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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…

Image of LDUCZ-V904 Ischnacanthus gracilis from the Grant Museum of Zoology UCL

The gloriously triumphant LDUCZ-V904 Ischnacanthus gracilis looking like a luck dragon (ish)

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.

Image of LDUCZ-V904 Ischnacanthus gracilis from the Grant Museum of Zoology UCL

This is actually in colour although it doesn’t look it, it is. Believe me.

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.

Reconstruction of Ischnacanthus gracilis by Mark Carnall

Reconstruction of Ischnacanthus gracilis by Mark Carnall. On the left, a graceful Ishnacanthus bursts from the water into the sunshine. On the right, drawing the underside of fish is really really hard. Image provided by Mark Carnall

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.


Ischnacanthus gracilis
Preservation 4
Research 6
In Society 0 (turn around, listen to your dreams)
Underwhelmingness 7

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

7 Responses to “Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month: August 2015”

  • 1
    Isabelle wrote on 28 August 2015:

    Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month has been one of my favourite places on the internet for more than two years now and if this really is the end, hats of to you for making such an underwhelming subject interesting, funny and fascinating. Never would I have guessed that fish paleontology could be this exciting!

    Favourite month: September 2013, with the mention of the Stockholm School Fossil Fish Rat Pack.

    Least underwhelming fish: April 2013, that Hoplopteryx was actually quite whelming!

    Also appreciated: the illustrations. Fantastic.

    With a hope for many more underwhelming fossil fish to come, thank you for these past years.

  • 2
    Mark Carnall wrote on 28 August 2015:

    Thank you very much, happy to have underwhelmed! Do you mind if we use this for as the sleeve quote for the inevitable DVD series?

  • 3
    Isabelle wrote on 28 August 2015:

    Of course not, happy to help and I look forward to a signed copy!

  • 4
    Marnie wrote on 28 August 2015:

    I’m going to force it to continue, because I’m not back on BBC Inside Science until mid Spetember, when I WILL be making this into something amazing for Radio 4 listeners.
    Does Oxford not have a load of underwhelming fish fossils? I’m sure we can find some.

    Also, I had no idea that Neverending Story had sequels

  • 5
    Joanna Weitz wrote on 11 September 2015:

    May I serenade you with the song ‘Oh Please Don’t Go’? I have been so thoroughly overwhelmed with your underwhelming fossil fish over the past years – an absolute joy. Thank you so very much!

  • 6
    Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month: December 2015 | UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 23 December 2015:

    […] first ever official fan art and June was jazzy. July had an excitingly spoiled box. August saw fossil fish leaping from the water and allegedly glistening in the sun. September was silly, October was odious and nobody noticed […]

  • 7
    Sue Jones wrote on 10 August 2016:

    Wishing MOTH would turn up in the next Bond film

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