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This article is from
Journal of Creation 34(1):13–14, April 2020

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The origin of flightless birds

wikipedia.orgGastornis
Figure 1. Gastornis, a large flightless bird from the Eocene of Wyoming, USA14

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Some organisms in nature have lost an organ or the ability to use an organ. This is commonly observed in insects that have lost their wings on islands1–2 and blind cave fish.3 Moreover, the loss of sight in cave fish is just a variation capable of rapid reversal, as shown when researchers mated blind cave fish from one cave with other strains of blind cave fish, and their offspring had eyes.4

Origin of flightless birds on islands

The origin of flightless birds, especially those found on islands, is also a challenge because evolutionists believe it is a form of evolution.5 Flightless birds are known from Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand, islands of the south-west Pacific, South America, and elsewhere. Many of these birds went extinct during the past 2,000 years, likely because of human hunting. For instance, many scientists think the giant moa of New Zealand went extinct 400 years ago when it was colonized by the Polynesians. There were several flightless birds in New Zealand at the time, but the moa was the largest, standing 3–3.7 m tall and weighing about 240 kg. Moa skeletons have been found by the hundreds in New Zealand swamps indicating just how common they once were. Moreover, Feduccia, an evolutionary ornithologist, notes that there are or were flightless birds on numerous islands across the South Pacific—at least one flightless species on almost every large island, including the remote Hawaiian Islands.6

How were these birds able to colonize these disparate areas? Creation science has three options. First, people carried the birds with them for food on a long voyage and some escaped or were allowed to escape after they arrived on a distant island. Second, the ancestors of these birds could fly and their descendants became flightless and increased in size after arrival. Third, the birds could never fly, but they were carried to these isolated areas on log or vegetation mats soon after the Flood.

Cserhati reports that the white-throated rail flew to several islands in the south-west Indian Ocean from Madagascar and Mayotte and rapidly lost their ability to fly—several times on different islands under specific conditions.7 Mayotte is part of the Comoros Archipelago between north-west Madagascar and south-east Africa. Specific conditions favouring their survival are the lack of predators and other animals that would compete for food. The authors of the original article in Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society believe the loss of flight demonstrates ‘evolution’. But how can this be, since it is a loss of function and information rather than a gain?

Flightlessness believed caused by regulatory DNA

Many evolutionists now believe the reason for flightlessness was a change in regulatory DNA that controls flight and not from mutations in protein-coding genes.8 Regulatory DNA determines when and where genes are turned off or on, often due to environmental cues. To establish their case that the loss of flight arises from changes in regulatory DNA, the researchers used DNA that did not code for proteins and found that it was responsible for turning off genes for flight, which would eliminate the mutational mechanism. However, the researchers were not specific about how changes in regulatory DNA caused a loss of flight. Moreover, they admitted that mutations in protein-coding genes could be the cause of flightlessness in some species.

The researchers, of course, put an evolutionary spin on it, claiming that that such a loss of flight in so many birds is due to ‘convergent evolution’, defined as: “the independent evolution of similar phenotypes in divergent taxa”.9 However, there are several problems with this. First, one researcher said that whatever the cause, it seems like an ‘easy’ change:

“Rather, the ancestors of ratites [the diverse group of flightless birds] probably could fly and tinamous retained that ability, while related birds lost the ability, mostly because of changes in regulatory DNA, he says. ‘My hunch is that it’s relatively easy to lose flight.’”10

Moreover, the change could occur quickly:

“How much time is necessary for flying birds to lose their powers of flight has been a subject of some controversy. In the past it has often been thought that vast time spans were required—tens of millions of years perhaps; but it now seems more likely that the evolution of flightlessness and the concomitant attainment of large size, as seen dramatically in the ratites, needs relatively little time, especially on islands.”11

In other words, ‘convergent evolution’ in the case of ‘acquiring’ flightlessness is just an evolutionary name put on a process both creationists and evolutionists agree happens.

Second, the molecular mechanisms of this are not well understood.9 However, since flightlessness seems to occur so easily, rapidly, and often, how likely is it to be the result of random mutation and natural selection?

Finally, the researchers admit that the opposite, the regaining of flight, such as what many believe happened with the tinamous, is problematic:

“The alternative—a single loss of flight at the base of the paleognaths, followed by a regain of flight in tinamous—appears implausible given evidence for repeated losses of flight across birds and the lack of any evidence for regains of flight after loss … .”9

If it is easier to lose flight than regain it, then it clearly is much harder again to gain flight for the first time. As such, this disparity counts as evidence against microbes-to-man evolution.

Implications

Evolutionists now attribute the loss of flight (or at least in most cases) to changes in regulatory DNA, and believe it could happen quickly and easily. This suggests that the change in the regulatory DNA could simply be part of the variety built into some birds at Creation. Flightlessness then could have resulted from environmental cues, often associated with isolated islands, that turned off regulatory DNA, when flight was unnecessary.

The suggestion that flightlessness was built in at Creation is shown by the existence of flightless birds in the Cenozoic fossil record, such as Gastornis, an extinct genus from the early Cenozoic that was 2 m tall (figure 1). These birds are undoubtedly from the Flood,12–17 and represent pre-Flood birds.

The new research reveals the likelihood that post-Flood flightless birds made it to the remote locations by flying. Since it could be difficult to fly long distances over water, the flying birds could have found refuge on the remaining log or vegetation mats left over after the Flood.5,18 One factor favouring the existence of these post-Flood log or vegetation mats is that many creatures (e.g. insects that cannot fly long distances, as well as many mammals, amphibians, and reptiles) also made it to remote islands, including the Hawaiian Islands and Madagascar.19 The Hawaiian Islands are among the most isolated set of islands in the world, but they have an incredible endemic diversity of organisms, including spiders, land snails, crickets, fruit flies, molluscs, and various birds.20 It seems that log or vegetation mats are a plausible way to colonize the Hawaiian Islands.

Even evolutionists are forced to believe that vegetation mats must have aided the transport of numerous exotic creatures over large water bodies.21–22 Their problem is generating so many vegetation mats that are large enough to do the job. However, this is not a problem for the biblical model, as the Flood would generate more than enough log mats.

References

  1. Feduccia, A., The Origin and Evolution of Birds, 2nd edn, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, p. 257, 1999. Return to text
  2. Wieland, C., Beetle bloopers: flightless insects on windswept islands. Even a defect can be an advantage sometimes, Creation 19(3):30, 1997. Return to text
  3. Wieland, C., New eyes for blind cave fish? A remarkable experiment leads to much evolutionary misinterpretation, 9 August 2000. Return to text
  4. Wieland, C., Let the blind see … Breeding blind fish with blind fish restores sight, Creation 30(4):54–55, 2008. Return to text
  5. Oard, M.J., (ebook), The Genesis Flood and Floating Log Mats: Solving geological riddles, Creation Book Publishers, Powder Springs, GA, chap. 8, 2014. Return to text
  6. Feduccia, ref. 1, pp. 231–286. Return to text
  7. Cserhati, M., Rails derail evolution: the loss of flight is not evolution, 8 August 2019. Return to text
  8. Sackton, T.B., Grayson, P., Cloutier, A., Hu, Z., Liu, J.S., Wheeler, N.E., Gardner, P.P., Clarke, J.A., Baker, A.J., Clamp, M., and Edwards, S.V., Convergent regulatory evolution and loss of flight in paleognathous birds, Science 364:74–78, 2019. Return to text
  9. Sackton et al., ref. 8, p. 74. Return to text
  10. Saey, T.H., Bird’s flight loss ties to regulatory DNA, Science News 195(9):14, 2019. Return to text
  11. Feduccia, ref. 1, p. 266. Return to text
  12. Oard, M.J., The Flood/Post-Flood Boundary is in the Late Cenozoic with Little Post- Flood catastrophism, michael.oards.net/ PostFloodBoundary.htm, 2014. Return to text
  13. Oard, M.J., Flood processes into the late Cenozoic—sedimentary rock evidence, J. Creation 30(2):67–75, 2016. Return to text
  14. Oard, M.J., Flood processes into the late Cenozoic: part 3—organic evidence, J. Creation 31(1):51–57, 2017. Return to text
  15. Oard, M.J., Flood processes into the late Cenozoic: part 4—tectonic evidence, J. Creation 31(1):58–65, 2017. Return to text
  16. Oard, M.J., Flood processes into the late Cenozoic: part 5—geomorphological evidence, J. Creation 32(2):70–78, 2018. Return to text
  17. Oard, M.J., Flood processes into the late Cenozoic: part 6—climate and other evidence, J. Creation 33(1):63–70, 2019. Return to text
  18. Oard, M.J., Post-flood log mats potentially can explain biogeography, J. Creation 28(3):19–22, 2014. Return to text
  19. Goodman, S.M. and Benstead J.P. (Eds.), The Natural History of Madagascar, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2003. Return to text
  20. Gillespie, R.G., Croom H.B., and Palumbi, S.R., Multiple origins of a spider radiation in Hawaii, PNAS 91:2290–2294, 1994. Return to text
  21. De Queiroz, A., The resurrection of oceanic dispersal in historical biogeography, Trends in Ecology and Evolution 20(2):68–73, 2005. Return to text
  22. De Queiroz, A., The Monkey’s Voyage: How improbable journeys shaped the history of life, Basic Books, New York, 2014. Return to text

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Philip S.
Thanks Michael Oard,
Very good, I always suspected what is now called 'Epigenetics' i.e almost instant changes triggered by the environment, were involved, as in Galapagos Finch beak sizes, or white Arctic creatures etc. But what was not addressed is the seeming mysterious fact that the Moas, only wiped out c 500 yrs ago, alone in the Ratites etc, don't appear to have any wing bones whatsoever!? What do you think of that? Could it also be that some of the Ratites, like the huge Ostriches, Rheas, Cassowarys etc. never flew at all? GOD BLESS, Philip S.
Shaun Doyle
That is certainly possible. Still, even the complete lack of wings in moas could be explained by mutations to developmental switches for building wings. The point of the article is that flight is easy to lose, as it has clearly happened in several independent bird lineages throughout history. But, as Mr Oard pointed out, the fossil evidence strongly suggests that flightless birds existed before the Flood. As such, there may have been flightless birds on Noah's Ark. Still, it's harder to explain why Moas arrived in New Zealand if their ancestors were flightless, since flightless mammals and reptiles of similar sizes failed to make it to New Zealand.
Ronnie B.
Doesn't this whole article support the theory of "use and non use"? I have understood that creationist disagree with this theory but this article seems to support it rather well? I am a biblical creationist and I am confused. Did cave fish lose their eyes because they didn't need them? Birds losing their wings because of lack of need?
Shaun Doyle
In one sense, it may actually be correct to say that they lost these features in certain environments because they were no longer needed. But that doesn't mean it's a case of atrophy from non-use. Rather, these traits were lost because variants of the species born with heritable characteristics that produce flightnessness survived and reproduced more in that particular environment than those that could fly. In other words, it's a case of mutation and natural selection. Whether the mutation that caused flightnessness was random (i.e. the mutation occurs independent of its usefulness to the organism) is an interesting question; maybe it wasn't completely random. Maybe it was a case of directed mutation (see Designed to adapt?). Still, as the article points out, losing flight is much easier than regaining it, let alone acquiring it for the first time. In other words, flightlessness is clearly a loss of information.
WR B.
I have always had problems with the logistics of the "floating mat" theory for animal dispersal. Did not Dr. Austin find that log mats only floated in Spirit Lake after Mt. St. Helen's eruption for 8-10 years? I assume all of the animals that we are trying to disperse descended from those that survived on the ark-- 8-10 years is not long to raise the population levels that such dispersion is realistic. I admit I do not have a better suggestion for a naturalistic dispersal, but by man is a different story. Noah and his sons were great boat builders. Maybe there was much more of a maritime culture between the Flood and Babel, that was then lost in the Babel confusion.
I fear we Creationist look poorly when we suggest less than reasonably consistent ideas within the context of our own theories.
Howard B.
I would suggest that the best Biblical answer as to how birds, insects, vegetation, etc, are distributed so far and wide after the Flood is that the one land mass at the time of the Flood was broken up and separated afterwards during the time of Peleg. I am aware that this not the accepted view of CMI, but it remains, even though difficult to believe.

Blessings.
Shaun Doyle
The main geological problem with this idea is that it would require a geological catastrophe on par with what caused Noah's Flood. For more information, please see ‘In Peleg’s days, the earth was divided’: What does this mean?
Philip S.
Thanks for all that, and Shaun's input - but I would dispute a 'mutation' causing flightlessness as it is clearly part of the design. And non-use is not a random mistake as per accepted evolutionised use of the term 'mutation' - so maybe it's the term 'mutation' that needs redefining into 'good' & ' bad' mutations - in which case the good ain't mutations in the classic sense at all?!
Shaun Doyle
I did actually draw the distinction you mention; I just called them 'random mutation' and 'directed mutation'. Random genetic changes would just be copy errors, and are generally problematic. Directed genetic changes would be the product of 'search' algorithms in the heritable genome akin to somatic hypermutation in the adaptive immune system (see Did immune system antibody diversity evolve?). But, like the adaptive immune system, such 'algorithms' would have to be tightly constrained in what they can change to preserve the integrity of the organism.

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