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The Cell's Design

Does the Recovery of Oils from a Fossilized Bird Evince a Young Earth?

By Fazale Rana - December 20, 2017

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

–Acts 17:11

Is there scientific evidence that the earth is only 6,000 years old?

In spite of the valiant efforts of young-earth creationists (YECs), I have yet to come across any compelling scientific arguments that the earth is only a few thousand years old. At least not until I learned about the numerous discoveries of soft-tissue remnants associated with fossils that date to several hundred million years in age, in some instances. (For a detailed survey of the soft tissues recovered from the fossil record, check out my book, Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth.) These discoveries give me some pause for thought about the age-of-the-earth measurements.

These types of discoveries generate a lot of excitement among paleontologists. Having access to soft-tissue materials provides the scientific community with inspiring new insights into the biology of these ancient creatures.

They also create a lot of excitement for YECs, because the findings suggest to them that the geologists’ dating methods are unreliable. Before these discoveries, very few scientists would have ever thought that soft-tissue materials could survive in the geological layers for thousands—let alone hundreds of millions—of years because of unrelenting decomposition processes. And yet, the number of soft-tissue fossil discoveries continues to mount. For example, investigators from the UK, the US, and Germany recently reported on the recovery of endogenous oils from the fossilized uropygial gland of a bird specimen that dates to 48 million years in age.1 I will take a closer look at what they found after a bit of explanation to show why it is critical to understand such a discovery.

For YECs, the isolation of soft-tissue materials from fossils indicates that the fossils cannot be millions of years old but, at best, only a few thousand years old—and most likely deposited by a catastrophic worldwide flood. They reason that if the fossils are only a few thousand years old, then the methods used to age-date the fossils must be faulty. That being the case, then the same methods used to date the earth, too, must be flawed.

As an old-earth creationist, I must admit the discovery of soft-tissue materials associated with fossils represents one of the most interesting arguments for a young earth I’ve encountered. On the surface, the argument seems reasonable. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that many YEC organizations (such as Answers in Genesis, Creation Ministries International, and the Institute for Creation Research) have elevated the existence of soft tissue materials in the fossil record to one of their central arguments for a young earth. I observe many well-meaning Christians following suit, using this same argument in their efforts to convince seekers and skeptics about the scientific reliability of the Genesis 1 creation account. Unfortunately, most people who are scientifically minded fail to find this argument persuasive because of the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence for the reliability of radiometric dating. And as a result, skeptics are often driven further away from the Christian faith.

When using scientific discoveries to demonstrate God’s existence and to defend the reliability of the biblical creation accounts, it is critical to adopt a posture like that of the Bereans. It is incumbent on all of us to investigate or “examine” on our own to ensure the arguments we use are sound.

That’s why I wrote Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth. In this book, I make every effort to take the soft-tissue argument seriously. But, following the Bereans’ example, I thoroughly examine each premise of their argument to see if it holds up to scrutiny, including their central claim: soft-tissue materials cannot persist in fossils that are millions of years old.

Though admittedly counterintuitive, after thorough investigation into this claim, I have come to believe that soft-tissue remnants can survive in the fossil record. To illustrate how this survival is possible, let’s use the recently discovered 48-million-year preening oil isolated, fossilized uropygial gland as a case study.

Discovery of Preening Oil in a 48-Million-Year-Old Fossilized Gland

The 48-million-year-old fossil bird specimen that possessed uropygial gland oils was recovered from the Messel Pit. Located in Darmstadt, Germany, this UNESCO World Heritage site has yielded a number of important vertebrate fossils throughout its history and still serves as a source of exciting new fossil discoveries today.

While carefully examining this bird specimen (which still remains unclassified), the paleontologists noted the outline of the uropygial gland at the base of the tail region. To confirm this interpretation, the researchers attempted to extract remnants of preening oil from this putative gland. Motivated by previous soft-tissue finds and the discovery of lipids (a class of biomolecules that include oils) in other ancient geological deposits, the research team removed milligram amounts of the fossilized uropygial gland from the specimen and extracted material from the sample. Afterward, they subjected the extracts to chemical analysis, relying on a technique known as pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. Analysis with this technique begins with a heating step that decomposes the analytes into small molecular fragments that, in turn, are separated by gas chromatography and then analyzed by mass spectrometry. This technique produces profiles of molecular fragments that serve as a fingerprint, helping scientists determine the identity of compounds in the sample.

The research team detected C-8 to C-30 n-alkanes, n-alkenes, and alkylbenzenes in the uropygial gland extracted—as expected if the fossil contained remnants for preening oil. The profiles of the fossilized uropygial gland extracts differed from the profiles of extracts taken from shales that make up the geological layer that originally housed the fossil specimen. This result indicates that the uropygial gland extracts are not due to contamination from the surrounding geological layers. When the researchers compared the extracts of the fossilized glands to extracts of uropygial glands of extant birds (such as the common blackbird, the ringed teal, and the middle spotted woodpecker), they noted a difference in the profiles. This difference most likely reflects chemical alteration of the original preening oil during the fossilization process.

How the Preening Oil Was Preserved

So how can soft tissue material, such as preening oil, persist in fossils for millions and millions of years?

In Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth, I point out that paleontologists believe that soft-tissue preservation reflects a race between two competing processes: decomposition and mineral entombment. If mineral entombment wins, then whatever soft tissue that has avoided decomposition remains behind—for millions and millions of years. Once encased in mineral deposits, soft-tissue materials become isolated and protected from the environment, arresting the decomposition processes that would otherwise destroy them.

Anything that slows down the rate of decomposition will help soft-tissue materials to hang around long enough for mineral entombment to take place. One factor contributing to soft-tissue survival is the structural durability of the molecules that make up the soft tissues. In most instances, the soft tissues that survive are made up of highly durable materials. Toward this end, some of the components of preening oil (such as long chain alkanes) are chemically inert, making them resistant to chemical decomposition.

Though usually destructive, in some instances chemical reactivity can contribute to soft-tissue survival. This reactivity likely contributed to the survival of the preening oil. The team of paleontologists believes that the alkene components of the preening oils reacted to form high-molecular-weight polymers that, in turn, became resistant to chemical decomposition.

While not subject to chemical decomposition, long chain hydrocarbons would serve as an ideal food source for microbes in the environment. This process would work against preservation. But, microbial decomposition of preening oil is unlikely, because some of the components of the uropygial gland secretions possess antimicrobial activities.

Also, the shale that harbored the fossil bird is oxygen-depleted. The absence of oxygen in this geological setting most likely contributed to soft-tissue survival, preventing oxidative decomposition of the preening oil.

In other words, there are several collective mechanisms in play that would stave off the decomposition of the original preening oil, though it does look as if the original material did become chemically altered. The bottom line: There is no reason to think that soft-tissue materials derived from the original preening oil in the uropygial glands could not persist for 48 million years or longer in the fossil record.

At first glance, the soft-tissue argument for a young earth seems so compelling. Yet, when carefully evaluated (“examined”), it simply doesn’t hold up.

Becoming Bereans

As Christians, we should expect that there will be scientific discoveries that affirm our faith by revealing God’s fingerprints in nature and by supporting the creation accounts found in Scripture. Key biblical passages (such as Psalm 19 and Romans 1:20) teach this much. Yet, we must also recognize that as human beings interpreting nature (through science) and interpreting Scripture can be complex undertakings. As such, we can make mistakes. We are fallen creatures, we have limited knowledge, insight, and understanding, and we have preconceived notions . . . all of which influence our interpretations. And, it is for these reasons that we must all operate like the Bereans. We should respond to scientific arguments for the Christian faith with eagerness, but before we use them, we must rigorously evaluate them to ensure their validity and, if valid, to understand the arguments’ limitations. Sincere, well-meaning Christians can be wrong and can unintentionally mislead other Christians. But, when that happens it is our fault, not theirs, if we are mislead because we have failed to take the “noble,” Berean-like approach and do our homework.

Resources to Dig Deeper

  1. Shane O’Reilly et al., “Preservation of Uropygial Gland Lipids in a 48-Million-Year-Old Bird,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 284 (October 18, 2017): doi:10.1098/rspb.2017.1050.

  • Biblical Evidence for an Old Earth
  • Fossil Record
  • Age of the Earth
  • Young-Earth Creationism
  • Uropygial Gland
  • Soft Tissue
  • Radiometric Dating
  • Preening Oil
  • Messel Pit
  • Fossils
  • Fossil Record
  • Age Dating
  • Blogs

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