Dino dog sniffers? According to an article in the Sydney Sun Herald 28 April 2013, a sniffer dog that has been trained to find buried bones for forensic investigations and in archaeological sites has discovered fossil bones that have been identified as belonging to extinct megafauna dated as being 2.6 to 5.3 million years old. Palaeontologist Steve Salisbury of the University of Queensland, who identified the bones, is not convinced the dog could have smelled anything in the bones. He commented; “it seems very feasible to me that there would still be odour attached to a corpse but fossil bone is another thing. We’re talking millions of years where the original bone and internal structure has been remineralised and essentially become a rock. That’s why I question whether she can smell the difference. … I’d like to believe it. If she can find fossilised bone then that would make our searches a lot easier. I’m ready to watch and be surprised – that would be really exciting.”

Meanwhile Lee Berger and Rachelle Keeling of University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa claim to have found evidence of a layer of organic matter still attached to one of the skulls and a jaw bone of an ape-like creature named Australopithecus sediba dated as being almost two million years old. They used several microscopy and chemical analysis techniques to study the material and concluded: “Overall the study produced a provocative body of evidence that the specimens were indeed organic in origin.” (Reported in Paleoanthropology Meeting Abstracts Honolulu, 2–3 April 2013)

Editorial Comment: As someone who has excavated many fossils, this editor has to agree that many of them smell. Fossil fish are often very fishy and cows, and dogs chew dinosaur or diprotodont bones apparently for “nutrition” plus it is obvious just from a walk through my collection that many such bones are still boney even when they have minerals in them. So these reports are not the first evidence organic substances still exist in fossil bones.

Other researchers have used similar methods used by Berger and Keeling on A. sediba bones and found organic matter in dinosaur bones claimed to be 70 million years old. If there is organic matter in fossil bones there is no reason it can’t be found by modern microscopy and chemical analysis, or by the old fashioned dog nose. However, it does cause a problem for those who believe fossil bones are millions of years old.

Even if Steve Salisbury is correct about the process of fossilisation replacing original organic matter with minerals, and thus turning the bones into rock, it means that if fossil bones really are millions of years old then this mineralisation process should be complete, and fossil bones should have the same chemical composition as rock. So there is a simple solution to Steve’s dilemma – the fossil bones are not millions of years old. Finding a supposedly 25 million year old oyster shell with flesh still in it just south of Auckland, was enough for one young New Zealand geologist to cease believing in the vast time scale and side with the creationists. (Ref. palaeontology, canines, odour, fossilisation)

Evidence News 8 May 2013