fossil record is sparse because the delicate skin and fragile bones of small lizards do not usually preserve, especially in the tropics, which makes the new amber fossils an incredibly rare and unique window into a critical period of diversification,”2 according to the American Natural History Museum’s Edward Stanley, who coauthored the analysis of the fossils published in the journal Science Advances. These amber fossils offer a unique chance to peer into the past. Scientists have unlocked the lizards’ secrets using high resolution CT scans and scanning electron microscopy. They believe the resin froze these lizards in time 99 million years ago, and the resin’s subsequent transformation into amber saved them for us to see. “The fossilised amber provides a view into a lost world, revealing that the tropics of the Mid-Cretaceous contained a diverse lizard fauna,”3 says Stanley, who believes the collection reveals evolutionary history.

The chemical characteristics of this amber indicate it came from coniferous trees, and the other organisms preserved in it are most consistent with a moist tropical environment. “We can pretty much see how the animals looked when they were alive,” explains lead author Juan Daza.4 The specimens include different sorts of lizards, including geckoes, a chameleon, and an iguana-like lizard. “They provide details of external morphology, which is something that is pretty rare to find. These fossils represent most of the diversity of lizards with a superb amount of detail,”5 even preserving scales, skin, and internal organs, Daza adds. “They provide a really nice snapshot of the past. To me it is like going back in time and doing a lizard collecting trip when we can see what these animals looked like.”6

Transitional Toes?

The geckoes in this collection, like modern geckoes, have adhesive toe pads. Stanley says, “Even 100 million years ago geckos apparently already had evolved a well-diversified subset of tools for clinging onto surfaces.”7 Several different toe pad designs indicate, the authors write, “that alternative pad architectures, comparable to those of living geckoes, had already evolved by this time.”8 Similarly, the skull of a young gecko—an embryo or hatchling—exhibited numerous features resembling “the embryonic condition of modern species.”9 This particular lizard had two tiny bones in its orbit in the position occupied by a single fused bone in living adult geckoes but by two bones in two extinct gecko species. The authors believe this skull represents “an intermediate condition”10 that sheds light on gecko evolution. However, it is not unusual for separate bony elements in an embryo or immature animal—or human for that matter—to fuse with maturity, so there is even less reason to claim that this animal was an intermediate form. Furthermore, the fusion of two non-moving bones into one has nothing to do with the evolution of a different, more complex kind of animal. This minor variation in the orbital architecture of geckoes at most illustrates variation among geckoes.

Amber-encased Lizards

This collection of amber-encased lizards, dated at 99 million years and pictured in the journal Science Advances, is said to contain the oldest known chameleon (shown in “K”) as well as several geckoes. From Juan D. Daza et al., “Mid-Cretaceous Amber Fossils Illuminate the Past Diversity of Tropical Lizards,” Science Advances 2, no. 3 (2016): 3, doi:10.1126/sciadv.1501080. View larger image.

Though supposedly 99 million years old, the chameleon fossil, only about 10 mm long, has a long projectile tongue just like modern chameleons use to capture their prey.11 “This ‘missing-link’ is roughly 80 million years older than the next oldest chameleon fossil, and shows that features like the chameleon's projectile tongue was present deep in its ancestry,” Stanley says.12 Its feet are unusual, however, so Stanley says the chameleon’s “strange fused toes (adaptations for climbing along branches) evolved later.”13

Most chameleons have their toes grouped in twos and threes, though, unlike the fused toes of some hoofed mammals, each claw-tipped chameleon toe is still distinct. The pair of toe groups on each appendage rotates to form a tree-gripping set of tongs, a great design for an arboreal lifestyle. The amber chameleon apparently lacks this arrangement.

But it turns out there is much more toe diversity among chameleons than scientists realized. A 2015 study has demonstrated “a previously underappreciated degree of mesopodial [hand and foot] skeletal diversity in chameleons.”14 On the surface, some chameleons even appear to have a different number of bony elements in their wrists and ankles. However, these skeletal variations are due to the varying degrees of fusion and development during embryonic development. The resulting diverse foot forms, each a consequence of the expression or non-expression of the genetic information stored in chameleon chromosomes, equip chameleons for a variety of environments and lifestyles. And despite these variations, all of these creatures are still chameleons.

This tiny neonatal chameleon entered its ancient world with a well-developed projectile tongue ready to snatch its dinner from the air, had a tree resin trap not snatched it from the land of the living. The discovery that it also had an unusual toe arrangement only adds to the demonstrable diversity of chameleon feet. There is no evidence for upward evolution through a transitional form in this lizard’s amber tomb—just evidence for the sort of variation that ordinarily occurs within the created kinds of animals God made. Despite their supposed great age, these lizards, according to the scientists that studied them, display modern features and still have counterparts in today’s Old World tropical forests. Why haven’t 99 million years of evolution changed lizards more? Could it be that they aren’t really so old?

Ancient Amber

Amber is fossilized tree resin. Tree resin may disintegrate over time, or it may undergo chemical changes and transform into a polymer that can fossilize. Some of the chemicals in the resin may enter a trapped organism, acting as a fixative while drawing moisture from it, producing beautiful and exquisitely preserved specimens prized by paleontologists. How long does this process take?

Well, because amber is usually found fossilized in Cretaceous and Tertiary sedimentary rock, evolutionary scientists claim it takes 30 to 90 million years to form. But this claim is typically based on unverifiable worldview-based interpretations of the supposed evolutionary ages of organisms in the strata hosting the amber. However, the authors who studied these Burmese lizards believe their lizards are 99 million years old because the amber containing them came from mid-Cretaceous outcroppings of sedimentary rock in northern Myanmar, rock containing zircon crystals that have been dated at 99 million years using U-Pb isotopes.15

The 2012 dating study to which they refer was published in Cretaceous Research.16 Commenting on that paper, Answers in Genesis geologist Dr. Andrew Snelling observes that those authors believed the fossilized amber had been buried fairly quickly:

The authors admit the sediments in which the amber pieces are found had to have been deposited very rapidly, by which they mean “geologically rapid.” This is because the sedimentary “rock” is made up of a poorly consolidated mix of clasts (grains) of a wide variety of minerals and other rocks, including volcanic fragments, in a fine-grained matrix of clay, calcite (calcium carbonate or lime), and pyrite (iron sulfide). The poor sorting (fragments of different sizes all mixed together) and only incipient (“in place”) rounding of clasts indicate the sediments were only transported a short distance by water currents. Furthermore, the sedimentary “rock” which hosts these amber pieces can be easily broken with bare hands. The amber pieces had to have been quickly buried because there is no indication of any lengthy aging of the resin making up the amber.

To determine how long ago the amber was buried, they dated zircon crystals found with it in the sedimentary rock. (Learn more about this dating method in “Rocks Around the Clock: Do Zircons Contain Reliable Time Stamps and Early Earth’s Secrets?”) “Two groups of zircon crystal were identified based on how they look under the microscope,” Dr. Snelling explains. The authors believe one group came from nearby volcanic eruptions.

Group I zircon grains yielded U-Pb ages of 102–108 Ma, while group II zircons yielded a U-Pb “concordia” age of 98.79 ± 0.62 Ma. Because they interpreted the group II zircon crystals as being from the volcanic rock fragments violently erupted just before the volcanic rock fragments and zircon grains were rapidly transported and deposited mixed with the amber pieces, they concluded the amber, and thus the fossils trapped in the amber, must be about 98.79 ± 0.62 million years old.

However, Dr. Snelling also notes that U-Pb dating was applied to both the zircon crystals’ cores and the surrounding overgrowths, even though the authors said they were only dating the cores.17 This aberration should make the dates they obtained questionable even within their own worldview.

In any case, the age assigned to the amber encasing these lizards should not be accepted because it is based on some assumptions which are not only unverifiable but demonstrably untrue, as Dr. Snelling explains:

The U-Pb dating is based on the same three unreasonable and unprovable assumptions on which all the radiometric dating methods are based, namely, that the initial conditions are known, there has been no contamination, and the decay rates have been constant (see “Radiometric Dating: Problems with the Assumptions.”). In this example we cannot know whether any of these three assumptions have been met. In fact, the available evidence demonstrates that the first two assumptions have definitely been violated. The initial conditions were not observed. It is only inferred that the zircon grains came from nearby violent volcanic eruptions. In any case, even if they did, the zircon crystals would have formed deep underground where the rising molten rock ponded below the volcano before it erupted. Then there is definitely contamination in the U-Pb analyses, because the cores and overgrowths were variously analyzed in bulk. There is no way of knowing whether different various mixtures of the U-Pb isotopes were included in these overgrowths as they crystallized. Such mixtures may have had nothing to do with the age of the crystals but are just an indication of the concentrations of the U-Pb isotopes in the fluids from which the zircon overgrowths crystallized.

The Lost World

Laying aside the unreliable age assigned to these lizards, the description of both the lizards and the material in which they were found is instead quite consistent with the history recorded in God’s Word, a history telling of a lost world not envisioned by Bible-rejecting evolutionists. Dr. Snelling explains:

What are we to make of all these descriptions, the U-Pb dating, and their conclusions? First, the lizards had to be rapidly entombed in the amber in order to be so well preserved. Then the amber pieces had to be rapidly buried in sediments being rapidly deposited by water while violent volcanic eruptions were occurring nearby. These are exactly the conditions we would expect to have been occurring during the global Genesis Flood cataclysm. Furthermore, this sedimentary rock containing the amber pieces is not hardened but still easily broken apart, indicating there has not been much time for hardening to take place since this rapid burial occurred. This is also consistent with rapid burial during the Flood, which occurred only recently some 4,350 years ago.

The conclusions drawn by these investigators are thus more about wishful thinking to find a “date” to conform to their uniformitarian “age” assumptions. They are not based on solid, reproducible, science. Yet the observable evidence is consistent with rapid fossilization of the lizards in amber, which was rapidly buried in sediments only recently in the global Flood cataclysm.

Just as the fossilized amber does not carry a reliable age of 99 million years, so the lizard collection preserved in Myanmar demonstrates nothing about the reptile evolution over millions of years but only the variations that had developed among the kinds of lizards created by God. These lizards are a testimony to the lizard diversity that existed in the world destroyed by the Flood of Noah’s day.

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2016 Volume 11

Footnotes

  1. This familiar phrase from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s popular 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, describing the way to the Emerald City, brings to mind the mysterious path to a stupendous goal. Do these pieces of yellow amber trace the path evolution followed to some of its lofty supposed outcomes? Evolution would require the gradual development of increasingly complex but fully functional organisms and their many interrelated parts through random processes acting on simpler organisms, all supposed to have occurred through unknown and undocumented biological mechanisms over unwitnessed millions of years. These assorted lizards fossilized in pieces of amber, however, do not document evolution’s path up the tree of lizard life but only the existence of lizard diversity at the time the animals were trapped.
  2. Rachel Feltman, “Lizards Trapped in Amber for 100 Million Years May Be Some of the Oldest of Their Kind,” Washington Post, March 7, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2016/03/07/lizards-trapped-in-amber-for-100-million-years-may-be-some-of-the-oldest-of-their-kind/.
  3. Helen Briggs, “Amber-Trapped Lizard Fossils Reveal ‘Lost World,’” BBC, March 4, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-35718404.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Eva Botkin-Kowacki, “These 12 Lizards Were Trapped in Amber for 99 Million Years,” Christian Science Monitor, March 5, 2016, http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2016/0305/These-12-lizards-were-trapped-in-amber-for-99-million-years-video.
  8. Juan D. Daza et al., “Mid-Cretaceous Amber Fossils Illuminate the Past Diversity of Tropical Lizards,” Science Advances 2, no. 3 (2016): 3, doi:10.1126/sciadv.1501080.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. At least it probably did, based on skeletal clues: it has a very long hyoid bone, the bone that supports the tongue.
  12. Helen Briggs, “Amber-Trapped Lizards Fossils Reveal ‘Lost World.’”
  13. Ibid.
  14. Diaz and Trainor, authors of the 2015 study, explain that chameleons vary in the number of bony elements present in their wrists and ankles but still always have five digits on each foot. They also typically have a ball-and-socket joint between the wrist and forelimb, facilitating the rotation of the grasping groups of digits to better grab a twig. The authors of the current study of the amber-encased chameleon, which was only about 10 mm long, did not comment on the specific number and types of bones in their specimen’s wrist and ankles or specify whether such a joint was visible. For more information see Raul Diaz Jr. and Paul A. Trainor, “Hand/Foot Splitting and the ‘Re-evolution’ of Mesopodial Skeletal Elements During the Evolution and Radiation of Chameleons,” BMC Evolutionary Biology 15, no. 184 (2015): doi:10.1186/s12862-015-0464-4, and Juan D. Daza et al., “Mid-Cretaceous Amber Fossils Illuminate the Past Diversity of Tropical Lizards,” Science Advances 2, no. 3 (2016): doi:10.1126/sciadv.1501080.
  15. Juan D. Daza et al., “Mid-Cretaceous Amber Fossils Illuminate the Past Diversity of Tropical Lizards.”
  16. Guanghai Shi et.al, "Age Constraint on Burmese Amber Based on U—PbDating of Zircons," Cretaceous Research 37 (2012): 155–163, doi:10.1016/j.cretres.2012.03.014.
  17. Dr. Snelling explains, “Two groups of zircon crystals were identified based on how they look under the microscope. However, all the crystals clearly have cores with concentric crystal zones surrounding them, which grew around the cores subsequent to their crystallization. The authors claim to have U-Pb dated only the cores of these zircon grains and not the overgrowths, but the photos provided in their paper, which are annotated with the spots that were U-Pb dated, show clearly that nearly all their analyses included multiple overgrowth zones, and often not even the cores.”

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