Is Fossil-Associated Cholesterol a Biomarker for a Young Earth?



Like many Americans, I receive a yearly physical. Even though I find these exams to be a bit of a nuisance, I recognize their importance. These annual checkups allow my doctor to get a read on my overall health.

An important part of any physical exam is blood work. Screening a patient’s blood for specific biomarkers gives physicians data that allows them to assess a patient’s risk for various diseases. For example, the blood levels of total cholesterol and the ratio of HDLs to LDLs serve as useful biomarkers for cardiovascular disease.


Figure 1: Cholesterol. Image credit: BorisTM. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons,

As it turns out, physicians aren’t the only ones who use cholesterol as a diagnostic biomarker. So, too, do paleontologists. In fact, recently a team of paleontologists used cholesterol biomarkers to determine the identity of an enigmatic fossil recovered in Precambrian rock formations that dated to 588 million years in age.1 This diagnosis was possible because they were able to extract low levels of cholesterol derivatives from the fossil. Based on the chemical profile of the extracts, researchers concluded that Dickinsonia specimens are the fossil remains of some of the oldest animals on Earth.

Without question, this finding has important implications for how we understand the origin and history of animal life on Earth. But young-earth creationists (YECs) think that this finding has important implications for another reason. They believe that the recovery of cholesterol derivatives from Dickinsonia provides compelling evidence that the earth is only a few thousand years old and the fossil record results from a worldwide flood event. They argue that there is no way organic materials such as cholesterol could survive for hundreds of millions of years in the geological column. Consequently, they argue that the methods used to date fossils such as Dickinsonia must not be reliable, calling into question the age of the earth determined by radiometric techniques.

Is this claim valid? Is the recovery of cholesterol derivatives from fossils that date to hundreds of millions of years evidence for a young earth? Or can the recovery of cholesterol derivatives from 588 million-year-old fossils be explained in an old-earth paradigm?

How Can Cholesterol Derivatives Survive for Millions of Years?

Despite the protests of YECs, for several converging reasons the isolation of cholesterol derivatives from the Dickinsonia specimen is easily explained—even if the specimen dates to 588 million years in age.

The research team did not recover high levels of cholesterol from the Dickinsonia specimen (which would be expected if the fossils were only 3,000 years old), but trace levels of cholestane (which would be expected if the fossils were hundreds of millions of years old). Cholestane is a chemical derivative of cholesterol that is produced when cholesterol undergoes diagenetic changes.


Figure 2: Cholestane. Image credit: Calvero. (Self-made with ChemDraw.) Public domain via Wikimedia Commons,

Cholestane is a chemically inert hydrocarbon that is expected to be stable for vast periods of time. In fact, geochemists have recovered steranes (other biomarkers) from rock formations that date to 2.8 billion years in age.

The Dickinsonia specimens that yielded cholestanes were exceptionally well-preserved. Specifically, they were unearthed from the White Sea Cliffs in northwest Russia. This rock formation has escaped deep burial and geological heating, making it all the more reasonable that compounds such as cholestanes could survive for nearly 600 million years.

In short, the recovery of cholesterol derivatives from Dickinsonia does not reflect poorly on the health of the old-earth paradigm. When the chemical properties of cholesterol and cholestane are considered, and given the preservation conditions of the Dickinsonia specimens, the interpretation that these materials were recovered from 588-million-year-old fossil specimens passes the physical exam.


Featured image: Dickinsonia Costata. Image credit:


  1. Ilya Bobrovskiy et al., “Ancient Steroids Establish the Ediacaran Fossil Dickinsonia as One of the Earliest Animals,” Science 361 (September 21, 2018): 1246–49, doi:10.1126/science.aat7228.
Reprinted with permission by the author
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Science News Flash: An Old-Earth Perspective on Dinosaur Feathers Preserved in Amber



Whenever we are in a foreign country, my wife loves to shop at local, out-of-the-way markets. She always finds some of the most interesting souvenirs.

It turns out the same is true for paleontologist Lida Xing who purchased several amber pieces from a market in Myitkyina in the country of Myanmar. The amber sold at the market comes from a nearby mine in the Hukawng Valley. While most buyers are looking for amber to make jewelry, Xing was looking for amber with inclusions of plant and animal remains. The amber from the mine dates to 99 million years. Because of the amber’s age, the well-preserved plant and animal remains entombed by this fossilized tree resin offer a unique glimpse at ancient life on Earth, providing details and insight that far exceed those available from highly compressed fossil remains that typically comprise the fossil record.

As fate would have it, one of the amber pieces Xing purchased contains a piece of a dinosaur tail (perhaps from a maniraptor) with attached feathers! This discovery is described in a paper that will appear in the December 19 issue of Current Biology.Yesterday the paper was published online ahead of the publication date and it has already generated headlines both in the popular news and on social media.

This is not the first time researchers have discovered feathers preserved in amber. But it isthe first time they have observed feathers associated with parts of a dinosaur, in this instance a section of the tail (near the middle or end) that includes eight vertebrae. The anatomical features clearly indicates that the preserved tail belongs to a large group of dinosaurs labeled the coelurosaurs.

It goes without saying that this find has already caused quite a bit of a stir because of its important implications for evolutionary and creation models for bird origins.

An Evolutionary Perspective of the Discovery

For many in the scientific community this discovery further affirms the evolutionary link between birds and dinosaurs, with feathered dinosaurs viewed as transitional intermediates. Along these lines, the researchers describe the dinosaur feathers preserved in amber as transitional, noting that the feather’s central shaft (rachis) is poorly defined. On this basis, the researchers argue that the rachis was a late-appearing feature in feathers, forming when the barbs of the feather fused together.

An Old-Earth Creationist Response

As an old-earth creationist, I’m skeptical about the evolutionary account that has birds evolving from theropods. In fact, this latest discovery only adds to my skepticism.

Paleontologists interpret feathered dinosaurs from the fossil record as transitional intermediates between theropods and birds—including the feathered dinosaur tail found in amber. Yet, each occurrence of feathered dinosaurs in the fossil record appear after the first true bird, Archaeopteryx.2 Based on the fossil record, this ancient bird appeared on Earth around 155 million years ago. Archaeopteryx’s feathers were identical to the feathers of modern birds. In fact, the same research team discovered bird feathers in 99-million-year-old amber from the same source that yielded the amber with the dinosaur feathers. The bird feathers, like those of Archaeopteryx, are identical to those found in modern birds.

It is hard to imagine how the “primitive” feathers associated with the dinosaur tail (again, dated at 99 million years in age) could be transitional if they appear over 50 million years after Archaeopteryx and co-occur with feathers from a bird belonging to enantiornithes.

This problem is not unique to the bird fossil record. There are several instances in which presumed transitional forms appear in the fossil record well after the first appearance of their “evolutionary descendants.” In fact, paleontologist have a name for this phenomenon: a temporal paradox.

For a more complete discussion of the problems I see with the proposed evolutionary link between birds and theropod dinosaurs, see “Birds in the Fossil Record” (listed in the resource section below).

A Young-Earth Creationist Perspective of the Discovery

One exciting aspect of this find is the possibility that soft-tissue remnants associated with the features may be preserved in the amber. The researchers discovered iron (in the ferrous form) associated with the carbonized feather remains. They speculate that this iron derives from hemoglobin originally found in the tail muscle tissue. On this basis, the research team speculates that soft-tissue remnants derived from keratin may be present in the amber-entombed specimen.

In recent years, young-earth creationists have made use of these types of finds to argue that it is impossible for such fossils to be millions of years old. They argue that soft tissues shouldn’t survive that long. These materials should readily degrade in a few thousand years. In their view, these finds challenge the reliability of radiometric dating methods used to determine the age of these fossils, and along with it, Earth’s antiquity. Instead, they argue that these breakthrough discoveries provide compelling scientific evidence for a young Earth and support the idea that the fossil record results from a recent global (worldwide) flood.

An Old-Earth Creationist Response

These types of claims prompted me to write Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth. In this work (and elsewhere), I explain why the recovery of soft-tissue remnants associated with fossil finds is illegitimate evidence for a young Earth.

Given the structural robustness of keratin, and the preservative effect of ferrous iron, it is completely reasonable to think that keratin remnants associated with the feathers could survive long enough to be completely entombed by the amber and eventually persist for nearly 100 million years.

Though this find will be interpreted by the scientific community from an evolutionary vantage point and, more than likely, opted by young-earth creationists to challenge the antiquity of Earth and life on Earth, the dinosaur feathers entombed in amber can readily be accommodated from an old-earth creationist vantage point.


Creation vs. Evolution Controversy

Is There a Controversy about Evolution?” by Fazale Rana (article)
The Creation-Evolution Controversy in Jurassic World” by Fazale Rana (article)

Age-of-the-Earth Controversy

Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth” by Fazale Rana (book).
Can Keratin in Feathers Survive for Millions of Years?” by Fazale Rana (article)


  1. Lida Xing et al., “A Feathered Dinosaur Tail with Primitive Plumage Trapped in Mid-Cretaceous Amber,” Current Biology 26 (December 19, 2016): 1–9, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2016.10.008.
  2. Some paleontologists claim that the temporal paradox for bird origins was solved based on the discovery of a feathered theropod that dates between 151 and 161 million years in age. (See Dongyu Hu et al., “A Pre-Archaeopteryx Troodontid Theropod from China with Long Feathers on the Metatarsus,” Nature 461 [October 1, 2009]: 640–43, doi:10.1038/nature08322.) However, at best, this find demonstrates the co-occurrence of feathered dinosaurs and the first true bird, when the error bars of the age-date measurements are taken into account.
  3. Lida Xing et al., “Mummified Precocial Bird Wings in Mid-Cretaceous Burmese Amber,” Nature Communications 7 (June 28, 2016): 12089, doi:10.1038/ncomms12089.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at: