Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Dormaalocyon—Big news for evolution, not for creation

Artist's reconstruction of Dormaalocyon latouri.
Credit: Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.  Image source.
Though it is not being widely covered by the popular media, a study elaborating on the evolutionary origins of mammalian carnivores took the coveted "Featured Article" position in the newest issue of the premier paleontological journal, the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

The article focuses on a new fossil genus and species, Dormaalocyon latouri, a creature known only by a few ankle bones, lower jaws, and quite a large collection of teeth.  It was previously known by another name, Miacis latouri, but the new study determined that there was enough data from new material to justify assigning it to its own genus.  Classifying mammals by their tooth structure is quite common in paleontology, as mammals typically have elaborately shaped molars that are resistant to weathering thanks to their hard enamel, so their teeth are commonly found and easy to compare.

The scientists used phylogenetic analysis, a method of classifying creatures based on shared traits, to place Dormaalocyon low on the family tree of the carnivoraformes, which includes dogs, cats, bears, and a range of extinct animals generally called "miacids."  The result did not exactly revolutionize the established tree; it was more akin to placing a single piece in an unfinished 5000-piece puzzle, which is probably why there is not much fanfare surrounding the study.  Paleontologists have not yet developed a comprehensive picture of the origin of mammalian carnivores, and this new creature just adds a bit more data.  The authors of the study propose that Dormaalocyon migrated from Europe, where it is found, to North America, where its immediate relatives are found, during one of the warmest points in Earth history, the beginning of the Eocene epoch, about 56 million years ago.  This pushes back the origin dispersion of carnivoraforms into the Paleocene.

For the creationist, there is not much new information here.  Phylogenetic analysis itself does not prove evolutionary relationships; rather, it assumes that some relationship must exist and calculates the distance of that relationship compared to other creatures.  Therefore, if Dormaalocyon does not have any evolutionary relationship to any of the modern carnivores, then the resulting phylogeny (family tree) is useless.  From the creationist standpoint, Dormaalocyon was a member, if not the only member, of a kind created by God during Creation week approximately 6000 years ago.  It is possible that the specimens from this study survived Noah's Flood on the Ark and died in later disasters along with the rest of their kind, but the exact boundary between Flood sediment and post-Flood sediment is not well-established among creationist scientists.  One implication of the study for creationists is that it is unlikely that Dormaalocyon was of the same kind as any modern mammal, as it differs from living carnivores (dogs, cats, bears) more than any two kinds of carnivores differ from each other..

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