To the Ark, and Back Again? Using the Marsupial Fossil Record to Investigate the Post-Flood Boundary
Keywords: Post-Flood boundary, marsupials, fossil record, biostratigraphy, Australia, South America
The placement of the Flood/post-Flood boundary in the fossil record is arguably one of the more important questions yet to reach consensus in creation science. Its placement affects how we view the geological and paleontological records, the limits and diversification of biological kinds, and the ecological and biogeographical differences between the pre- and post-Flood worlds.
Historically, creationists have suggested placement of the post-Flood boundary anywhere from the Hadean to within the Pleistocene (Holt 1996; Wise 2006). Today there are two primary camps, with late post-Flood boundary proponents typically placing the boundary within the Cenozoic, somewhere above the Oligocene-Miocene boundary (Oard 2008–2020), while early post-Flood boundary proponents place the boundary at or near the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary (Austin et al. 1994; Whitmore and Wise 2008). Within each camp are researchers who may differ on exactly where the post-Flood boundary is placed, or even whether the boundary can be applied to exactly the same position within strata around the world (Oard 2010; Walker 2014a, 2014b; Whitmore 2006).
It can be readily determined that if the post-Flood boundary is found in later strata (for example, between the Pliocene and Pleistocene), this means that some organisms with limited biogeographical ranges (both in modern times and as seen in the fossil record) would have been living in a certain geographical region before the Flood, then upon disembarking the Ark, migrated directly back to the same region, leaving little or no trace anywhere else in the world. Take, for example, the thylacine or ‘marsupial wolf’ (Thylacinus), driven extinct in 1936 (Long et al. 2002), fossils of which can be found in Australia in Pleistocene, Pliocene, and Miocene strata (Long et al. 2002). If Miocene thylacine fossils were deposited as part of the last stage of the Flood, these animals, known only to have existed in pre-Flood Australia (however that continent was then situated), migrated to the Ark, in which they survived the Flood, then returned to post-Flood Australia. (Obviously, this scenario doesn’t imply a single pair made the entire round trip.)
This scenario is problematic (and not surprisingly, the target of skeptics [Moore 2004; Siemens 1992]). It is unlikely that the modern continent of Australia (or any other continent) was isolated as such before the Flood. Rather, all continents are believed to have been attached together as part of a much larger supercontinent (Snelling 2009). Given the vast changes in continental position due to the break-up of the pre-Flood supercontinent during the Flood, it seems unlikely that these (and other) marsupials would have specifically sought out their ancestral homeland in such a difficult-to-reach location. Invoking an innate homing beacon or divine guidance would be untestable and, in the latter case, simply God-of-the-gaps theorizing. Certainly, there is no reason to think that this geographic area would share some environmental condition both pre- and post-Flood, obligatory for marsupial survival. After all, South America has its own marsupials, and many closely related metatherian groups are found in the fossil record on other continents. (Widescale anthropogenic introductions [Woodmorappe 1990] can also be discounted as more imaginative than
realistic, given the complete lack of evidence of
human presence in the same strata as marsupials’
earliest appearance on either continent.)
Could it just have been the luck of the draw? At
a 2018 International Conference on Creationism
panel discussion, Dr. Tim Clarey, a late post-Flood
boundary proponent, proposed that the probability
of an organism returning to its original home region
after the Flood was simply one out of the number of
continents available (though he suggested five). If
we follow this reasoning (and correct the number of
continents to six, assuming Antarctica isn’t included),
thylacines had one out of six chances to end up back
in Australia. The problem with this assertion is that
that probability calculation (1/6) only applies when a
single species is considered. When multiple species
are considered, the correct probability calculation is
(1/6)x where x is the number of species considered.
This means that the probability of multiple species
finding their way back to the very same continent
from which they started gets much smaller as more
species are considered.
Marsupials are extraordinarily useful in this sort
of calculation, due to their high level of continental
endemism. Thus, we can place a post-Flood boundary
at different positions in the stratigraphic record
to calculate the probability of multiple marsupials
returning to the same location in which their pre-Flood ancestors allegedly lived.
Marsupials are famously distinguished by their
reproduction, with their young born immature and
helpless. Most female marsupials have a brood
pouch, or marsupium. Dental characteristics and
other morphological traits also serve to distinguish
marsupials from placental mammals and
monotremes (Dawson et al. 1989). Living marsupials
(and most fossil marsupials) are split between the
superorder Australidelphia (most orders found in
Australia, but also includes the South American
icrobiotherians) and several orders found primarily
in South America. The latter groups used to be
considered part of superorder Ameridelphia, but that
is now considered a paraphyletic taxon (Eldridge et
Marsupials are metatherians, which include a
number of other marsupial-like groups now extinct
(such as the South American sparassodonts, some
species of which were convergently similar to sabertooth
cats). Some of these have been included within
the Marsupialia in the past, but are now considered
distinct enough to simply be sister groups within the
Metatheria. These include species from continents
in North America, Asia, and Africa which have
elicited comment in popular creationist literature
of marsupial fossils in those regions, but which are
now considered non-marsupial metatherians such
as herpetotheriids, pediomyids, and peradectids
(Eldridge et al. 2019; Goin et al. 2016). (Attempts
to compare kangaroos to the herpetotheriids
Herpetotherium of North America or Peratherium of Europe and Africa, or to the peradectid
Siamoperadectes of Asia, would be like comparing
distinctly different placental mammals such as cats
to elephants. They do not share a relationship within
the same biblical kind.)
Two hundred and ninety-four genera of marsupials
(extant and extinct) were charted and marked to
show presence in any given epoch according to
data within the Paleobiology Database (via the
Fossilworks portal, initially examined 10/22/2018)
and other published sources (see figs. 1 through 14).
For the purpose of this paper, genus is used rather
than species because the genus is more taxonomically
stable and is more consistently recognizable in the
fossil record. This conservative approach best fends
off arguments that species are arbitrarily defined.
Genera are sorted by family, though organization of
higher taxa often varies by author (Case, Goin, and
Woodburne 2005; Eldridge et al. 2019; Goin et al.
2016; Long et al. 2002); those debates are irrelevant
to the purpose of this paper. We simply need to know
whether a given genus is found in strata on both
sides of a theorized post-Flood boundary. (Similarly,
there may be some debate over whether certain
genera should be classified as marsupials or nonmarsupial
metatherians. Again, that is irrelevant to
this calculation as the methods employed here are
not dependent upon the correctness of higher-level
taxonomic assignments. It may be used with any
group of fossil genera, including groups of unrelated
While it is true that the biblical kind is likely at (or
above) the level of the family, this calculation would
not be more effective or relevant if the family is used
instead of the genus. The focus of the calculation is
not on the kind, but on units within the kind which
appear to be the same both before and after a proposed
post-Flood boundary. If multiple genera within the
same family on the same continent are found together
in adjacent fossil strata (strata that are separated
by a proposed post-Flood boundary), then either the
genera form separate kinds (a problematic scenario)
or the boundary line is incorrectly placed. If the family
level is used, however, records may cover multiple
genera occurring in adjacent strata without overlap
(whether sister groups or ancestor-descendent pairs),
which do little to inform us as to the likelihood of any alleged post-Flood boundary placement.
On the other hand, species could be used as the
unit in future calculations, and would conceivably
increase the number of strata-crossing records. This
would simply require a rigorous determination that
fossil records are correctly identified to species level.
One additional objection that may be raised is that
the strata on one continent may not be equivalent to
another (i.e. Oligocene strata in North America may
not have been created at the same time as Oligocene
strata in Australia). Ross (2014a) responded to
similar claims about long-distance biostratigraphic
correlations, noting that they are created through
“observable patterns of fossils and rocks” based on
“observable, verifiable field data.” However, we can
include calculations here on a ‘per continent’ basis
along with an encompassing global calculation.
Evaluating Late Post-Flood Boundaries
Three possible placements for a late post-Flood
boundary are between (A) the Oligocene and
Miocene, (B) the Miocene and Pliocene, and (C)
the Pliocene and Pleistocene. Forty-six marsupial
genera are found on both sides of an Oligocene-Miocene Flood boundary within a single continent.
Thirty-one marsupial genera are found on both
sides of a Miocene-Pliocene Flood boundary within
a single continent. Sixty-one genera are found on
both sides of a Pliocene-Pleistocene Flood boundary
within a single continent. Didelphis (which includes
the Virginia opossum) crosses both Miocene-Pliocene and Pliocene-Pleistocene boundaries, but
is the only extant marsupial now native to two
continents, so was not included on either list. (For
the purpose of this methodology, ‘Australia’ includes
Australasian islands: New Guinea, New Caledonia,
Marsupial genera crossing the Oligocene-Miocene boundary include Abderites, Balbaroo,
Barguru, Bematherium, Bulungamaya, Bulungu,
Burramys, Cercartetus, Clenia, Cookeroo,
Dactylopsila, Djilgaringa, Ekaltadeta, Ektopodon,
Eomicrobiotherium, Galadi, Galanarla,
Ganawamaya, Gumardee, Ilaria, Litokoala, Madju,
Marlu, Microbiotherium, Muramura, Nambaroo,
Neohelos, Ngapakaldia, Nimiokoala, Onirocuscus,
Palaeopotorous, Palaeothentes, Paljara, Parabderites,
Perikoala, Pildra, Proargyrolagus, Propalorchestes,
Pseudochirops, Silvabestius, Trelewthentes,
Wabularoo, Wakaleo, Wururoo, and Yarala.
Marsupial genera crossing the Miocene-Pliocene boundary include Argyrolagus, Bettongia,
Burramys, Cercartetus, Chironectes, Dactylopsila,
Ektopodon, Hyperdidelphys, Hypsiprymnodon,
Kolopsis, Lasiorhinus, Lutreolina, Marmosa,
Microtragulus, Muramura, Onirocuscus, Paljara,
Palorchestes, Perikoala, Philander, Pildra, Pliolestes,
Pseudochirops, Pseudokoala, Sparassocynus,
Thylacinus, Thylacoleo, Thylamys, Trichosurus,
Wyulda, and Zygomaturus.
Marsupial genera crossing the Pliocene-Pleistocene boundary include Aepyprymnus,
Antechinus, Baringa, Bettongia, Bohra, Burramys,
Cercartetus, Chaeropus, Chironectes, Dactylopsila, Darcius, Dasycercus, Dasyuroides, Dasyurus,
Dendrolagus, Dorcopsis, Euowenia, Euryzygoma,
Hypsiprymnodon, Isoodon, Lasiorhinus, Lutreolina,
Macropus, Marmosa, Myoictis, Nototherium,
Onychogalea, Palorchestes, Perameles, Petauroides,
Petaurus, Petrogale, Petropseudes, Phalanger,
Phascolarctos, Phascolonus, Philander, Planigale,
Potorous, Prionotemnus, Propleopus, Protemnodon,
Pseudocheirus, Pseudochirops, Pseudokoala,
Ramasayia, Sarcophilus, Silvaroo, Simosthenurus,
Sminthopsis, Sthenurus, Thylacinus, Thylacoleo,
Thylamys, Thylogale, Trichosurus, Troposodon,
Vombatus, Wallabia, Wyulda, and Zygomaturus.
Using this data, we can simply calculate the
probability of marsupial genera from a single pre-Flood geological region returning after the Flood
to the very same location, whichever boundary
placement is used. Technically, there are seven
continents in the post-Flood world, and marsupial
fossils have been found in Antarctica. As most early
post-Flood boundary proponents agree, however,
that Antarctica was covered in ice sometime within
the post-Flood stage when Miocene deposits were
made, Antarctica would only be relevant for earlier
strata considerations. We can remove Antarctica
from consideration and use (1/6)x.
For the Oligocene-Miocene boundary:
Combined probability: (1/6)46 = 1.6 × 10-36
South America only: (1/6)8 = 5.95 × 10-7
Australia only: (1/6)38 = 2.69 × 10-30
For the Miocene-Pliocene boundary:
Combined probability: (1/6)31 = 7.54 × 10-25
South America only: (1/6)9 = 9.92 × 10-8
Australia only: (1/6)22 = 7.6 × 10-18
For the Pliocene-Pleistocene boundary:
Combined probability: (1/6)61 = 3.41 × 10-48
South America only: (1/6)4 = 7.72 × 10-4
Australia only: (1/6)57 = 4.42 × 10-45
These calculations clearly show that late post-Flood boundary proponents have a serious challenge
in the fossil record. The fact that these crossovers
widely occur on two separate continents is evidence
against complaints that it may only be an artifact of
Australian Flood Geology.
To go back to our original example, is it likely that
Thylacinus, along with so many other marsupials,
was found in one specific geographic area before
the Flood, survived on the Ark, and then made its
way back to that very same region (leaving no trace
elsewhere), now split off as the continent of Australia?
(Or for others, South America?) It’s not only unlikely,
it is highly improbable.
Evaluating Early Post-Flood Boundaries
The method in this paper provides a way to test
early post-Flood boundaries as readily as late post-Flood boundaries (though we can use all seven
continents). While there are numerous Cretaceous
metatherians, none of these are currently accepted
within the Infraclass Marsupialia (Eldridge et al.
2019). So, if the K/T boundary is postulated as
recording the end of the final stage of the Flood, there
is no data here that contradicts that.
Only two genera surveyed in this paper
(Bardalestes and Riolestes) cross the Paleocene-Eocene boundary on a single continent, both in South
America ([1/7]2 = .02). (Woodburnodon is found in
South America in the Paleocene, and Antarctica in
the Eocene.) Five genera cross the Eocene-Oligocene
boundary on a single continent; again, all five in
South America ([1/7]5 = 5.95 × 10-5).
Future studies should examine a wider range of
metatherians from these periods. This will likely
work better with South American metatherians. As
Eldridge et al. (2019) notes, “Particularly frustrating
is the near total lack of Australian fossil sites [with
the exception of the Eocene Murgon fossil site] preserving mammals from the early Paleogene,
as this is the period during which the Australian
marsupial radiation probably began to diverge.”
Does this calculation overexaggerate the
improbability of a Cenozoic post-Flood boundary
in Australia or South America? If anything, this
is a conservative measure. After all, this is not
a marsupial-specific argument. There are other
fossil groups which would likely pair well with
this calculation. Non-marsupial metatherians,
monotremes, camelids, South American primates,
caviomorphs, xenarthrans, and meridiungulates
all show high levels of continental endemism. Any
additional records showing the presence of a genus
on a single continent on both sides of a postulated
post-Flood boundary would serve as further evidence
of low probability that such a boundary is correctly
This study raises questions that may be fruitful for
How many marsupials kinds are there? Creationist
research on the subject is not extensive. Lightner
(2012) listed hybridization reports that could be found,
and generally placed the level of kind at the family
(but noted that for marsupials, “it appears that it
could even be above this level.”) Wise (2009) suggested
there could be 1 to 5 kinds within the Australidelphia,
and 6–11 within the ‘Ameridelphia.’ (Both of his
groupings appear to have been calculated with what
are now considered non-marsupial metatherians.)
Thompson and Wood (2018) used statistical
baraminology to evaluate a selection of Cenozoic
mammals. Among marsupials examined, they
identified the Palorchestidae, Hypsiprymnodontidae,
Macropodidae, Pseudocheirinae, and Phascolarctidae
as holobaramins. (Species within a holobaramin share
common ancestry and share no common ancestry
with other species (Wood and Murray 2003).)
Figs. 1–14 show 44 families of marsupials (along
with additional unplaced genera). If the biblical kind
is at the level of family, then there are, at a minimum,
44 marsupial kinds. If kinds are more inclusive (at
the level of order or suborder), then there might be as
few as 8 kinds. If the kind is constricted to the level
of genus, then there would be 294 marsupial kinds,
which is clearly untenable.
If there are only a few marsupial kinds, then it is
clear that the rate and diversification of post-Flood
speciation was very high. If there are more marsupial
kinds, then the question as to why marsupials
saturated the Australian faunal migration is raised.
Either marsupials had certain characteristics that
allowed them to take greater advantage of such
a migration, or there was a barrier to placental
mammalian migration that had little effect on
marsupials. (Simpson (1940) referred to such
selective passages as ‘filter-bridges,’ as opposed to
open corridors or ‘sweepstakes routes’ like rafting.)
For rapid diversification, creationists have a viable
genetic answer within the post-Flood period (Jeanson
2017), which fits well with an early post-Flood
boundary. (While Jeanson focuses on speciation
within families, his application of heterozygosity
as key to speciation is not inherently limited to the
family level. As post-Flood populations migrated
away from the Ark, speciation through shifting
population sizes and inbreeding led to increased
homozygosity, resulting in new genera and new
species, but also a decline in the rate of speciation
within each new species.)
Late post-Flood boundary proponents have a
problem, however. If multiple genera within the
same family are crossing the post-Flood boundary,
then we have to conclude that each of those genera
constitute their own biblical kind. This is because
there would only be one pair of each marsupial kind
on the Ark (being ‘unclean’ animals). We can see, for
example, that within the family Dasyuridae (which
includes quolls, marsupial mice, and the Tasmanian
devil), there are eight genera found on both sides of
the Pliocene/Pleistocene boundary (in fact all eight
survive today). It would be absurd to argue that all
eight of these genera (and a few others) were living as
part of the same biblical kind before the Flood, with
only one representative pair of the kind surviving
on the Ark, which then returned to Australia to
diversify into exactly the same genera as found
before the Flood like some sort of biological memory
foam. So, the late Flood-boundary proponent is stuck:
either each genus is its own biblical kind (contrary to
what most creation biologists would accept), or they
have to discard parts of the stratigraphic record as
incorrectly identified in order to fit the data to their
Early post-Flood boundary proponents still have
questions to consider. If the marsupial fossil record
is only found in post-Flood strata, does this infer
that all marsupials today must have diversified from
a single ancestral pair from the Ark? That seems
unlikely, stretching the marsupial kind to encompass
the entire infraclass. If there are multiple kinds, how
did they end up only in South America/Australia?
How did marsupials reach South America? Oceanic
dispersal likely played a part in the introduction of
several animal groups to South America from Africa:
South American tortoises, Chelonoidis, are most
closely related to African hingeback tortoises, Kinixys (Le et al. 2006); the oldest New World monkey
fossil, an Eocene primate from Peru, Perupithecus,
resembles Eocene anthropoids in Africa (Bond et al.
2015); South American amphisbaenids (burrowing,
legless reptiles) likely arrived via transatlantic
dispersal on floating islands (Vidal et al. 2007); weak-flying
hoatzins have fossil relatives in the African
Miocene and European Eocene (Mayr, Alvarenga,
and Mourer-Chauviré 2011; Mayr and de Pietri 2014),
suggesting a westward transatlantic dispersion.
Founder species utilizing oceanic dispersal are
usually small to medium-sized (de Queiroz 2005;
Diamond 1987; Houle 1998), diversifying into
larger species. (Most large marsupials do have
smaller kin.) This is an area which may be quite
fruitful for creation biologists and geologists; secular
research has suggested that transatlantic rafting
for Paleogene species may have been greatly aided
by favorable winds and currents (Houle 1999).
Of course, a post-Flood model would include vast
amounts of floating debris rafts (Oard 2014; Wise
and Croxton 2003; Wood and Murray 2003), which
could be favorable to larger species in transatlantic
dispersal. Ongoing secular discussion has debated
whether flightless phorusrhacoid birds dispersed
from Africa to South America, or vice versa (Angst
et al. 2013; Mourer-Chauviré et al. 2011). Within a
creation model, oceanic dispersal of this avian kind
from Africa to both Europe and South America fits
well with an early post-Flood boundary.
Did Antarctica have a role in post-Flood marsupial
migration? The creationist literature skews towards
marsupial migration to Australia via an Asian land
bridge with a separate route for South American
marsupials (e.g. Johnson 2012; Morris 1976; Snelling
2009; though Wood and Murray (2003) suggested
independent dispersion via post-Flood rafting could
explain marsupial colonization patterns), but an
Antarctic connection between South America and
Australia may be an alternative solution (though
would have had to occur within a relatively brief period
after the Flood). Several other Eocene metatherians
are known from Antarctica (e.g., Derorhynchus,
Xenostylus, Polydolops, Antarctodolops). There is
one Paleocene-Eocene marsupial genus, Chulpasia,
found in both Australia and South America, providing
a direct link between those two continents. Eocene
fossils referable to (or very closely related to) the
Diprotodontia have been found in Patagonia (Lorente
et al. 2016). Beck (2012) discussed an unnamed Eocene
taxon in Australia that exhibited ‘Ameridelphian’
traits. Clues are found beyond marsupials, as well.
A fossil platypus tooth found in Paleocene strata in
Patagonia suggests a biogeographical connection
(Pascual et al. 1992). Bourdon, de Ricqles, and Cubo
(2009) noted morphological evidence for a clade
comprising South American rheas and Australian
emus and cassowaries, and pointed out the existence
of an Eocene ratite on Seymour Island, Antarctica.
Once marsupials arrived in South America, could
Antarctica have provided a bridge to Australia before
freezing over? Within the secular model, Australia
and New Guinea separated from Antarctica during
the Eocene (approx. 40 Ma), while South America
became separated from Antarctica by the opening
of the Drake Passage (estimates have ranged
between 17 and 49 Ma (Scher and Martin 2006)).
The opening of the Drake Passage (likely aided
by the opening of additional seaways around the
continent (Lawver, Gahagan, and Dalziel 2011))
allowed the formation of the Antarctic Circumpolar
Current which contributed to rapidly decreasing
temperatures on the continent (Livermore et al.
2005). Semipermanent ice sheets began forming on
the continent near the Eocene-Oligocene boundary
(Ivany et al. 2006; Zachos, Breza, and Wise 1992).
This secular model offers the possibility of millions of
years for marsupials to travel from South America to
Australia. For a creationist, however, holding to an
early post-Flood boundary, there would likely only be
a few hundred years available between the end of the
Flood and the complete isolation of Antarctica. So is
this Antarctic bridgeway plausible?
One factor that has to be considered is how quickly
a species can spread over a continent in the absence of
predators. The fastest known example is the rabbit,
with 13 wild rabbits introduced onto a Victoria,
Australia, estate in 1859. By 1866, hunters on the
estate had killed 14,000 rabbits. Rabbits reached
New South Wales by 1880, Queensland by 1886, and
Western Australia by 1894. Over 2/3 of Australia was
colonized by rabbits within fifty years of their release
(National Museum of Australia n.d.). Whether
early marsupials could have spread that quickly
is unknown, but with regard to modern species,
Gilmore (1977) noted, “certain marsupials [such as
the brush-tailed possum] have proved themselves
to be capable of not only holding their own, but also
rapidly extending their range when introduced into a
If the marsupial fossil record is essentially post-Flood, what can we determine from the differences
between Australia and South America? Many
South American marsupials (a few, such as the
Didelphidae, excepted) disappeared, along with
other metatherians, shortly after the Miocene,
while Australian marsupials continued to thrive
and diversify. One factor may have been increased
competition with new species as North and South
America finally connected (Marshall 1988).
What else might we learn from the biostratigraphic
record? Creationists should look more closely at
developing arguments that utilize the fossil record
in testable ways. Ross (2012, 2014a, 2014b) and
Arment (2014) demonstrate two such objective
methods, using the fossil record to distinguish
between pre-Flood and post-Flood strata. Brand
and Chadwick (2016) noted that high percentages of
paleogeographic regional endemism in mammalian
families, particularly in South America and
Australia, suggest that all or most Cenozoic fossils
were formed after the Flood. Wise (2008, 2009, 2015)
introduced a technique (the Post-Flood Continuity
Criterion) which examines the size of the biblical
kind and notes patterns in the fossil record (disparity
of kinds and diversity within kinds) that add to our
understanding of the post-Flood boundary. Wood
and Cavanaugh (2003) likewise proposed ‘biological
trajectories’ as one means of identifying baraminic
lineages. Tomkins and Clarey (2019) attempted to
use Cenozoic whale fossils to contend for a late post-Flood boundary, though nothing in their results
actually rules out an earlier boundary (particularly
as their mapping emphasizes coastal fossilization
within a post-Flood continental landscape). There
are doubtless many additional testable arguments
to be raised and debated.
|Paucituberculata, incertae sedis|
|Peramelemorphia, incertae sedis|
|Dasyuromorphia, incertae sedis|
|Diprotodontia, incertae sedis|
|Marsupialia, incertae sedis|
|Australidelphia, incertae sedis|
Thanks to Todd Wood for a correction on my
initial calculation. Thanks to the ARJ reviewers for
knowledgeable and pertinent suggestions.
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