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News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month November 2016

By Mark Carnall, on 30 November 2016

These are troubling times. Troubling and worrying times. Hope is an endangered species. You can feel it can’t you? Spin the wheel of woe, the only consolation possible is that you guessed correctly what destroyed the privileged civilisation as we know it. Was it climate in the end? Was it hatred? Was it intolerance? It doesn’t matter now of course. You’ll realise then what you suspect now, childish notions of justice winning out in the end were just that. There is no beacon of light on the horizon. In fact, the future is so pitch black in its nothingness that the next step could be the one into the abyss and you wouldn’t even know. So look to the horizon now, it’s petrifying isn’t it?

Petrification is also the process by which some organic matter exposed to minerals over a long period is turned into fossils. Welcome to this month’s underwhelming fossil fish of the month our monthly foray into the Grant Museum’s underwhelming fossil fish collection on a monthly basis. Month.

This blog post marks four years of underwhelming fossil fish of the month so in the usual style, we’ll not be celebrating with anything special. In fact, the only special thing about the fish we’ve got this month is its distinct lack of any quality of particular note. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this one.

Image of LDUCZ-V1774 a Leptolepididae fossil fish from the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL

LDUCZ-V1774. So underwhelming they didn’t even name it once. Scale bar fans amongst you please note this month we’ve gone for NO SCALE BAR AT ALL.

This small fish, just under 5cm in total length, is what the palaeontologists like to call un mystère which is French for je ne sais pas ce que c’est. According to the ever-reliable label information this specimen has only been identified as ‘leptolepididae’: it is an unknown species of fish in the family leptolepididae which is sometimes referred to as leptolepidae.

Imaginatively, leptolepidae is a family of leptolepiform fish, known in palaeontological circles for their amazing resemblance to herring. Herring themselves are particularly bog standard-looking fish. They’re the [checks underwhelming fossil fish archives to see if I’ve used this comparison already, nope, okay] tap water of fish. They’re the default option on the character-creator screen of fish. They’re the default Windows desktop background of fish etc. And then leptolepid fish are fish which are herring-like but not actually herring.

Unfortunately, due to the position it has been preserved in and the missing detail in the head, I can’t confidently identify whether this is a leptolepiform fish or not and without any locality information it’s a pretty tall order to work out what this fairly-typical-fish-shaped-fish might be. Suggestions in the comments below if you recognise it.

Preservation Although we may not know the identification of it, this little fossil is quite well preserved. The scales can be discerned as well as fine detail in the tail and of what could be the right fin or anal fin. The preservation of this specimen, particularly the surrounding rock and the detail of the soft tissue, resembles the amazing preservation of fish Lagerstätten (sites of exceptional preservation)  such as the Eocene (53-48 million year old) Green River Formation in Wyoming or Jurassic Solnhofen Limestone. Just not quite as good. The white matrix around the eyes makes it look like the eyeballs have been preserved and the anterior end of the head has been preserved in such a way that it looks like the lower jaw is distended a la James William Bottomtooth III. Poor guy.

Having now spent a lot of time looking at this fossil it is a bit like one of those magic eye images. I’ve convinced myself that it could be Leptolepis or Knightia or a tiny Koi or a pop-eyed goldfish. Or a herring. Here’s a reconstruction from an up-and-coming, deceptively young looking, available for comissions palaeo artist who may be able to shed some light on this specimen.

Up and coming palaeoartists reconstruction of the fish with no name showing very colourful scales including heart patterns on the tail

Artist reconstruction of LDUCZ-V1774. Some of the scale colouration is ever so slightly speculative but probably a fairly accurate reconstruction of what this fish would have looked like in life able to camouflage itself against some backgrounds.

Or not.

Research Given we don’t know what kind of fish it is, this section is going to be hard. There has been a lot of research on fossil fish and a lot not on fossil fish. Some of it has been great research. Great research. Some has not been so great. There are plans for some good fish research in the future and it is going to be great research. Real good stuff. The best research on fossil fish some are saying. Scientists have looked at it and they think its going to be some great research in the future.

Let this also be a sage lesson in the importance of MUSEUM DOCUMENTATION. Yes, we’ve had some extreme examples of bad documentation in the past in this series; labels written in haste in the field, numbers written directly on the surface of the specimen, corrected labels and even labels written near sellotape but poor labels are better than no labels. Unless they are misleading labels. Those are the worst.

In Society It’s not been confirmed 100% but it is possible that this specimen was the inspiration behind the short story The Fish With No Name in which a mysterious fish that rarely spoke on account of lacking vocal cords who famously stood with Billy the Squid against the cavalry that one time. Some records* suggest that this fossil was the inspiration behind The Fish with No Name, the office mascot for TADW architects, renowned for being poor at predicting world cup game outcomes. I need a lie down after this one I swear.


Preservation 8
Research 0
Society 1.5
Underwhelmingness 7

Mark Carnall is the Collections Manager (Life Collections) at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and former Curator of the Grant Museum and has been having a very long November. 

*No records.

One Response to “Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month November 2016”

  • 1
    Susan Elaine Jones wrote on 7 December 2016:

    How wonderful that this fish blends in so well with my Christmas jumper! Great camouflage indeed!

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