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Fossil Friday: The Abrupt Origin of Ichthyosaurs

Günter Bechly
Photo credit: H. Zell, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

This Fossil Friday features Stenopterygius quadricissus from the Lower Jurassic Posidonia shale of Holzmaden in southern Germany, which is about 190 million years old. As a child I went collecting fossils from this fossil locality, which was close to my childhood home, and with a bit of luck you could not only find ammonites but even vertebrae of such ichthyosaurs. Apart from dinosaurs and pterosaurs, the ichthyosaurs are one of the iconic groups of Mesozoic reptiles. Even though they look like a hybrid between a dolphin and a shark, they were marine reptiles that are believed to have descended from monitor-lizard-like terrestrial ancestors.

Darwinism would predict a long and gradual transition between these very different body plans, but actually ichthyosaurs appeared very abruptly about 4 million years after the great end-Permian mass extinction event about 252 million years ago, which annihilated about 81 percent of marine and 70 percent of terrestrial biodiversity. There is general consensus that ichthyosaurs did not yet exist before this cataclysm, and the oldest fossils indeed only appeared in the Lower Triassic of China about 248 million years ago. Jiang et al. (2016) concluded that “ichthyosauriforms evolved rapidly within the first one million years of their evolution.” Well, that was the state of knowledge until a few days ago, when a brand new study (Kear et al. 2023) changed the picture and made the origin of ichthyosaurs even much more abrupt. A team of scientists from Norway and Sweden described ichthyosaur remains from the Arctic island of Spitsbergen, which are about 250 million years old but already show clear evidence for a fully marine way of life.

Revealing Admissions

The press release by Uppsala University (2023) makes some very revealing admissions about this unexpected discovery:

As the story goes, land-based reptiles with walking legs invaded shallow coastal environments to take advantage [of] marine predator niches that were left vacant by this cataclysmic event. Over time, these early amphibious reptiles became more efficient at swimming and eventually modified their limbs into flippers, developed a fish-like body shape, and started giving birth to live young; thus, severing their final tie with the land by not needing to come ashore to lay eggs.

The new fossils discovered on Spitsbergen are now revising this long accepted theory. …

Unexpectedly, these vertebrae occurred within rocks that were supposedly too old for ichthyosaurs. Also, rather than representing the textbook example of an amphibious ichthyosaur ancestor, the vertebrae are identical to those of geologically much younger larger-bodied ichthyosaurs, and even preserve internal bone microstructure showing adaptive hallmarks of fast growth, elevated metabolism and a fully oceanic lifestyle.

This means nothing less than that the transition from a land-living reptile to a fish-like marine reptile was completed in less than 2 million years, which corresponds to about half the average longevity of a larger vertebrate animal species. This is incredibly short in geological and biological terms and does not allow for the required genetic changes to have originated by an unguided process. This waiting time problem of neo-Darwinism is proven by population genetic calculations, which is the subject on an ongoing research project by Discovery Institute scientists.

Even the time span of 4 million years that was implied by the previously known fossil record of Early Triassic ichthyosaurs is shockingly short, so much so that a friend and colleague of mine, who is a renowned expert on ichthyosaurs and neither a theist nor an advocate of intelligent design, confidentially told me that he came to doubt the neo-Darwinian explanation for this very reason. He said: “That this transition happened by a Darwinian mechanism in such a short time is simply IMPOSSIBLE!” With this window of time now cut in half, the transition becomes even more incredible.

A Temporal Paradox

But there is another problem: The new discovery makes fully marine ichthyosaurs older than their alleged amphibious relatives such as Cartorhynchus (Motani et al. 2015, Jiang et al. 2016) and likely older than their unknown terrestrial relatives. This creates a temporal paradox of assumed descendants appearing before their assumed stem group. Thus, ichthyosaurs joined the numerous other examples of such paradoxes, such as early tetrapods or early birds. Not exactly a success story for Darwinism.

With increasing knowledge of the fossil record, the mainstream narrative is rendered more and more untenable and inconsistent with the empirical evidence. It’s time to move on and consider more adequate explanations like intelligent design theory.