Living Fossils--There are None

Copyright 2003 G.R. Morton. This can be freely distributed so long as no changes are made and no charges are made. (

[Note: I use some old books to document my case to show how long some of this information has been known and to show how long young-earth creationists have ignored it--grm]

     The typical young-earth position propounds the idea that the animals found in the fossil record are the remains of the preflood world, and lived less than 5,000 years ago. This requires that the young-earth creationist find ‘living fossils’, animals which are found in the fossil record in identical form to those found alive today on earth. The interesting thing is that there are very few candidates for the title living fossil. Often the young-earth advocates will take paleontological headlines which say a ‘living fossil’ was found and treat it as if the same animal was found in ancient strata as lives today. But this is a logical equivocation. What the paleontologists mean by ‘living fossil’ is not at all what the anti-evolutionists believe.

     When I was a young-earth creationist, I believed in living fossils. Then I started looking at the details and found that I couldn't find a single ‘living fossil’ which was actually identical to the ancient form.

     These living fossils are “supposedly ancient and long extinct creatures which have suddenly and unexpectedly turned up living in the modern world.” (Whitcomb and Morris, THE GENESIS FLOOD, p. 176.) As it turns out, there are no living fossils, if one defines it as a living plant or animal which is morphologically identical to its fossil counterpart. Many of the ‘living fossils’ are quite dissimilar from the ancient forms. Whitcomb and Morris cite several of these cases such as Metasequoia, Coelecanth, Tuatara and Lepidocaris. We will examine these cases as well as some of the other claimed living fossils such as the horseshoe crab, the Port Jackson shark, Osmundas and Ligula.

     Metasequoia milleri is a Metasequoia species found in Eocene deposits of British Columbia. There are both histological and pollen morphological differences between the fossil and living species, M. glyptostroboides. (Thomas N. Taylor, PALEOBOTANY, (St. Louis: McGraw‑Hill Book Co., 1980), p. 455.)

Ancient coelacanths are NOT, NOT NOT identical to the modern Latimeria!!!!!!! The coelecanth was dredged up in 1938 in the Indian Ocean. It is very different than ancient coelacanths.

Note the size difference:

“Rhabdoderma, a smallish coelacanth, the size of a large minnow, is quite common in coal deposits of both Europe and North America. In the Late Triassic the extremely abundant genus Diplurus mentioned above was definitely living in freshwater lakes and rivers of North America. Also, up to this time almost all fossil coelacanths had been small fishes of less than eight to ten inches). But one species of Diplurus was much bigger (to fifteen inches).” ~ Keith Stewart Thompson, “Living Fossil: The Story of the Coelacanth,” (London: Hutchinson Radius, 1991), p. 87

The modern coelacanth, Latimeria, is 4.5 feet long. They are not identical. There is NO LIVING FOSSIL if by that you mean an animal exactly like the fossil form!!!!!!

Note the difference with the scales in the ‘lung’.

“When Smith found a remnant of the lung in Latimeria, he identified it by comparison to this median structure in the fossils and by comparison of both to the median lunglike structures of other fishes. It was identical except that it lacked the scales.” ~ Keith Stewart Thompson, “Living Fossil: The Story of the Coelacanth,” (London: Hutchinson Radius, 1991), p. 90.

Some coelacanths have very different fin arrangements:

“In the Triassic of Greenland there is a coelacanth genus Laugia that has a remarkable set of adaptation. Its hind or pelvic fins have become moved all the way forward and connect with the shoulder girdle; the pectoral fins accordingly have moved dorsally.” ~ Keith Stewart Thompson, “Living Fossil: The Story of the Coelacanth,” (London: Hutchinson Radius, 1991), p. 88.

Of the Tuatara, Lull wrote,

“In many respects the most interesting relic of all is the tuatara (Hatteria) resident on certain small islands bordering the mainland of New Zealand -- a Permian type although somewhat modified from its Paleozoic ancestors.”(94)

The Lepidocaris cited by Whitcomb and Morris is not identical with its Devonian brethren. The quotation from Ladd (The GENESIS FLOOD, p. 178) indicates that only the nearest relatives are found in the Devonian. Thus this creature is a living fossil only because it is similar to but not identical with the fossil forms.

Ginkgoes are often claimed to be living fossils. They also are different.

Klotz writes:

“The ginkgo, the sequoias, the living cycads, and the Gnetales have changed but little since geological times.” ~ John W. Klotz, Gene, Genesis and Evolution, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1970), p. 199

But the leaves of those trees assigned to Ginkgo are less and less like the modern variety the further one digs into the earth.

“As mentioned above, many of the fossil leaves assigned to the ginkgo group from the Mesozoic rocks are rather deeply divided. In a general way this dissection becomes more prominent the further back we go in the past.” Henry N. Andrews, Ancient Plants, Comstock Publishing, 1947, p. 166

This was the difference I was referring to. I would not deny that Ginkgo is probably the slowest evolving of the living fossils. But I would deny that there are no differences.

I would point you to Taylor, Paleobotany, p. 413. The ginkgophyte leaves shown there are quite distinct from the modern variety. I would also note that the fossil reproductive structures of these plants have not been described in the literature very often. (p. 412)

Horseshoe crab

“The Horseshoe crab, Limulus, according to the geological time scale, dates back as a genus to Triassic times. Protolimulus, one of its ancestors, goes well down into Middle Paleozoic times. Presumably Limulus ahs been unchanged for about 200 million years.” John W. Klotz, Gene, Genesis and Evolution, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1970), p.498

I have put a picture of the modern, Jurassic and Permian horseshoe crabs on the web. This is from Moore, Lalicker and Fischer, Invertebrate Paleontology, (McGraw-Hill, 1952, p.554.

Horseshoe Crab

Klotz gives the wrong impression to his readers.

One would gather from these statements that the same animal had been found in Jurassic and Silurian rocks as those we use to manure our fields. Unfortunately this is not at all the case. The picture cited above illustrates the morphological characteristics of three horseshoe crabs. Top left is the modern Xiposura polyphemus and is the type form for the limulida group. Top center shows the structure of X. walchi Desm. from the Jurassic of Germany. The differences are significant to the point that one must wonder about the use of the term living fossil. Top right is of a fossil named Palaeolimulus. Of this creature Moore, Lalicker and Fischer state that he is “A Paleozoic member of the Limulida which is closely similar to modern Xiphosura.”

Palaeolimulus is similar to Xiphosura if one is using a horse as a comparative but among horseshoe crabs, this similarity is much less. This illustrates that one must be very careful when accepting a statement concerning the similarity of fossil and living creatures.

The Port Jackson shark is often claimed to be a living fossil.

Of the Port Jackson shark, Lull states,

    “The ancient Port Jackson shark, Cestracion, has persisted since the Jurassic and members of its family are found in lower Carboniferous rocks” R. S. Lull, ORGANIC EVOLUTION, (New York: MacMillan Co., 1925), p. 219.

   This too is not a case of a truly living fossil for there are structural differences in the jaw between the living and fossil specimens. (Romer, VERTEBRATE PALEONTOLOGY, p. 100.)

    The Osmundas have been cited by Andrews as a case of a living fossil. The Osmundas are ferns some of which are found in rocks they believe are over 100 million years old. (Henry N. Andrews, STUDIES IN PALEOBOTANY, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1961), p. 113.) Once again, however, the term Osmunda refers to a genus not a species. In what sense can it be said that a genus lives? A genus does not breed as members of a species do. A genus is nothing more than a product of man's classification system.

The Lingula are brachiopods which are certainly mentioned as being living fossils but one must be careful. Lingula is also a genus and the species found living today are not quite the same as those found in the Silurian. Beerbower illustrates this by showing a reconstruction of a Silurian Lingulid L. munsteri side by side with L. anatina a modern species. (Beerbower, SEARCH FOR THE PAST, p. 171.) There are slight morphological differences. Besides the lingula are brachiopods and Moore, Lalicker and Fischer note,

“Among brachiopods, the condition known as homeomorphy is common. This consists of such striking external resemblance between shells belonging to different genera that, without careful study, one may be mistaken very readily for the other. Not only do we find shells belonging to different groups which have similar shapes, but their patterns of ornamentation may be nearly identical.” (Moore, Lalicker and Fisher, INVERTEBRATE FOSSILS, p. 217.)

  Cretaceous pines have twenty-five needles coming out of the same fascicle, today all pines have only two. (See Andrews, Ibid., p. 172). While evolutionists may not be able to explain HOW life changed, the fact is that life has changed significantly.

     The implication for Christianity is this. If God created life in the manner advocated by historic Christianity, where life was created and didn't change, then why does the fossil record display only altered life forms. If stability of morphological form was the standard then how do Christians explain the total lack of modern forms in the fossil record? To turn the question on its head, the data from the fossil record would totally disprove evolution *IF* the animals found in the rocks were identical to modern forms. *** The fact is the data to kill evolution just isn't there! *** To me this is significant point.

     Thus we may conclude that there are really no examples of living fossils that are truly identical with their fossil counterparts. This leads to the realization that the extent of morphological change is complete across both plant and animal kingdoms. And following this, we must also conclude that the morphological change must be explained.

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