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Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month June 2017

By Mark Carnall, on 30 June 2017

It’s the end of June, which can mean one thing and one thing only. It’s time for another underwhelming fossil fish of the month brought to you from the Grant Museum of Zoology. I know, I know it seems like only the day before yesterday since we featured the last totally underwhelming fish fossil but time waits for no fish so we’re back once again. with the renegade master.

For the uninitiated there’s still time to back out. This blog series aims to look at fossil fish from the Grant Museum of Zoology and ask, why? Why did someone collect this? Why is it still in a museum? Who cares about this stuff and most importantly, is reading this a good use of my time?

No! No it is not dear reader but contemplating the dry and uninteresting world of a fossiliferous fish might just distract you enough from the knowledge that you and everyone you know is made of meat or offer some comfort to the inevitable fact that the heat death of the Universe will render everything we and descendent generations do utterly pointless.

I’ve stalled as much as I can, I’m afraid, it’s now time for this month’s underwhelming fossil fish to be unveiled. This is your last chance to get back to contemplating your inherently meaty nature.

What this month’s fossil lacks in quantity it more than makes up for with sexy sleek glossiness, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Image of LDUCZ-V1885 fossil fish Thursius pholidotus from the Grant Museum of Zoology

LDUCZ-V1885 Thursius pholidotus that looks so good you could eat off of it. For the fan of caption based scale-bar commentary, this month there just isn’t one so imagine this fossil as big as you like.

According to the label for this specimen, we have some fossilised part of Thursius pholidotus although we all agree this actually looks like the fossilised torso of a 1980s Mattel He-man action figure. It even has the belt. Here’s a comparison promotional image of a figure from that line.

LDUCZ-V1885_IMG3 - Thursius_pholidotus-fossilweb

Mattel’s He Man action figure. The original design was, until now, said to have been inspired by Cro-Magnon men and Vikings.

Uncanny resemblance aside, Thursius pholidotus is an extinct species of lobe-finned fish, the group of fishes that technically includes the living coelacanths and all terrestrial vertebrates. Thursius pholidotus is more closely related to amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals than living coelacanths are. The label on the reverse of this fossil says it was collected from Scrabster quarry, Caithness in Scotland and is from our old friend, the Old Red Sandstone from a rock series just under 400 million years old.

Preservation Although this is probably the least amount of an individual fossil fish that we’ve had preserved in this series, this particular bit is usefully quite diagnostic. This is the parietal bone, the bone which sits on the top of the skull extending from above the eyes and forming the front part of the upper jaw. The two arch shapes are the bone around the eyes. Perhaps an artistic reconstruction from an up-and-coming-bric-and-brac-palaeoartist could help illustrate?

LDUCZ-V1885_IMG3 - Thursius_pholidotus-fossil

Behold the mighty Thursius in all its glory. Trust me, this is palaeoart and not wildlife photography although it does look very realistic. Top down view showing where this bone fits in on the roof of the skull. At least that’s the intention.

Or maybe not.

Scientific Research It may be of no surprise to regular readers of this series to see that a hoary host of regular 18th and 19th Century palaeoichthyologists have cast their eye and opinion over this quite common fossil fish. Fossils of this fish were originally named Dipterus macrolepidotus by Adam Sedgwick (of Sedgwick museum fame) and Roderick Murchison. Later these fossils were identified as a different species Diplopterus macrocephalus and then a different genus Osteolepis macrolepidotus. That was until our old mucker Ramsay Traquair swooped in to note that not only are these fossils different to all these species but there are two discrete types. Unfortunately, the more common one had smaller scales so irritatingly the smaller scaled species was coined Thursius macrolepidotus (macrolepidotus- meaning large scaled) and the larger scaled species was given the name Thursius pholidotus, the species we have here.

In Society Surprisingly, the day of the week called Thursday is not named after this fossil fish. However, I was most surprised to come across a branch of sorcery called Thursatru, which neither Thursius or Thursday is also not named after. According to blurb for the first grimoire:

Thursatru is a new progeny of the old pre-Christian Norse religion, mythology and gigantology, serving here to manifest the impulses striving to overthrow the limitations of cosmic creation. May the Flames of Surtr be the essence of this forthcoming book and the Poisonous Blood of Aurgelmir flow as and through its ink.

I dunno, I think I’ll stick with the sorcery in 19th Century fossil fish taxonomy, seems more…..powerful.

Thursius pholidotus

Preservation 5.5
Research 4
In Society 0
Underwhelmingness 8


Traquair, R. 1888. Notes on the nomenclature of the fishes of the old red sandstone. Geological Magazine. Volume 5, Issue 11 507-517.

Newman, M.J. and den Blaauwen, J.L. 2007. The synonymy of the Scottish Devonian osteolepid fish Thursius macrolepidotus. 

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

2 Responses to “Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month June 2017”

  • 1
    Susan Elaine Jones wrote on 4 July 2017:

    I thought, mistakenly, that this fish might not be interesting.

    How wrong I was.

    Due to the uncanny, nay, superlative abilities of the artistic reconstructions, I found that I not only could imagine how the fish looked, but also trace the evolution of how He-Man looked before he and skeletor started advertising Money Supermarket.

    Superb work yet again by this up and coming artist!

  • 2
    Helen Chavez wrote on 5 July 2017:

    “BY THE POWER OF FISHSKULL!” I hear you cry.

    I agree – superb and innovative reconstructions. I’m also almost moved by the complete deadness of the overhead view. Protruding tongue … the tell-tale cartoon eyes of the deceased … very evocative. Toss in a bit of Lovecraftian hoo-hah, and this month’s entry goes from Underwhelming to Almost Ordinary.

    I can barely contain myself.

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