By Mark Carnall, on 26 September 2013
It’s time for Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month again, our monthly foray into the unspectacular, underwhelming (except for the time we sold out) and otherwise uncelebrated world of long deceased fossil fish. Excitingly, this is the eleventh installation in this series (the previous UFFoTM can all be found here), this is particularly insignificant as eleven isn’t a particularly interesting or noteworthy number especially when we compare it to the somewhat overused ten and the dirty dozen that is twelve.
In order to commemorate the eleventh entry in this series I’m going to let you in on some behind-the-scenes stuff I was waiting to commit to the special commentary for the straight-to-bargain-bins DVD release Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month: The Official Movie (working title), however, due to Hollywood outright rejecting the idea for the film I thought I’d present it here.
This series started as a way of making the most out of the large, underwhelming, fossil fish collection at the Grant Museum to look at the kinds of specimens that museums hold and to question why we have it and what, if anything, is the “use” of collections like these. So every month I go to our collection, pick a specimen (nothing showy mind) and do a bit of research. In only eleven short months, some shorter than others (February in particular) we’ve had laughs, we’ve had tears and we’ve all been particularly underwhelmed. You’ll be pleased to know that with one or two exceptions all of the UFFoTM so far have been from just one drawer. There’s just so much more to be
explored waded through in the never exciting, rarely crucial World of Underwhelming Fossil Fish. Without further ado, here’s UFFoTM #11. May we forget it instantly.
If I’m honest, I’d been avoiding choosing this specimen for quite some time. This was partly because it is in a glass-topped box, unlike the rest of the collection, but more importantly I had no idea what it was showing. It’s important to me and to the museum to appear erudite and knowledgeable at all times but this specimen left me at a bit of a loss. Have a look and see what you think it is:
From the rounded rim it looks to me like it could be a head shield but the little lump in the middle? A brain maybe? Just some deceptive looking rock? According to the ever-reliable label for this specimen this is a specimen of Benneviaspis sp. What we are looking at is indeed the front margin of a head shield and the ..ahem… bobbly bit in the middle is possibly the preserved eyes and part of the brain. Amazingly preserved I think you’ll agree. Here’s a close up of the orbit/brain area where some undefined structures can clearly be observed with what might be the eye on the left.
Benneviaspis is a genus of fish in the class Osteostraci. Fish taxonomy is quite tricky to get your head (shield) around as colloquially anything swimmy and fish-shaped we call a fish, however, there are many distinctly different ways of being a fish, particularly if we look to the fossil record. Osteostracan fish are one of the many groups of jawless fish called Agnathans. Most Agnathans are only found in the fossil record with the exception of hagfish and lampreys. Osteostracan fish are sadly extinct and found in the fossil record from the Middle Silurian to the Late Devonian, roughly 400 to 350 million years ago, unless you classify living lampreys in this group, the affinities of which are constantly changing. Reconstructions of Osteostracan fish resemble fish which for one reason or another have gotten their heads stuck in slippers. Benneviaspis specimens are found in Devonian deposits across Europe most notably Spitsbergen, Norway and Podolia, Ukraine.
Preservation We’re looking at the brain and/or eyes of a 400 million year old animal. Which is pretty remarkable. Osteostracan fossils are relatively commonly preserved like this in the fossil record, giving us a unique glimpse into the soft tissue anatomy of this group of fish. They can be so well preserved in fact that the histological detail of the bone can be studied.
Research Much like the Marussia-Cosworth team in the Formula 1, Benneviaspis is one of those also-ran organisms. Not quite abundant, spectacularly preserved, noteworthy or inspiring as other fish in this group or of this age. Like many of the other Underwhelming Fossils of the Month, when it does occur in the literature it is merely noted in passing as having a slightly different shaped head shield to other fish in the same group.
In Society If history is written by the victors, it looks like Benneviaspis didn’t win. It doesn’t adorn lunch boxes and other inappropriate measures of success and impact in popular culture. However, in researching this specimen I found a fantastic paper that mentions Benneviaspis in passing. Correcting Taxon Names Containing Diacritics: Examples from Paleozoic Vertebrates (Snitting and Blom 2009) is a paper about how some taxa of early fish contained a number of diacritics (accents, umlauts, circumflexes and the like) in the Genus and Species names which are strictly banned under the rules of zoological nomenclature. It appears that a number of these names and illegal characters appeared because many species of Palaeozoic fish were named after a group of palaeoichthyologists working in the Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet in Stockholm in the 1950s. This group of palaeontologists were named the “Stockholm school”, the nearest fish palaeontology gets to a rat pack. Given the runaway success of Scandinavian dramas like The Killing and The Bridge and the popularity of series like Mad Men in which nothing happens for hours on end I’d like to propose a 24 part series on the Stockholm school called Fishtory: The Untold Story of the Stockholm School. Picture the drama as Erik Stensiö identifies a new species of Benneviaspis. Imagine the tension as Hans Bjerring awaits the third referee comments on his latest paper. It’s a winning combination. Television producers get in touch. Let’s make fishtory.
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