By Mark Carnall, on 18 April 2013
In this series of monthly blogs we take the opportunity to reflect on an underwhelming fossil fish from the Grant Museum’s collections. Gazing at an underwhelming fossil fish helps puts the Universe into perspective and increases global fishteracy, sometimes as much as a percent.
This month’s underwhelming fossil fish is a looker. It’s the POPULAR ATTRACTIVE ICON of the fossil fish world. I’m in two minds about posting this because I can guarantee that as soon as it goes out we’re going to be fighting through crowds of screaming fans to get into the museum in the morning. We’ll be getting underwear and flowers in the post for it. Eventually, this fossil fish will become a UN peace ambassador, the face of a popular coffee brand and no doubt launch a perfume range and Brad Pitt will do the voice over (suggested range names- Taphonomy, Permineralisation, Facies (for men). Please suggest others in the comments). You were here when it started, your grandchildren will ask you if you remember where you were when this blog was posted. You will smile, look into the mid distance and profess “I was there“.
What a beaut! But be warned there may be more to this specimen than meets the eye. The head of this fish is preserved in not-quite three dimensions, I think it has been flattened somewhat, but the rest of this specimen has been prepped to trick the eye into believing that we have a whole fish here sitting on a plate of plaster. Interpreting and understanding fossils is a tricky business; organisms get preserved in a multitude of different ways from flat smudges to exquisite three dimensional preservation and occasionally it’s very easy to get caught out by skillfully created fakes, composites and casts. I took the time to closely examine this specimen and it’s very hard to see where the fossil ends and where the preparator of this fossil’s reconstruction begins. The area around the tail and fins has obviously been exaggerated to make the fish conform into a fish shape. The reverse of this specimen has been reconstructed with plaster so the specimen lays flat but I can’t quite make out whether the ‘plate’ this specimen is sitting on is reconstructed plaster or a very pure chalk matrix that looks like plaster. It would be quite a feat to fill the mouth of this specimen with plaster without damaging or distorting the specimen and without a microscope it’s impossible to distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t.
According to the label, the identity of this beautiful specimen is Hoplopteryx lewesiensis and this specimen is a rather nice example of one (here’s a comparative specimen from Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution). This species of fish is one that is well known from the Upper Cretaceous. Comparing this fossil with diagrams in the literature from the scales and head this identification seems robust. The fins have been destroyed by preparation or weren’t preserved in the first place and in life would have been much longer and broader, particularly the tail which forms a wide very fish shaped fan. This specimen is one of the many specimens that came to the Grant Museum from Imperial College London and is from Gravesend in Kent. Originally it was identified as Beryx ornatus, presumed to be related to today’s amazingly named alfonsinos but this name is consider to be a synonym for Hoplopteryx lewesiensis.
Preservation Aside from missing fins this 80 million year old specimen is amazingly well preserved. You can see some of the ribs showing along the back of the specimen indicating that this fish may have started to decompose but to find so many of the scales preserved in what we presume to be near life positions means this fish was buried before it began to fall apart, get picked apart by scavengers or rolled apart by currents. The specimen is preserved in chalk which is why determining where the plaster in fill has been used is so tricky but it a Kevin Bacon kind of way chalk and the Cretaceous are interlinked. The Cretaceous is so called because of the chalk deposits across Northern Europe, derived from the latin creta. There is also a suburb of Gravesend and is the name of a lithostratigraphic unit so if you feel so inclined you can go and collect some chalk from the chalk in Chalk.
Research There are surprisingly few research references to this species although there have been as many as eleven conflicting names for these specimens over the years making a comprehensive search difficult. Interestingly, some of the big names in palaeontology have researched fossils of this species. Gideon Mantell first described this species in 1822, naming it after his home town of Lewes in Sussex, another place where chalk deposits are exposed, identifying it as a species of dory. Twelve years later Louis Agassiz redescribed it as a species of alfonsino and periodically it was mis and re-identified eventually settling in the genus Hoplopteryx in 1919 (Patterson 1964). Since then this species is occasionally name checked as an example of a fairly standard and common fossil Beryciform fish. Which would be fine except the group Beryciformes is somewhat of a ‘dumping ground’- a place where taxonomists put a hodge podge of different taxa that are united by having excellent names. This currently includes alfonsinos, soldierfishes, pineconefishes, squirrelfishes, lanterneyes, fangtooths, spinyfins, pineapple fishes, roughies, nannygais and slime heads.
In SocietyBefore today Hoplopteryx lewesiensis has had no impact on society at large. It’s up to us now to create the legacy of this not particularly noteworthy fish. The small changes you make to your life could help raise awareness of Hoplopteryx lewesiensis. Perhaps you could name your child Hoplopteryx? Alternatively, you could create an offshore bank account under the name. Musicians you can chip in too Hoplopteryx lewesiensis is a fine name for an album and will help you stand out from the crowd. It’s on us now.
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