Will vegetarian crocs be a creationist treat?

Nile crocodile; Oasis Park, La Lajita, Fuerteventura, Canary Islands, Spain. Photograph by H. Zell. CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Guest post by the ever-alert David MacMillan. Mr. MacMillan is a freelance writer, paralegal, and law student in Washington, DC, and features in the independent documentary We Believe in Dinosaurs. A former creationist apologist and blogger with ties to Answers In Genesis, he now speaks out actively against science denial and creationism. Mr. McMillan blogs at Medium.

Young-earth creationists, who believe that all species are secretly capable of thriving on an entirely herbivorous diet (due to their interpretation of Genesis in which God created all carnivores as immortal vegetarians in the Garden of Eden), are quick to seize upon any example of omnivory in defense of their beliefs. They argue that it is impossible to tell whether a given species was carnivorous from fossils alone, as this would be “historical science” and thus entirely impossible to draw any firm conclusions about. They even suggest spuriously that because male camels have sharp front teeth, “If scientists had discovered the skull of a camel without knowing what living ones were like, they might well have reconstructed it as a vicious meat-eater based on its jaws and teeth.”

As an ex-creationist, I have a pretty good idea how groups like Answers In Genesis will respond to new findings in science. I predict they’ll greet the following news as proof they’ve been right all along:

Crocodiles Went Through a Vegetarian Phase, Too: Ancestors of modern crocodiles evolved to survive on a plant diet at least three times, researchers say.

For the new study, Mr. Melstrom and his co-author, Randall Irmis, analyzed 146 teeth from 16 extinct crocodyliform species. They used a method called orientation patch count rotated. From a scan of an object, the method generates a numerical score indicating the complexity of the object’s shape. “It allows us to compare teeth that have no landmarks in common,” said Mr. Melstrom.

The researchers gathered the complexity scores of the teeth and compared them to those of living reptiles and mammals with known diets. Half of the ancient species seemed to have been on the plant-eating end of the spectrum — “a genuine surprise,” Mr. Melstrom said.

But in their haste to trumpet their victory, creationists might miss a critical fact: these surprising results were based solely on the very sort of scientific inquiry they believe is impossible! Since they don’t believe it’s possible to tell what a creature ate based on its fossils alone, they can’t actually affirm this research. It would be “historical science,” and they would be forced to claim ignorance over whether these extinct crocodilians were actually herbivorous or not.

Fingers crossed to see whether they fall into their own trap.