Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What was this large ancient river fish doing in Ellesmere Island?

A year ago, paleontologists Jason Downs, Ted Daeschler, Farish Jenkins and Neil Shubin published a study of a previously-unknown species of ancient fish, dubbed Laccognathus embryi ("laccognathus" means "pitted jaw").  

This article from National Geographic describes the fish as measuring up to six feet in length, with powerful jaws and sharp 1.5-inch teeth, and includes an artist's depiction of the beast lying in wait near a tree growing out of a shallow stream, as the fossil remains indicate its eye position and facial structure probably disposed Laccognathus to such a mode of ambushing its prey.

This article from the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University in Philadelphia, where Dr. Downs and Dr. Daeschler work, notes that the skull of the Laccognathus was found in a fossil-rich site on Canada's remote Ellesmere Island, in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, near the fossils of other ancient lobe-finned fish such as Tiktaalic roseae.

The actual publication of their findings in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology in September 2011 explains that while the taxon Laccognathus had been discovered previously, its fossils had only been found in Latvia and Lithuania before the fossils on Ellesmere Island.  These are the first ever found in North America, and some distinctive features (which they discuss) merit the designation of a new species of Laccognathus, L. embryi (in honor of Canadian geologist Dr. Ashton Embry, born 1946, who first did field work in the Canadian Arctic islands in 1969 and who has continued to study them and to publish numerous studies regarding their geology since then).

Using the conventional framework of geology and biology, the fossil Laccognathus was declared to have lived a staggering 350 million years ago.  The National Geographic article above says that it belongs to the family of lobed-fin fishes whose only surviving members today are lungfish and the coelacanth.  The Drexel University article linked above notes that the presence of Laccognathus fossils in North America and in Latvia and Russia "confirms that North America and Europe were part of the same large landmass during the Devonian."

According to the conventional model, the "supercontinent" of Pangaea had not even formed 350 million years ago, but was slowly coming together out of the pieces of the previous supercontinent, called "Rodinia."  You can read the storyline of these drifting ancient supercontinents here (among many other places), full of declarative pronouncements about the movements of fancifully-named landmasses such as "Baltica" and "Avalonia" and ancient oceans with names like "the Iapetus Ocean" and "the Rheic Ocean."  These proposed movements represent one possible theory to explain the evidence that scientists and paleontologists have found on our planet over the years, but this theory is by no means the only way to explain the evidence, nor is it necessarily the best one.

In fact, the abundance of Laccognathus fossils on Ellesmere Island (the published article by the paleontologists reports that the skull specimen they pieced together was composed of the bones of about 22 different individuals) fits quite well with a completely different theory of earth's ancient past, the hydroplate theory of Dr. Walt Brown.   

The presence of so many river-dwelling fish on the frozen northern island of Ellesmere clearly requires some mechanism of movement, and perhaps by positing 350 million years one could convince people that the island drifted to its current northern latitude over that time period.  However, there is a problem with this explanation.  As discussed in a previous blog post, Ellesmere is home to an astonishing variety of fossils, including fossils of flowering plants!  The conventional theorists do not admit that flowering plants could have existed 350 million years ago (the very earliest are thought to have appeared 140 million years ago, according to the conventional model).

However, the hydroplate theory proposes that the earth underwent a "big roll" which was caused by the rapid thickening of the Asian continent, particularly in the region of the Himalayas, during the violent events that surrounded a single cataclysmic flood event in the ancient past.  There is extensive evidence to support this "big roll" explanation, including the recent discovery of buried palm trees beneath miles of ice in Antarctica, as well as the discovery of other fossils in Antarctica and of wood there that is not fossilized but can be thawed out and used for fuel for fires!

The existence of Lake Vostok and other deep and still-liquid lakes on Antarctica also defies conventional explanations but accords well with the hydroplate theory.

These newly-discovered Laccognathus fossils on Ellesmere seem to be an additional piece of evidence that could support the hydroplate explanation.  Further, the hydroplate theory posits that the flood event originated with a violent rupture along the line that today forms the mid-Atlantic Ridge -- such a rupture would clearly sever the territory where Laccognathus fossils have been found in Latvia and Lithuania and the territory where these more recently-reported Laccognathus fossils were found in Ellesmere.  

Also, the preponderance of fossils buried in stone that was once thick wet silt (as was the case with the Laccognathus and the Tiktaalic fossils of Ellsemere) accords well with the expectations of the hydroplate theory, which argues that almost all fossils were formed by rapid burial during the catastrophic conditions surrounding that flood event -- an event in which tons of sediments were released into the floodwaters and which were later stratified by the process of liquefaction.  

In fact, this previous post discusses the stratigraphy that conventional geology interprets as having been laid down successively over periods of millions of years each, but which the hydroplate theory proposes may have been laid down much more rapidly.  Interestingly enough, that particular post (which was published in June of 2011, prior to the publication of the discovery of the new Ellesmere Laccognathus) discusses the coelacanth, a lobed-finned fish long declared to have lived (and died out) about 70 million years ago.  The discovery in 1938 of the first modern coelacanth -- which somehow stayed the same during all those millions of years, a period of time supposedly sufficient for dinosaurs to evolve into modern chickens and other birds -- should cause some reconsideration of the conventional assumptions underlying the confident declarations of  when various fossils must have lived.

In short, the hydroplate theory would argue that the Laccognathus fossils were produced by rapid burial during a flood event, following a rupture in which what is today northern Europe (where the previous Laccognathus fossils were found) and what is today northern Canada (where the more recently-discovered Laccognathus fossils were found) were separated, previously having been much closer together.  In the aftermath of that event, the earth rolled such that Ellesmere Island was carried much further north, and Antarctica much further south, not by tectonic drifting over a long period of time but relatively rapidly.  Some coelacanths survived this event, and today look just like their fossil brethren, even though those fossil coelacanths supposedly lived 70 million years ago.

Perhaps somewhere a modern line of the Laccognathus family survived as well, and perhaps one is lying in wait in a shallow river somewhere right now, waiting to sink its wicked fangs into some unfortunate creature.