Hibernation Before the Flood?

Skeletal reconstruction of a Lystrosaurus on display at Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, Paris. Taken from Wikimedia Commons, photograph by FunkMonk.

In my last post, I talk a little bit about how creationists and evolutionists can agree on things. I do not want to give the impression that creationists should abandon the Bible, the basis of truth, and unquestioningly accept claims made by evolutionists. My point was that we should not outright reject claims made by evolutionists simply because they are made by evolutionists. Instead of doing one or the other, we need to exercise discretion. This will require being careful of the facts, discriminating between observations and claims, and a firm grasp on our foundational beliefs.

To illustrate this, I want to talk about a recent discovery concerning the fossils of a creature called Lystrosaurus. Lystrosaurus was a creature that roughly looked like a fat pig with a beak and a pair of tusks. It belongs to a group of animals called the therapsids, which have been called “mammal-like reptiles.” The truth is, therapsids were neither reptiles nor mammals, probably having an appearance that would be a mixture of both. Lystrosaurus has been known for a long time, and has kind of become the “poster boy” for a group of therapsids called the dicynodonts. Their fossils are known from many locations, including India, China, Mongolia, South Africa, and Antarctica.

I will be looking at the new information about Lystrosaurus as it is presented in an article titled, “Fossil evidence of ‘hibernation-like’ state in 250-million-year-old Antarctic animal.” The summary of the article reads as follows:

Scientists report evidence of a hibernation-like state in Lystrosaurus, an animal that lived in Antarctica during the Early Triassic, some 250 million years ago. The fossils are the oldest evidence of a hibernation-like state in a vertebrate, and indicate that torpor — a general term for hibernation and similar states in which animals temporarily lower their metabolic rate to get through a tough season — arose in vertebrates even before mammals and dinosaurs evolved.

James Urton (2020) “Fossil evidence of ‘hibernation-like’ state in 250-million-year-old Antarctic animal” retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/08/200827102111.htm on August 29, 2020.

Clearly, there are several “red flags” that pop up. First is the claim that the fossils are 250 million years old. Second is that this discovery is presented as important because it shows that hibernation occurred at a very early state. Finally, it might be a little disconcerting that creatures that lived before the Flood, which is how we creationists would interpret Lystrosaurus, would have to hibernate. After all, wasn’t the original creation very good? Would we expect creatures to be forced into a state of hibernation in order to survive in a very good world?

Considering all of these red flags, should we just ignore this report, move on, and continue to think of Lystrosaurus as living in a lush, perfect pre-Flood environment? No, that would be dismissing observations simply because they are interpreted in an evolutionary framework. We don’t even know what evidence was used to conclude that Lystrosaurus hibernated, so it would be presumptive of us to dismiss it without even knowing what it is.

Before we look at the actual evidence of hibernation, let us first strip away the evolutionary interpretation that we have seen so far. Clearly, interpreting the fossils as 250 million years old is something that we reject. As already mentioned, we would likely interpret these fossils as coming from the Flood. Why? For one thing, creationists believe that the Flood was a catastrophic event that shaped the face of the earth and was responsible for depositing and creating the majority of the fossils that we find today. While there is some dispute as to which fossils are from the Flood and which are from after the Flood, it is generally accepted by creationists that Triassic rocks are almost certainly from the Flood.

By the way, that is another adjustment that we have to make to the interpretation given in this article. A term like “Triassic” in interpreted two ways by evolutionists. The first is as a division of time. This is they way it is typically used, as in the Triassic period. Another use is understanding the Triassic to mean a time-rock unit. That is, the Triassic is a series of rock layers that were deposited during a specific period of time. While we would disagree with both definitions, the latter can actually be modified to fit Flood geology. Creationists accept that the Flood followed some sort of sequence, so the rocks should represent different “sequences” of the Flood. Thus, a certain layer of rocks, while not representing a millions of year sequence of events, could represent a specific sequence, period, or event during the Flood. For example, Triassic rocks may represent the time the Flood reached the land and began flooding the lower valleys. Thus, rather than simply dismissing the term “Triassic,” most creationists adopt this and other terms and reinterpret them in light of the Flood.

The last evolutionary interpretation that we need to strip away is the interpretation that the evidence for hibernation in Lystrosaurus shows that hibernation evolved in animals before the rise of mammals and dinosaurs. While this is closely related to the age of the fossils, as already discussed, there is a second, subtler interpretation. Lystrosaurus belongs the dicynodonts, creatures that are thought not to be the ancestors of mammals, but derived from the same stock as mammals. Finding hibernation in Lystrosaurus can be interpreted as showing that hibernation may have evolved before mammals and was inherited by mammals. As creationists, we do not accept that Lystrosaurus are derived from a common stock as mammals, as they would be long to separate kinds. For that matter, the mammals consist of several separate kinds as it is, and thus hibernation found in multiple mammals kinds is not indicative of a shared, common ancestry, but rather of common planning by a common Creator.

Skeletal reconstruction of a Lystrosaurus on display at the Museum of Paleontology, Tuebingen. Taken from Wikimedia Commons, photograph by Ghedoghedo

Now that we have stripped away the evolutionary assumptions that are present in the article, what remains? The claim that Lystrosaurus was capable of hibernation. Note that none of the assumptions that we have stripped away caused the authors to interpret Lystrosaurus as an animal that was capable of hibernation. In other words, the hibernation conclusion is independent of the theory of evolution. Let us then consider the evidence for hibernation as objectively as possible.

According to the article, the evidence of hibernation consists of distinct growth lines in the tusks of some Lystrosaurus skeletons. Much like tree rings,the tusks grow by the addition of new material on top of the old material. The result is successive rings of growth, and the appearance of this growth can indicate how the animal grew. In this particular case, the scientists noted that some Lystrosaurus tusks have closely spaced, thick rings, which they interpret as periods of very little to no growth. Interestingly, these thick rings are only found in Lystrosaurus fossils found in Antarctica, while Lystrosaurus fossils found in South Africa lack these rings. The scientists concluded that these thick growth rings were due to hibernation, and that the Lystrosaurus found in South Africa were far enough north that they did not need to hibernate while those in Antarctica needed to hibernate.

It should be noted that the scientsts were clear that they were speculating. They thought the hibernation interpretation was a good one, but they acknowledged that they “cannot definitively conclude that Lystrosaurus underwent true hibernation.” An interpretation is given, but it is acknowledged that there is more research and information that could inform that interpretation.

What are we, as creationists, to make of these distinct rings? On the one hand, if this pattern was noted in animals today, we would probably have no problem accepting the hibernation interpretation. We run into a potential wrinkle, however, if we acknowledge that Lystrosaurus fossils come from the Flood (and most creationists would make that assertion). The wrinkle is, the pre-Fall world is often interpreted as a perfect, pristine place, with no death nor struggle for survival. After all, God decreed after His creation on the sixth day that His creation was very good. Sure, things changed after the Fall and death came into the picture, but there were still lingering aspects of that perfection, right? Can we accept that a very good creation would require creatures to hibernate in order to survive a harsh winter? Does hibernation imply that creatures are “escaping death due to winter”?

We need to be careful with our interpretation of “very good.” The first thing to note is that this is not the same thing as “perfect.” Perfect means that things are complete: nothing more needs to be added or changed. In other words, as perfect as the pr-Fall world was, we do not know how complete it really was. Did God create world that was supposed to last indefinitely, but Adam’s sin threw a spanner in the works, or did God create the world knowing full well that it was not going to last, and thus did not create the world to last indefinitely but only long enough to last until the Fall? We do not know, simply because we are not told. Similarly, we are not told how the no-death-before-the-Fall worked. Were creatures immune to harm (as in, falling off a cliff would result in no damage) or did God not allow creatures to be put in mortal peril (as in, God redirected creatures away from cliffs)? If the latter is true, God may have created the world with places that He knew would get too cold and inhospitable during the winter. We know that there were winters because the Sun, Moon, and stars were created for signs, seasons, days, and years (Gen. 1:14). God then created creatures that lived in those places so that they hibernate and would avoid the harsh winter. Such an interpretation is not inconsistent with a very good world if God knowing set things up that way, because in the end, there is still no death and suffering.

In conclusion, accepting hibernation in the pre-Flood world is a distinct possibility. It may not be our first guess, but there is no reason to reject it as contradictory to the Genesis account. As such, the evidence for hibernation in Lystrosaurus can be accepted as it is: maybe the interpretation is wrong, but for right now, it is a pretty good explanation of the data.

Notice how we walked through our interpretation of this article. We did not reject it outright because “it used evolutionary thinking.” Instead, we stepped back, pealed away the evolutionary assumptions, and sought the actual data present in the article. Then, we interpreted that data in light of the Genesis account, being careful not to let our assumptions about what the Bible should mean to interfere with out interpretation. We are able to do this because evolutionists can still be good scientists and make good observations and interpretations, if we strip back their evolutionary assumptions.

Thoughts from Steven