What a storm it must have been! News reports said that hundreds of giant jellyfish once lived about 500 million years ago, but were ‘stranded by a freakish tide or storm’ on an ancient beach. Sand later buried them, forming fossils.1,2 With many specimens measuring over 50 cm (20 in) across, these are the biggest fossil jellyfish known.
Found in a Wisconsin sandstone quarry, it must have been an extraordinary set of circumstances that preserved them, geologists say, for fossilized impressions of jellyfish, which have no skeleton or other hard parts, are extremely uncommon.3
‘Preservation of a soft-bodied organism is incredibly rare, but a whole deposit of them is like finding your own vein of gold’, said James Hagadorn, one of the paleontologists who reported the find.1,4 Also remarkable is that the rock was sandstone (i.e. the jellyfish were buried in sand which later ‘cemented’ into rock), rather than fine-grained rock like mudstone. In sand, buried jellyfish quickly break down because oxygen readily filters through interconnected air spaces between sand grains, allowing rapid decay. But in fine-grained settings, Dr Hagadorn and his colleagues explain that ‘catastrophic burial and stagnation’ inhibit decay; therefore, jellyfish are more readily preserved. ‘You never get soft bodied preservation in that kind of coarse grain size’, Hagadorn says excitedly.5 ‘When people find a T-rex, that doesn’t excite me that much, because a T-rex has bones and teeth—really easy to fossilize. But to preserve a jellyfish, that’s hard, because it has no hard parts. Something is there we don’t understand.’
The ‘storm tide’ scenario proposed by James Hagadorn and his colleagues seems at first to explain some of the puzzle. They point out that when jellyfish are stranded on beaches today, they quickly fall prey to scavenging predators such as birds and beach-dwelling crustaceans. So why didn’t scavengers rip into these stranded jellyfish? The answer, say the paleontologists, is that these fossils are over half a billion years old, i.e. they lived before land animals and birds had evolved. New Scientist explained, ‘Because there were not any birds back then, the carcasses remained stranded until they were buried by subsequent storms.’6 So their preservation is attributed to the absence of scavengers and that the jellyfish were buried soon after they were stranded. But note that this ‘explanation’ for the absence of scavengers assumes that evolution is demonstrated fact—which it most certainly isn’t. And these jellyfish fossils certainly don’t support the idea of burial over millions of years either.
A scanned copy (right) of Hagadorn et al.’s Figure 3 on page 149 of Geology journal, February 2002,4,7 gives us a closer look at the evidence and we can determine how well their interpretation fits. The figures reveal a number of puzzles which the ‘multiple storm tide’ scenario does not satisfactorily explain:
The presence of beautifully-preserved ripples, so obviously evident in photographs A–F, is a major difficulty for the jellyfish-stranded-by-ebbing-tide story. Sand ripples are formed by flowing water, but when the tide recedes, the swash and backwash of waves on the beach completely obliterates any sand ripples formed earlier. Yet the Hagadorn et al. theory proposes that there were (a) multiple tidal cycles (vertical range approx. 1–2 m (3–6 ft)) before the jellyfish were buried under layers of sediment deposited each time the tide returned, and (b) waves (generated by wind). Clearly, the story doesn’t fit the evidence.
The paleontologists conclude that the ‘multiple generations of ripples’ (photo C) in the first few layers of sediment in and around jellyfish impressions, together with the absence of ripples within the central area of each impression (B–G), indicates that jellyfish carcasses remained intact through multiple tidal cycles. But today, whenever an ebbing tide leaves stranded jellyfish exposed to drying air and sun, the carcasses shrink and the stomach cavity collapses—i.e. today’s jellyfish carcasses do not remain ‘intact’ as the fossil jellyfish did. To try to explain this puzzle, the paleontologists suggest that perhaps the fossil jellyfish carcasses reabsorbed water (thus expanding back to their original size) each time the tide returned. But this is really stretching the ‘multiple tides’ story to try to make it fit the evidence. Instead, the evidence rather seems to show that the fossilized jellyfish were under water continuously as they were being buried under layers of sediment.
A major problem for the paleontologists’ scenario is that, today, when masses of jellyfish are stranded by a storm etc., they commonly pump their bells to try to escape. But the tell-tale ‘concave rings’ of sediment resulting from the bell contractions of dying jellyfish, as seen on beaches today, are absent in nearly all these fossil impressions. It would seem that the paleontologists are correct to surmise that most of the jellyfish were dead or didn’t pulse, but their ‘beach stranding’ scenario does not explain why.
In the quarry, the paleontologists found that ‘at least seven flat-lying planar bed surfaces contain hundreds of medusae [jellyfish] impressions’ (our emphasis). And the depth of these fossil-bearing bands of sediment from the lowest jellyfish fossil layer to the highest was several metres (about 12 ft). What a storm that must have been! Actually, Hagadorn et al. invoke ‘severe tropical storms’ (implying more than one storm) as the cause of jellyfish stranding, but their paper avoids any mention of a time period. (In newspaper reports though, Hagadorn is reported to have said that the fossilized jellyfish were ‘encased in about 12 vertical feet of rock representing a span of time up to 1 million years’.2) Was it one storm every hundred thousand years or so, for a million years? If the storm tide scenario cannot satisfactorily explain the jellyfish fossils in one of the sediment beds, how much more difficult would it be to explain seven? And in each case, the fossils have been beautifully preserved.
The evidence makes much more sense from a biblical Flood perspective:
The preservation of the sand ripples is easily explained. Being at depth rather than in a tidal zone, waves did not erode the sand ripples. Also, ripples can only be preserved when covered by a different type of sediment—in this case, the ripples in coarse sand were overlain by a finer silty sand and red oxidized mud.
Such a starkly different type of sediment is much more likely to have been carried and deposited by swirling floodwaters than by a returning tide in a beach environment.
The multiple layers of ripples (and the variation in their alignment/orientation between layers) reflect their having been laid down by sediment-laden currents of varying strength (thus the variation in particle sizes between layers).
This is much easier to imagine with swirling, surging floodwaters flowing over the continents than within the confines of a beach environment over millions of years.
The likely reason why ‘The majority of jellyfish were dead or did not pulse, …’ is that they were overcome quickly by sediment-laden water, smothered under layer-upon-layer of sand and silt. So most had no chance to exhibit the usual beach-stranding ‘escape behaviour’ (hence the absence of concave sediment rings). Interestingly, Hagadorn et al. suggest that the asymmetrical steepened edges of the convex ring in photo G ‘perhaps reflect’ an effort to escape stranding. But might this actually reflect the jellyfish’s attempt to escape from being buried (by an underwater avalanche of silt) rather than from being stranded on a beach?
The evidence indicating that the jellyfish did not dry out fits better with their being buried while continuously under water.
The absence of any evidence of scavenging was not due to beach-dwelling scavengers having not yet evolved, but to the jellyfish having been covered by sediment quickly.
The lack of any evidence of burrowing by worms etc. in the sediment shows that these layers were buried quickly underneath the overlying layers of sediment—consistent with the global Flood.
The seven sediment bands of jellyfish fossils, across several metres (about 12 ft) of layers, are readily explained by the biblical Flood. (And remember that seven beds are all that we can see—probably many more jellyfish impressions remain concealed within the quarry rocks.)
Jellyfish are essentially floaters, at the mercy of strong currents, and perhaps in the fast-moving, sediment-carrying waters of the Flood (Genesis 7:11), the bell-pumping action of jellyfish would have pumped silt/sand/mud into their stomachs and internal cavities, and as their sediment load increased, they would have progressively sunk to the sea bed, being quickly buried as layers of sediment built up. This also seems to fit with the carcasses all facing the same direction when they were buried, much better than does the Hagadorn et al. ‘storm tide’ scenario.
So, the evidence fits with the biblical Flood, not with Dr Hagadorn’s storm tide.8 As one science commentator said of stranded jellyfish:
‘Waves and sand destroy their bodies before they can be covered in sediment—essential for the slow process of fossilization.’9
But the long-age uniformitarian idea that the fossils are formed by sediments slowly covering up dead animals does not describe how these jellyfish fossils could have been preserved.
No wonder Charles Darwin, with his uniformitarian thinking, wrote, ‘No organism wholly soft can be preserved.’10
With all these hundreds of jellyfish fossils in a Wisconsin quarry, I wonder what Darwin would say now?