Could All the Dinosaurs Have Fit on Noah's Ark?

ark encounter
Ark Encounter. Ark Encounter

In the summer of 2016, the prominent Australian-born creationist Ken Ham saw his dream come true: the opening of Ark Encounter, a 500-foot-long, biblically accurate recreation of Noah's Ark, complete with dinosaurs and other animals. Ham and his backers insist that this exhibit, located in Williamstown, Kentucky, will draw a whopping two million visitors per year, who will presumably be unfazed by the $40 daily admission fee ($28 for children).

If they also want to see Ham's Creation Museum, located 45 minutes away by car, a dual-admission ticket will set them back $75 ($51 for kids).

It's not our intention to get into the theology of Ark Encounter, or the opacity of its $100 million price tag; the first issue is the domain of sociologists, and the second that of investigative reporters. What concerns us here, first and foremost, is Ham's claim that his exhibit proves, once and for all, that two of each kind of dinosaur could have fit on Noah's Ark, along with all the other animals that lived on the earth approximately 5,000 years ago. (Since creationists don't believe in deep time, they insist that dinosaurs, if they in fact existed, must have lived at the same time as humans.)

How Do You Fit All the Dinosaurs Onto a 500-Foot-Long Ark?

One simple fact about dinosaurs that most people appreciate, from the age of three or so, is that they were very, very big.

This, by itself, would rule out the inclusion of one, much less two, Diplodocus adults on Noah's Ark; you'd barely have enough room left over for a pair of dung beetles. Ark Encounter skirts this issue by stocking its simulacrum with a scattering of juvenile rather than fully grown sauropods and ceratopsians (along with a pair of unicorns, but let's not get into that right now).

This is a not-surprisingly literal interpretation of the Bible; one can imagine simply loading the Ark with thousands of dinosaur eggs, but Ham (one presumes) shuns that scenario since it's not specifically mentioned in the Book of Genesis.

Ham indulges in most of his sleight-of-hand behind the scenes, in his interpretation of what the Bible means by "each type of animal." To quote from the Ark Encounter website, "Recent studies have estimated that Noah may have cared for roughly 1,500 kinds of land-dwelling animals and flying creatures. This includes all living and known extinct animals. Using a 'worst-case scenario' approach in our calculations, there would have been just over 7,000 land animals and flying creatures on the Ark." Strangely, Ark Encounter includes only terrestrial vertebrate animals (no insects or invertebrates, which were surely familiar animals in biblical times); not so strangely, it doesn't include any ocean-dwelling fish or sharks, which presumably would have enjoyed, rather than dreaded, the 40-day Flood.

How Many "Kinds" of Dinosaurs Were There?

To date, paleontologists have named nearly 1,000 genera of dinosaurs, many of which embrace multiple species. (Roughly speaking, a "species" refers to a population of animals that can interbreed with one another; this kind of sexual compatibility may or may not exist at the genus level.) Let's bend over backward in the creationist direction and agree that each genus represents a different "kind" of dinosaur.

But Ken Ham goes still further; he insists that there were really only 50 or so different "kinds" of dinosaurs, and that two of each could easily have fit on the Ark. By the same token, he manages to whittle down the 10 million or so animal species that we know existed, even during biblical times, into a "worst case scenario" of 7,000, simply, it seems, by waving his arms.

This, however, understates the disconnect between dinosaur science and creationism. Ken Ham may choose not to believe in geologic time, but he still has to account for the existing fossil evidence, which speaks to literally hundreds of thousands of genera of mammals, amphibians, reptiles and birds. Either dinosaurs ruled the earth for 165 million years, from the middle Triassic period to the end of the Cretaceous, or all these dinosaurs existed over the last 6,000 years.

In either case, that's a lot of dinosaur "kinds," including many we haven't discovered yet. Now consider life as a whole, not just dinosaurs, and the numbers become truly mind-boggling: one can easily imagine more than a billion separate animal genera existing on earth since, say, the Cambrian Explosion.

Bottom Line: Could All the Dinosaurs Have Fit on Noah's Ark?

As you might have already guessed, the answer to this question comes down to the issue of "kinds," "types" and "species." Ken Ham and his creationist supporters aren't scientists--a fact of which they're unquestionably proud--so they have plenty of leeway to massage the evidence to support their interpretation of the Bible. Are millions of genera of animals, even in the time frame of a Young Earth, too much? Let's whittle the number down to 1,500, on the word of biblical scholars. Would the inclusion of insects and invertebrates throw the Ark's proportions out of whack? Let's jettison them, too, no one will object.

Instead of asking whether all the dinosaurs could have fit on Noah's Ark, let's ask a seemingly more tractable question: Could all the arthropods have fit on Noah's Ark? We have fossil evidence of weird, three-foot-long arthropods dating back to the Cambrian period, so even a "Young Earth" creationist would have to accept the existence of these creatures (on the premise that scientific dating techniques are wrong and invertebrates like Opabinia lived 5,000 rather than 500 million years ago). Literally millions of genera of arthropods, large and small, have come and gone in the last half-billion years: trilobites, crustaceans, insects, crabs, etc. You probably couldn't fit two of each on an aircraft carrier, much less a boat the size of a small motel!

So could all the dinosaurs have fit on Noah's Ark? Not by a long shot, no matter what Ken Ham and his backers would have you believe otherwise.