By Mark Carnall, on 22 August 2013
This is the tenth in the Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month series, you can find all of the previous UFFotM posts here. In order to celebrate this minor milestone (the last time you’ll be able to count the total number underwhelming fossil fish of the months on two hands without carrying one over & only two UFFotM away from a calendar’s worth) we’ve got a VIUFFotM for you. One of a kind. They say that all underwhelming fossil fish are born equal. But we all know that some underwhelming fossil fish are more equal than others. This month’s is one of those.
Can you tell what’s special about it? It looks like any old common household underwhelming fossil fish right? What about the underside you say? Seasoned UFFotMers know about such underside tricks. Well here’s a peek at the verso. Look closely now.
Some of the UFFotM massive may have spotted it, it’s hard to spot, but this fossil is in fact a type specimen. I know right? Pretty special. Type specimens are the original gangsters (OGs) when it comes to describing species in biology. Be it entomology, botany, zoology or palaeobiology if you find a specimen that seems to be distinct enough from everything else you need to formally describe the specimen and in that publication the specimen you use to coin a new species becomes forever more (well there are exceptions) the ‘type’ specimen. It’s the standard bearer for what it means to be species X, Y or Z, in this instance this is the type specimen for the species Endemichthys likhoeli. In theory these specimens are then deposited in a museum or other scientific repository and are classed as the most important specimens that need to be looked after for perpetuity. There are many different ways of being a type specimen, I won’t go into it here but there’s an excellent FAQ on the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature – the organisation whose sole purpose is to enforce the correct method and practices of taxonomy in zoology (there are equivalents for other fields). This system, albeit highly modified today, goes as far back to the mid 18th Century and means that you can’t go naming new species willy-nilly and that authors writing in any language can interpret the key taxonomic language being used with this system. You can see here the most recent descriptions of new species and tidying up of older terms
Back to this specimen, not only is it the type specimen for the species Endemichthys likhoeli but it’s the only specimen of this species that exists. There are no others (as far as I’m aware) that have ever been found or described since the description of this specimen here. This may be because the region where this fossil is from, Triassic deposits of Lesotho, Africa has not been ‘exhaustively’ researched but it’s probably because this species just isn’t very interesting or important to science. It’s another single data point representing a single genus and single species from a single specimen which aside from noting ‘is present’ is limited in use in palaeontological reconstructions of the past.
Endemichthys likhoeli is a species of Redfieldiiform fish, an extinct order of ray-finned fish (you can see the ray-fins in the image below). Ray-finned fish make up 99% of living fish species and just under half of all living vertebrates (other fish, mammals, reptiles, birds and amphibians). In terms of number of species alone, they are the dominant group of vertebrates on Earth.
Preservation As you can see from the close-up shot above what has been preserved of this fish is rather beautifully preserved and even without a head the describing authors deemed it distinct enough to erect a new genus and species on the basis of the body shape, the dorsal fin and the shape of the scales (Forey and Gardiner 1973). Adding to the ‘rarity’ of this specimen, fossil remains are relatively uncommon in the Cave Sandstone deposits in Lesotho where this fish was discovered.
Research Quite simply there is one paper on this fossil, the paper in which it is described as a new genus and species and only two other papers that refers back to it one of which is a list of fossil fish specimens from around the world and the other is one of the original authors referencing themselves. The paper ‘A new dictyopygid from the Cave Sandstone of Lesotho, Southern Africa’ is three pages long describing this specimen in detail with some comments on associated remains from this area and relationships with other redfieldiiform fish from North America and Australia (Forey and Gardiner 1973). The name by the way means Endemichthys “native to this place” and likhoeli is the name of the locality Mount Likhoeli.
In Society Given that this specimen was excavated in 1963 by UCL staff members Francis Mussett and Kenneth Kermack, loaned to Forey and Gardiner for description in 1973 and then subsequently sat in storage until it was ‘rediscovered’ in 2006 this specimen hasn’t really had much of chance to shine in society. However, it’s a testament to the digital age that we live in that Endemichthys likhoeli isn’t a google-whack*. Somewhat pleasingly the top Google result is a link to our online database so we must be doing something right, should anyone ever want to see this specimen.
In Society 0
Underwhelmingness 9.8 (-0.2 for being a type specimen)
Forey, P. and Gardiner, B.G. 1973. A new dictyopygid from the Cave Sandstone of Lesotho Southern Africa. Palaeontologica Africana 15, 29-31.
Mark Carnall is the Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology
* Technically scientific names don’t count anyway.