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Underwhelming Fossil Fish of The Month: November

By Mark Carnall, on 1 November 2012

NEW FEATURE ALERT! NEW FEATURE ALERT! Yes it’s the long awaited Underwhelming Fossil Fish of The Month (UFFoTM) brough to you by the Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy (GMoZaCA) at UCL (UCL).

There are a lot of animals, 1.5-30 million species to be precise* but after learning about 100 or so different animals from books we are read as children, visits to the zoo and from television our otherwise powerful minds start to lose interest. There are a lot of animals and for most people it really isn’t worth knowing more than 100 different types or being able to recognise more than the animals we see in zoos, on safari and on the front of cereal boxes. As we saw with worms the word “worms” is useful in day to day life even if it does describe thousands of species of very distantly related groups of animals. The same is true of terms like frog, butterfly, dog, deer, bat, sea urchin and fish which brings me on to why we’ll be focusing on some our fossil fish specimens in UFFoTM.

The adage there are plenty more fish in the sea is ever increasingly coming under scrutiny particularly for the fish that go well with chips. However, it does remain true that there are plenty of species of fish in the sea, this distinction is important but not obvious. Fish are the most diverse group of vertebrates. There are an estimated 32,000 living species of fish, which is close enough to the number of living species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians all put together. Yet if I asked you to name some fish you’d probably run out of types after running through a mental restaurant menu- cod, salmon, tuna, plaice, haddock, herring, mackerel, anchovy, eel ummm kipper? goldfish? shark? seahorse? Even then these names represent groups of animals rather than individual species. Cod can be one of 13 species of fish some of which aren’t closely related to each other, salmon(12), tuna(15), plaice(4), haddock(1 but might also be cod), herring(34), mackerel(38), anchovy(144), eel(800), kipper (is a preparation of herring), goldfish(one species with 300+ breeds), shark(380) and seahorse(47). Interestingly the seemingly chaotic use of the same name for different kinds of fish comes from unimaginative naming, suggesting a historical apathy towards fish and all their forms, as well as more recent occasional marketing drives highlighting the stubbornness of humans who will only eat fish they’ve heard of but aren’t fussy enough to inquire if the fish they are eating is the fish they think it is (a fish by any other name…). I haven’t even gone into how there’s more than one way of being a fish and how many people seem to get confused between the categories fish and seafood. Spare a thought then for the thousands of species of fish that simply don’t get on to the public radar.

So if in the public consciousness fish are merely backing singers to the more Hollywood animals, I hope you brought a lot of thoughts with you today because I’m asking you to spare a further thought then for fossil fish which are even less known about than the ones that are living, aquatically respiring and being overfished. Knowing about fossil fish is probably ranked in importance way down the league table sandwiched in between knowing about different zip manufacturers and the history of post box design. The vast majority of fossil fish are poorly studied, won’t be the starring characters in an upcoming Pixar movie (Finding Sparnodus anyone?) and perhaps the most tellingly they don’t even have wikipedia pages. We can change this though and this is where UFFoTM comes in! Each month I will be featuring one of the underwhelming fossil fish from the Grant Museum collection and all I’m asking you to do is look at it, observe it, take some time to ponder upon it and perhaps tell a friend about it. Together we’ll increase the global fossil fishteracy one fossil fish at a time.

NOVEMBER LDUCZ-V1452 Brookvalia sp. Scale = 5cm.
An image of the fossil fish Brookvalia

Just look at this beauty! What’s not to love about it? It is distinctly fishy, the typical fish shape conjured to mind by the concept fish. This little fossil fish is from the D.M.S Watson palaeontological collection. According to the label information it was collected from Brookvale, presumably the place it was named after, in New South Wales Australia. Brookvalia swam the Middle Triassic freshwater environments some 240 million years ago.

Preservation This little fish is wonderfully preserved showing the paired scales running along the main line of the body and the individual fin rays can be seen.

Research A very quick search of the literature shows that Brookvalia is as underhwelming as they come mentioned only in a list of “poorly known freshwater species” (Mutter and Herzog 2004) and referenced to show squamation- the condition of being scaly, which this specimen shows beautifully (Donoghue 2002).

In Society Brookvalia won’t be attracting visitors to blockbusting exhibitions or decorating novelty lunch boxes any time soon. Bands will not be naming their albums after it. It doesn’t even have it’s own wikipedia page for Pete’s sake.

The dream is to create some kind of UFFoTM Top Trumps number comparing card game. This is the only true way to assure that fossil fish are in the public hearts and minds so at the end of each month I’ll be giving each specimen a score card.

Preservation 8
Research 3
In Society 0
Underwhelmingness 7

If you have any Brookvalia trivia or are unhappy with the scores, leave a comment below.

Donoghue, P. C. J. 2002. Evolution of development of vertebrate teeth and scales: unravelling concepts, regulatory theories and homologies Paleobiology 28: 474-507

Mutter, R. J. and Herzog, A. 2004. A New Genus of Triassic Actinopterygian with an Evaluation of Deepened Flank Scales in Fusiform Fossil Fishes. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 24(4):794-801

* Obviously this huge range isn’t very precise at all. Every now and then the museum will receive an email or phone call from a TV researcher or journalist asking exactly how many species of X there are and it is almost impossible to give a concrete answer. The higher end of this range is an informed but speculative estimate of the number of animal species based on how much of the animal world is left to discover. The lower end of the range is roughly the number of properly described and published species however, this number changes virtually every day as zoologists and palaeontologists discover new species or discover that older species turn out to not be as distinct as initially thought and get demoted to subspecies or just lumped together. A further complication is that a lot of assessments of how many species of X there are tend to focus on extant animals and not their fossil representatives such as this lovely resource, currently for mammals only, One Zoom from Imperial College London. There is a fine research tradition in estimating the number of species of organisms and there’s more than a blog articles worth to consider. The short story is, there are a lot of animal species.

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