By Mark Carnall, on 4 January 2013
It’s the time of year for reflection upon what’s past and anticipation of what is to come. Fortunately, for the first time ever in January 2013 both of those time periods include Underwhelming Fossil Fish of The Month. Last year, brought us the unremarkable Brookvalia and instantly forgettable Diplacanthus. But against the odds some people were audibly whelmed by these ex-fish. It was with some trepidation that I watched all those end of year list shows over the holiday period but thankfully UFFoTM didn’t make any of them. So I’m taking that to mean a job well done. Maybe in some far flung future we’ll see Z-list celebrities and comedians you’ve never heard of discussing UFFoTM in “Top 50 Jurassic Fish of 2055” or “We love the Eifelian“. For now though it’s just you, me and an underwhelming fossil fish every month.
We spent seconds searching through the fossil fish collection for a fossil fish so featureless just gazing upon it is like glimpsing into the void, a quiet moment of reflection forced upon you as your eyes struggle to find any kind of landmark to focus on. This lovely specimen fits the bill perfectly.
Preservation The fossil you see above is a jaw fragment and what appears to be a couple of isolated scales from what is allegedly Aspidorhynchus euodus, a Mesozoic ray-finned fish collected from the Oxford Clay in Christian Malford. I say allegedly because you have to doubt everything you read on labels. Particularly in museums. Now this is where I tip my hat to many of the people who have worked and do work in zoology and palaeontology. How can you identify remains as fragmented and sparse as this not only to major group but to species level? There’s two possible methods. The first is that some people are so familiar with the remains of certain animals that they can positively identify specimens from even the tiniest parts. I know palaeontologists who can erect a new species of dinosaur from a few isolated vertebrae and entomologists who can identify a fly just from looking at their genitalia under a microscope (you know who you are). This is an amazingly useful skill and I tip my hat again to this kind of interesting but useless-in-the-event-of-the-apocalypse kind of knowledge. The other way of identifying scant remains so accurately is to, not-very-scientifically, look at the kinds of animals you find at a certain location and then take an educated guess as to the most likely candidate the tooth, jaw or foot bones you are looking at belongs to. I’m no fossil fish expert so I’m going to go with what’s already written on the label. Well not quite. There’s a spelling mistake on it missing the second ‘h’ (Aspidorhyncus instead of Aspidorhynchus) a spelling mistake that seems to be quite common as this Culture Grid entry shows.
Research A quick literature search for this species on JSTOR shows a single paper referencing this species and even that paper makes a single cursory reference to this specific species as being one of the oldest aspidorhynchiform species (Arratia, Scasso and Kiessling 2004). A somewhat dubious accolade.
Although this fossil fish itself isn’t particularly sexy, it does have a lovely matrix mind you:
the locality from which this specimen was collected and other fossils of Aspidorhynchus have set the hearts of palaeontologists a flutter with drama and intrigue. Did you know that the collection locality of Christian Malford, Wiltshire hides a Lagerstätte (geological site of exceptional preservation), the location of which is kept secret to prevent geological looting? Also, did you know about WDC CSG 255, a specimen which possibly captures a snapshot in time of a very Star-Warsesque, ‘there’s always a bigger fish’, pterosaur eating a fish whilst being eaten by an Aspidorhynchus all of which were eaten up by Father Time himself and preserved in stone? (Frey and Tischlinger 2012). It’s like a straight to DVD version of the fighting dinosaurs. Every month I write this, researching the UFFoTM leads us into territory that I fear may be a little on the whelming side. Nevermind.
In Society Aspidorhynchus euodus is to fossil fish as Brussels sprouts* are to Christmas feasts. Just there making up the numbers but inevitably given to the dog once dinner is over and ultimately responsible for the awful smells on boxing day.
In Society 0
Arratia, G., Scasso, R.A. and Kiessling W. 2004. Late Jurassic Fishes from Longing Gap, Antarctic Peninsula. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Mar. 25, 2004), pp. 41-55 URL here.
Frey E, Tischlinger H (2012) The Late Jurassic Pterosaur Rhamphorhynchus, a Frequent Victim of the Ganoid Fish Aspidorhynchus? PLoS ONE 7(3): e31945. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0031945
*I for one don’t mind Brussels sprouts so feel free to come up with your own analogies, perhaps put them in the comments in the format Aspidoryhynchus euodus is to fossil fish as xxxxx is to xxxxx.