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Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month: May 2016

By Mark Carnall, on 31 May 2016

WARNING, WARNING! We got a looker this month boys and girls. Underwhelming fossil fish come in all shapes and sizes, some are virtually nothing, others inspire great works of art but once in a while we get one that is surprisingly and distinctly fish shaped. It’s still not very interesting to anyone but the most love blind of the fossil fish fanatics and for that we shall dutifully analyse, precisely and scientifically, via the well established ‘Top Trump categories’ method the ways in which it is uninteresting.

For those of you unsure as to how you got to this part of the Internet and still not quite sure what’s going on, you’ve arrived at the latest entry of Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month. Fossil collections are full of specimens of animals you won’t have heard of, can’t really imagine and even if you could imagine them, they weren’t really worth the effort in the first place. We could sex them up a bit by making up animals like those naughty fossil reptile palaeontologists but this is not the fish way. Instead we’ll celebrate them the only way we can, with an analysis of their rather dry and esoteric history.

If you are of a delicate fortitude or can’t handle too much fossil fish at once, I’m going to ease you into this month’s let down specimen…

First we’ve got the box, which definitely has plenty of character.

Image of the box for fossil specimen LDUCZ-NON2183 from the Grant Museum of Zoology

EXCLUSIVE IN-CAPTION CONTENT: It may surprise you to know that broken boxes and human hair are not in the recommended ideal standards for specimen storage. In continuing slipping standards in photography, we’ve got artistic shadows and jaunty labels this month. You know where to send the complaints.

Next up is the label.

Image of the box for fossil specimen LDUCZ-NON2183 from the Grant Museum of Zoology

Traditionally, labels are informative but we can see from this one, some of our assumptions are going to be challenged. Note the ALL CAPS remarks.

Moving on and the Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month mailbag is full of requests for reversy percy shots, this shot of the reverse of the fossil is for both of you!

Image of the reverse of fossil specimen LDUCZ-NON2183 from the Grant Museum of Zoology

Note the new scale bar, handily the metric side is indicated. This reverse shot is remarkable for having features yet still feeling devoid.

And here’s the flipside, LDUCZ-NON1283 in all its glory!

Image of the fossil specimen LDUCZ-NON2183 from the Grant Museum of Zoology

LDUCZ-NON2183, measuring in at precisely a bit more than 15cm (that’s 6 inches in old money). We’ve got fins, we’ve got a tail, we’ve got scales. An embarrassment of underwhelming content for the eyes to digest.

As you know by now, because you’ve seen it above, according to the label, this is an example of Redfieldia or [Catopterus gracilis] or sommat. It’s a tricksy name as Catopterus gracilis and Redfieldius gracilis appear in references but are likely the same thing. Interestingly, on the Grant Museum database it is listed as Catopterus redfieldi which is different again to what is actually written on the label which is Redfieldia. This is what I have to work out every month with these specimens. Are the given names, old combinations, synonyms, typos or just plain made up? Rather than try to work out which is which, here’s a CHOOSE YOUR OWN SPECIES for you to decide:

1. You are in a dark wet cave, lit only by the flickering flames of your torch. Suddenly, flopping around on the floor in the distance is….. what! Could it… could it be a living breathing specimen of:

A] Catopterus gracilis! GO TO 2
B] Redfieldius gracilis! GO TO 2
C] Catopterus redfieldi! GO TO 2
D] Redfieldia catopterus! GO TO 2
E] Bluefieldia dogopterus! GO TO 2

2. Whilst distracted by the amazing scientific discovery, you are mauled to death by cave goblins riding giant centipedes.

THE END (Hay 1899)

I’m going to go with Redfieldius gracilis from here on in but please do use your chosen name in your mind voice. This fish, whatever name it has, has been one of the most painstaking to research. At one point Redfieldius gracilis was classified in the originally named family Redfieldiidae which was in the exceedingly imaginatively titled order Redfieldiiformes but the few authorities that have bothered to contemplate the animal accept this as a discrete….. I can’t do this anymore.

I’m done.

Is this a good use of my time?

Researching the arcane history of fish that nobody cares about anymore? This one is a fish too far. The name is all messed up, the family isn’t recognised half the places I’ve looked. Who’d have thought this is the one that would do me in?

Nobody cares, nobody cares enough to even put it in a proper scientific order. Nobody cares and.. and neither do I. I can’t. I’m Done. Done.




John cares…

JOHN CARES! DOING IT FOR JOHN! Redfieldius gracilis, if it isn’t part of it’s own group is probably a palaeonisciform fish, an extinct group of ray-finned fishes named for scales that resemble the exoskeleton of woodlice, obviously. Redfieldiid fish lived from the Triassic to the Jurassic in freshwater umm water.

Preservation Unlike many of the other fish featured here, this fish, with all its difficult taxonomic history is at the very least fish shaped. The tail, fins and scales are all nicely preserved in this specimen. The characteristic dorsal fin, very far down the back of the fish can be seen here AND MARVELLED UPON. Unfortunately, key details are missing in the head so this specimen is unlikely to be presenting list shows with witty banter from comedians you’ve never heard of but there’s no doubt about it. This is definitely a fossil fish.

Research As intimated above, it’s difficult to get a bead on research on this group and species. Fossil fish megastar Agassiz, initially proposed the name Catopterus for a lungfish but this name was later discovered to be a junior synonym and discarded. It’s then J.H. Redfield, who this fish, family and possible order is named after who made things confusing by reusing the name Catopterus for a different kind of fish. In 1902 Oliver Perry Hay then renamed the genus after Redfield and then Leo Berg proposed the family and order after J.H. Redfield and his father W.C. Redfield both of whom, although they didn’t know it at the time, were Redfields working on Redfieldiform Redfieldiid Redfieldius fishes. Various authors then used combinations of both names until 1978 when Bobb Schaeffer and Nicholas McDonald wrote the opus on Redfieldius in the seminal volume: Redfieldiid Fishes From the Triassic-Liassic Newark Supergroup of Eastern North America. Schaeffer and Nicholas knew they were undertaking pretty epic work as they introduce the volume with the BOLD statement:

With the publication of this paper….the information gained through modern preparation and illustration techniques has made most of the older descriptions of little more than historical interest.

Boom! Since then nobody has attempted to touch this group save for the occasional new species and of course, listing it in dry lists of fish found in the search for more interesting animals.

In Society Upstarts Bobb Schaeffer and Nicholas McDonald’s Redfieldius throwdown is known* as the “greatest untold story in palaeontology”** but unfortunately the screenplay for the film went through studio development hell. After a series of directors signing up to and quitting the project, issues with rights management and finances meant that the film went through numerous changes in development and became virtually unrecognisable as the original story known to all fish palaeontologists. Eventually the film was released in 2002 under the title 8 Mile starring one Eminem in the role as the character Jimmy ‘B-Rabbit’ Smith a character inspired by both Schaeffer and McDonald and their daring to dream.

Redfieldius gracilis
Preservation 8.5
Research 6 MIC DROP 10
In Society 3
Underwhelmingness 7

Hay. O. P. (1899). On some changes in the names, generic and specific, of certain fossil fishes. The American Naturalist 33:783-792.

Hay. O. P. (1902). Bibliography and catalogue of the fossil Vertebrata of North America. United States Geological Survey Bulletin. 179, 868 pp.

Schaeffer, B and McDonald, N. (1978). Redfieldiid Fishes From the Triassic-Liassic Newark Supergroup of Eastern North America. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History. 159, 4:129-174

* Well from now it is.

** Myself 2016. pers. comm.

Mark Carnall is the Collections Manager (Life Collections) at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and former Curator of the Grant Museum

8 Responses to “Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month: May 2016”

  • 1
    Georgette wrote on 2 June 2016:

    I’m with John. I care too.

  • 2
    Daniel wrote on 2 June 2016:

    I care, you care, we all care for ice cream. And fossil fish.

    Have you considered collecting these UFFotM together into a book? I think it would sell well.

  • 3
    Helen Chavez wrote on 2 June 2016:

    It goes against the grain of the general underwhelmingness of life, but … yes, dammit. I CARE.

  • 4
    Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month: May 2016 | Business Daily Report wrote on 4 June 2016:

    […] article, Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month: May 2016, first appeared on Museums & Collections […]

  • 5
    Simon wrote on 7 June 2016:

    I care absolutely dispassionately for every dive into the darkest depths of UFFes.

  • 6
    Jules wrote on 11 June 2016:

    You’ve got an audience across the pond too!

  • 7
    W. McCullough wrote on 15 June 2016:

    I visited the locality in Durham CT which probably produced this specimen back in the spring of 1971. The bank along the stream was seriously undercut by at least 100 years of collectors, each striving to get at the last insignificant scrap. It was a deeply underwhelming experience, but nothing that couldn’t have been fixed with a few minutes of D9 bulldozer time.

  • 8
    Sue Jones wrote on 9 August 2016:

    I care! If it wasn’t for you pointing out these really dull specimens, I would have thought all my university years studying graptolites was as boring as it could get. Instead I now know it was a rip roaring thrill ride of geology!

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