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Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month: September 2014

By Mark Carnall, on 26 September 2014

Welcome to this month’s underwhelming fossil fish of the month, a monthly romp through the uninspiring and underwhelming fossil fish collections here at the Grant Museum of Zoology (and every natural history museum). Normally this blog is a tongue in cheek reflection on the countless fossils that are ‘important for science’ that lay untouched in museums stores. This month however, I’m reporting on some serious science. Apologies to readers who hate that kind of thing.

Last month a group of top palaeontologists, museum curators and members of the public put their minds together to answer one of the most pressing unanswered questions in science. Where are all the ghosts of animals? There seems to be a disproportionate number of white ladies, hanged criminals and wives of Henry the VIII who cling to this realm but where are the ghosts of all those millions of animals which have lived and died? Why aren’t the prairies teeming with the spectres of dinosaurs? Why isn’t the sea thick with the ectoplasmic apparitions of marine reptiles and fish? Where are the ghostly Carboniferous forests? One reason for this dearth of ghosts may be that it’s mostly humans who have unresolved business or revenge to enact upon the living, other organisms are more pragmatic about the violent nature of life and death. Another untested hypothesis is that you can only see ghosts of your own species.

This is definitely an area ripe for research but there are no research departments in the UK looking at the issue of missing ghost animals. With this in mind I made an astonishing discovery whilst looking for this month’s underwhelming fossil fish my only wish was there was a month normally associated with the paranormal, mythological and spooky when it would be better to announce this discovery failing that here’s September’s Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month.

Ladies, gentlemen, hermaphrodites, isogamous, agamogenetic  and non-reproductive sterile individuals I present to you the world’s first fossil ghost! Please note, this is a fossil ghost not a ghost fossil which is a ghost of a fossil not a fossilised ghost. That would be silly.

Image of fossil fish specimen LDUCZ-V from the Grant Museum of Zoology

The spine-chilling fossil LDUCZ-V1529 the first definite possible fossil ghost specimen ever described.

Of course, this fossil could just look like a spooky specimen, unfortunately, the museum’s PKE meter is currently undergoing maintenance and palaeontologists have yet to confirm if psycho-kinetic energy degrades over time like DNA does even if we could take a reading. According to the specimen label, this fossil is  ?Cheirolepis a genus of extinct ray-finned fish and the only genus in its family and order. This fossil would have haunted European and North American Devonian seas some 400-360 million years ago.

Preservation Initially, this specimen looks like little more than an ethereal smear on a rock with a skull but the impression of the anal, caudal and dorsal fins can be made out. Furthermore, the impression of the skin has been preserved along the full length of the body. Like a reverse headless horseman, it’s only the skeleton of the head which has been preserved although there has been a fair degree of what plaeontologists call discombobulation, a shocking visage no doubt striking fear into the hearts of mortal Cheirolepis back in the Devonian. Not much of the roof of the skull can be made out but the shape of the jaw as well as a portion of the lower jaw with peg-like teeth in place can be discerned.

Image of close up of skin preservation ofLDUCZ-V  Grant Museum of Zoology

Close up of the skin detail of LDUCZ-V1529. That’s over 300 million year old skin details your seeing right there!

Research Confusingly there appears to also be a genus of conifer also named Cheirolepis which seems to have had more research activity on it than our poor ex-fish here. One area in which Cheirolepis was important for research is that this genus is among the earliest fish to have evolved the skeleton of the cranium which went on to be the standard cranium structure in all ray-finned fish an accolade not to be shrugged off given that ray-finned fish are arguably the most dominant group of vertebrates making up over half the number of species of vertebrates, animals including mammals, fish, reptiles, birds and amphibians. Brilliantly, the cranial structure they perfected that went on to be very successful in the history of life on Earth isn’t preserved in our specimen here. As far as fossil ghost research goes there’s a popular fiction book called the Ghost of Fossil Glen, sadly a book about a ghost at a place called Fossil Glen not the ghost of a fossil named Glen. There’s a well known dinosaur locality called Ghost Ranch, sadly named to discourage the discovery of cattle rustlers. There’s also the concept of ghost lineages in biological taxonomy referring to lineages that have large gaps in them. Lastly, there are the ghosts of extinct organisms in modern ecosystems which some ecologists have ‘detected’ through the ‘missing’ parts of today’s broken and incomplete ecosystems, a theory which Darren Naish sums up in this blog post from 2013.

In Society. Given that this blog post is the first potential bona fide determination of a possible fossil ghost the impact to society has yet to be determined but surely this finding will finally put Cheirolepis on the popular culture map. Up until this turning point in history some of the great thinkers of our time have asked the question Why aren’t there dinosaur ghosts? With today’s extraordinary finding hopefully a new branch of palaeontology has been born with several fundamental questions that need to be answered. How long do ghosts last for? Can ghost go extinct? Is there a preservation bias for fossils of ghosts? If ghosts can pass through walls is the sea floor littered with ghosts of sea animals that fall through the water column? So many questions, so few answers.

?Cheirolepis sp.

Preservation 7
Research 3
In Society 0 (at the moment)
Underwhelmingness 4

Mark Carnall is the Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology

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