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  • Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month March 2017

    By Mark Carnall, on 31 March 2017

    It’s the end of March which means only one thing. Well it means many things but in the specific context of this monthly series that explores the underwhelmingest of fossil fish, which to be honest is most fossil fish, from the collection at the Grant Museum of Zoology it means its time for a new one.

    But don’t confuse this perfunctory progress of the seconds, minutes, hours, days and months as an excuse for any kind of celebration. That’s not what we’re here for. Instead we are here to review a not-very-interesting fossil fish, unloved by all but the most…. no, just unloved by all. Why might we do this? Well as the French say, “C’est la fin des haricots”.

    So without further ado, as the Germans say, “Wer weiß, warum die Gänse barfuß gehen”.

    (more…)

    Underwhelming fossil fish of the Month December 2016

    By Mark Carnall, on 31 December 2016

    2016 was the most overwhelmingly underwhelming year of the last twelve months.

    But it wasn’t the only thing that disappointed in month by month instalments. Yes, of course I’m talking about the Grant Museum of Zoology’s underwhelming fossil fish of the month blog series. The monthly foray into the drawers and drawers of underwhelming fossil fishes at the Grant Museum brings you the finest worst selection of least best fossil fish. We ask the tough questions such as why are these fossils here? Which way around is this one supposed to go and what does this label say. This is the blunt edge of science right here.

    Of course, I’ve got an especially unspecial fossil fish to round off the year. Vast expense was spared to bring you just another underwhelming fossil fish to mark one step closer to your inevitable end. First up though, it’s END OF YEAR ROUND-UP FILLER CONTENT. (more…)

    Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month: January 2016

    By Mark Carnall, on 29 January 2016

    January 2016 was a big month for palaeontology in the media. This month you may have caught a programme on fossil Mesozoic vertebrate finds featuring one of the most beloved natural historians, some might go as far to say, ‘National Treasure’. No, I’m not talking about David Attenborough and some big dinosaur, that’s the easy route to media coverage. I’m talking about our very own underwhelming fossil fish on Radio 4’s Inside Science programme. If you’re new to this blog series, the humble goal is to increase global fossil fishteracy one underwhelming fossil fish from the Grant Museum collections at a time.

    You might expect that with the boost in coverage, we’d have some timely underwhelming fossil fish merchandise to shill, a calendar perhaps or a pack of underwhelming fossil fish Top Trumps cards. However, as I’ve told numerous producers this week who tried to secure the underwhelming fossil fish of the month film rights, this is not the UFFotM way. We’re going to be ploughing on ahead with yet another uninteresting fossil fish, not one that’s any more or less underwhelming, just another un-noteworthy, comme ci, comme ça fossil. No fuss and especially no muss. (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 198: Ammonite-ee-hee*

    By Mark Carnall, on 27 July 2015

    In both sad and happy news, I’m off to pastures new at the end of August, leaving the Grant Museum after what will be ten years and off to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Although that’s still a while away yet, the schedule for the specimen of the week writing mean that this will be my last specimen of the week.

    Image of LDUCZ-R16 Asterocera obtusum from the Grant Museum of Zoology UCL

    LDUCZ-R16 A clue to this week’s specimen of the week

    One question I get a lot working at the Grant Museum is “What is your favourite specimen?”. My normal answer is that it changes from week to week depending on what I’ve recently been working on or the specimens I’ve become familiarised with which have been requested for use by researchers. However, I do have a soft spot for this week’s specimen of the week which has been used in teaching and research and hundreds, if not thousands of people have got hands on with this specimen in family and school handling activities. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it hadn’t already been featured in this blog series either.

    This week’s (and my final) specimen of the week is… (more…)

    18th Grant Lecturer: Anjali Goswami

    By Dean W Veall, on 14 November 2014

    Dr. Anjali Goswami out on field work

    Dr. Anjali Goswami out on field work

    Dean Veall here. On Tuesday this week Team Grant celebrated what would have been Robert Edmond Grant‘s 221st birthday in the a suitably zoological manner raising a glass of sparkling cider (non-alcoholic, of course!).  The formal celebration of Grant’s life and his contribution to science is coming up next Tuesday 18th November with our annual Grant Lecture, now in its 18th year. This year we are incredibly excited and pleased to welcome Dr. Anjali Goswami, Reader of Palaeobiology at UCL,  to give the lecture and the following is a bit of profile/preview of the her and her lecture.

    Anjali Goswami’s research revolves around the contrasts between the early evolution of placental mammals (e.g. humans, cats and whales) and marsupials (e.g. kangaroos, wombats, opossums).

    (more…)

    How to tell an archaeologist from a palaeontologist

    By Mark Carnall, on 18 September 2012

    This post is something of a PSA to address a pet peeve of mine, the general confusion in the media about the difference between scientists working in biology and archaeology. Here’s a recent example of ‘archaeologists’ puzzling over Paleocene mammal remains. Puzzle they may because they’re literally 50 million years out of their depth. I doubt this post will really change anything and archaeologists will be digging up dinosaurs in press releases and science articles for many years to come particularly seeing as others have already covered this annoying and lazy habit that journalists, presumably covering the science desk vacation period, can’t seem to shake.

    So, as you might expect a joke to go, what is the difference between an archaeologist and palaeontologist? (more…)

    In spod we trust

    By Jack Ashby, on 25 November 2011

    Today I would like to celebrate the spod. There are a couple of definitions for this term relating to over-users of online chat-rooms, but the spods I’m referring to here are those that Urban Dictionary defines as:

    “A derogatory term used to indicate someone with one of the following:
    1) A penchant for academic study, above and beyond the call of duty
    2) Higher than average intellectual capabilities
    See also swot, nerd, geek.
    “You’ve already done your history homework? Dude, you’re a spod!”
    “I hate that kid, he’s a bit of a spod!”

    My aim is to dispel these derogatory connotations and praise them for their gumption, rejection of the norm and dedication to something that is important. I use here terms like geek and nerd to which I attach no negatives – and have to a great extent be “reclaimed” by people like myself, who do belong in these categories. Geek-chic is cool these days, as we all know, but I’m not actually talking about the fashion for being a geek-wannabe. Just dressing like what you think a geek dresses like doesn’t make you a geek. (more…)

    National Fossil Day 2011

    By Mark Carnall, on 12 October 2011

    As you all know, Wednesday is National Fossil Day in America, not that a national day is needed to wax lyrical about the brilliant things that are fossils of course. If we’re celebrating it doesn’t that make it International Fossil Day? In celebration of one of the better National Days I’ve decided to write about my favourite fossil at the Grant Museum.

    Although it is a zoology collection first and foremost, the collection does contain a number of fossil specimens and at one point was lauded by the Lancet in 1835 for being “almost the only comprehensive and accessible source of information in this subject in the English language” after Grant introduced ‘fossil zoology’ to courses at UCL. Presumably, this meant that at one point, the collection contained an excellent fossil series but they were presumably transferred to other institutions or lost because the current collection is a real mix and the fossil collection is on my “to curate properly” list. Big acquisitions in the 80s and 90s as well as the relatively liberal movement of material in between institutions in the past has meant that the fossil collection needs a large amount or sorting; the kind of slow, methodical and satisfying work that I often end up delegating to volunteers to do. In the past we have had some super star volunteers recruited form UCL Earth Sciences including a certain Emma-Louise Nicholls who documented the fossil fish collection and Debi Linton who went through our marine reptile collection, both of whom went on to hold posts at the Museum..

    Until our fossil collection is fully explored, identified, catalogued and added to our online database I’d like to highlight my favourite fossil specimen at the Grant Museum.

    Image of a fossil dragonfly from the Grant Museum of Zoology

    LDUCZ-L54 Protolindenia wittei

    My first role at the Grant Museum, despite being trained as a palaeobiologist was to document the entomology collection. Whilst in this role, I came across this lovely specimen of Protolindenia wittei from the Solnhofen Plattenkalk Lagerstätte (a Lagerstätte is a fossil deposit that shows extraordinary fossil preservation), a locality I was fortunate enough to excavate at during my undergraduate degree. The reason why I love this specimen so much is because it sums up why I decided to study palaeobiology.

    At a glance this beautiful fossil is easily identifiable as a flying insect despite being around 150 million years old. We are fortunate that this specimen even exists, the chances of this particular dragonfly dying and being preserved in such exquisite detail are astronomical.

    This insect already beat the odds by making it to an adult. As an egg it could have been eaten by a passing fish or washed away into waters that would have dissolved it or blown away to dry out on a riverank, never fulfilling its potential. As a nymph any number of creatures, amphibians, fish or other insects could have eaten our dragonfly. Even after it left the water and took to the air as an adult it could have been snapped up by a Jurassic predator (Archaeopteryx perhaps?) and perished. Upon death this insect could have been scavenged by ants, decomposed by bacteria or fungus or simply have fallen to pieces and been dispersed by the wind and rain.

    Soft tissue rarely preserves in the fossil record because in a number of minutes, once living tissue starts to degrade and decompose. The preservation of the fine wing veins seen in this specimen indicate to us that this dragonfly must have been sealed in a preserving environment very near to or even before the point of death. This organism defied chance by being preserved in such good condition in the first place but even rarer still has survived millions of years of Earth history. If this insect had been preserved at a different place the rock it was preserved in could have been exposed and weathered away, destroyed by volcanic activity, stretched or squeezed into an amorphous smear or subducted back into the core of the Earth through the movement of the tectonic plates. As if that wasn’t enough once fossilised it was then subsequently excavated in one piece, perhaps by a fossil hunter or quarryman and fortunately not destroyed by a pick axe, hammer or pneumatic drill or misplaced or destroyed after its discovery.

    You can see that the probability of that tiny egg hatching, the larva reaching adulthood and then being perfectly captured in the rock record, excavated and eventually ending up on display at the Grant Museum is statistically so slim as to be impossible. For me this is what makes every fossil, from the complete skeletons of dinosaurs through to a humble dragonfly, truly remarkable. That we know what we know about the history of Earth and the life on it from the scientific study of fossils really is working with miracles.