Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month: August 2015
By Mark Carnall, on 28 August 2015
And now. The end is near. It’s time to face. The final curtain. Lallaalala. De da da da de dada da. De dada dadada of which I’m certain. Hmmm hmm hmmm hmm hmm. Dah dah de dah dah da da. Da de de de and then a highway. BUT MORE, MUCH MORE THAN FISH, WE DID IT OURRRRRR WAY!
This is a very special underwhelming fossil fish this month, not normally something I do here given the aim of this monthly series of blogs about the Grant Museum’s overwhelmingly underwhelming fossi fish collection is to keep it low key and on the underwhelming side. Even if the series did recently feature on VICE magazine’s Motherboard channel, with bonus IN DRAWER photographs. However, this is my last underwhelming fossil fish of the month blog post as the curator of the Grant Museum. I’m off to pastures new with far less in the way of fossil fish, underwhelming or otherwise.
But that’s no reason to get too sentimental. So stiff upper lip, wipe away those fake allergy tears and let’s unceremoniously take a look at this month’s underwhelming fish fossil. Stretch your eyes and try to stay awake through this…
As you can see from the image, I clearly lied above and went all out with this month’s fossil fish which is an elegant beauty, preserved in such a way as to resemble Falkor the Luck Dragon from the Neverending Story, a magical film lessened by two sequels which were unarguably nowhere near as good. According to the ever reliable label for this specimen, this fish is Ischnacanthus gracilis collected from the Devonian rocks of Forfar Scotland which makes this graceful fish around 400 million years old. Ischnacanthus gracilis is a species of grab-bag group acanthodian ‘spiny shark’ fish, jawed fish which had cartilaginous and bony skeletons, some of which were the ancestors of today’s sharks, rays and skates. Most of these fish were active predators that hunted smaller fish and other swimming organisms. Given that much of their skeleton was not made of bone, what normally remains of these fish is the various spines they possessed (hence the informal name, spiny sharks) and this specimen isn’t much more than an organic sphere with spines, resembling a fossilised marmalade with bits in made of fossil fish and not oranges and served on sedimentary rock not toast, or if you fancy, crumpets. Don’t believe me? Here’s photographic proof, in colour, which means it must be true.
Preservation Although this specimen appears to be preserved in the middle of a graceful leap from the sea like one of those motivational poster dolphins it’s a trick of the eye. From what I can make out it looks like this is the underside of the fish as this reconstruction from an up-an-coming-young-yet-mature-beyond-their-years palaeoartist attempts and fails to make marginally clearer.
Not much can be made out from this specimen aside from the odd spine which can be discerned. Like last month’s underwhelming fossil fish this specimen is mostly an amorphous layer of black preserved in a suspiciously fish-shaped shape.
Research For a short time, I thought we had a worldwide underwhelming fossil fish exclusive in that there didn’t appear to be a single research paper about this species or genus. That would have been very exciting. However, it transpires that I’d accidentally missed out the ‘c’ from the genus. There’s ever so slightly more than nothing but not a huge amount. A number of papers mention Ishchnacanthus gracilis specimens from MOTH, which unfortunately is not a super villain organisation or even as exciting as a camp 1960s secret international counter-espionage organisation. It is in fact an acronym for Man on the Hill, a place in the Mackenzie Mountains of Canada where these fossils were thought to have been found. Even less interestingly however, is that a paper from earlier this year, confirmed that none of the specimens from MOTH are in the genus Ischnacanthus although they are ischnacanthid, in the family Ischnacanthidae (Blais, Hermus & Wilson 2015). Of course, there doesn’t seem to be a species of acanthodian fish that former curator of the Grant Museum, D.M.S Watson didn’t cast his eye over when he literally wrote the book The Acanthodian Fishes. In his chapter on Ischnacanthus gracilis, Watson describes three specimens from his own collection showing exquisite preservation, two of which he took with him and one of which is listed as ‘lost’ in the Grant Museum catalogue. As far as the fossil fish featured in these pages go, this species is one that still gets a mention in the literature. EXPECT A HIGH RESEARCH SCORE FOR THIS ONE.
In Society A good indicator of whether a fossil fish has had a broader impact in society is whether or not it has a Wikipedia page. Even a stub article indicates some influence. Failing that, the next level is whether anyone uses the genus or species as a username on a forum or not. Sadly, there seems to have been little to no love for Ischnacanthus in wider popular culture. However, this specimen somewhat resembles Falkor the Luck Dragon from the Neverending Story which is the first film I ever cried at (the horse bit so I am told) so perhaps fitting that this is the last underwhelming fossil fish of the month blog I’m writing as the Grant Museum curator and oh, look I’M CRYING AGAIN NOW.
UNDERWHELMING FOSSIL FISH OF THE MONTH WILL CONTINUE???
In Society 0 (turn around, listen to your dreams)
Blais, S. A., Hermus, C.R. and Wilson, M.V. H. 2015. “Four new Early Devonian ischnacanthid acanthodians from the Mackenzie Mountains, Northwest Territories, Canada: an early experiment in dental diversity”. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 35 (1)
Watson, D. M. S. 1937. The Acanthodan Fishes. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences , Vol. 228, No. 549, pp. 49-146
Mark Carnall was the Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology