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The Great Fossil Enigma: The Search for the Conodont Animal

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Stephen Jay Gould borrowed from Winston Churchill when he described the conodont animal as a "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." This animal confounded science for more than a century. Some thought it a slug, others a fish, a worm, a plant, even a primitive ancestor of ourselves. The list of possibilities grew and yet an answer to the riddle never seemed any nearer. Would the animal that left behind these miniscule fossils known as conodonts ever be identified? Three times the animal was "found," but each was quite a different animal. Were any of them really the one? Simon J. Knell takes the reader on a journey through 150 years of scientific thinking, imagining, and arguing. Slowly the animal begins to reveal traces of itself: its lifestyle, its remarkable evolution, its witnessing of great catastrophes, its movements over the surface of the planet, and finally its anatomy. Today the conodont animal remains perhaps the most disputed creature in the zoological world.

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1 - The Road to El Dorado

ePub

The natives, in order to get rid of their troublesome guests, continually described Dorado as easy to be reached, and situate at no considerable distance. It was like a phantom that seemed to flee before the Spaniards, and to call on them unceasingly. It is in the nature of man, wandering on the earth, to figure to himself happiness beyond the region which he knows. El Dorado, similar to Atlas and the islands of the Hesperides, disappeared by degrees from the domain of geography, and entered that of mythological fictions.

ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT,
Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions
of America During the Years 1799 to 1804
(1853)

 

THEY WERE JEWEL-LIKE THINGS: LUSTROUS, COLORFUL, AND perfect. Their evocative shape suggested they had fallen from the mouths of living fish, but Christian Pander knew this was just a wonderful illusion, for he had not found them in any river, lake, or sea, but in some of the oldest rocks then known.1 Oblivious to the chemistry of their surroundings, they had survived as objects of beauty when all around them had turned to stone or not survived at all. So small that several would fit on the head of a pin, these tooth-like things were also older than any known trace of vertebrate life. From the very moment of their discovery, then, they were quite extraordinary objects. Evocative, ambiguous, contradictory, and secretive, they had the capacity to mesmerize, to compel mind and body to go in search of the animal that had once possessed them. For more than a century and a half this animal was pursued, its assailants acquiring little more than glimpses as the animal repeatedly concealed itself in illusions. Before long it became science's El Dorado.

 

2 - A Beacon in the Blackness

ePub

In a few days the Eldorado Expedition went into the patient wilderness, that closed upon it as the sea closes over a diver…. I looked around, and I don't know why, but I assure you that never, never before, did this land, this river, this jungle, the very arch of this blazing sky, appear to me so hopeless and so dark, so impenetrable to human thought, so pitiless to human weakness.

JOSEPH CONRAD,
Heart of Darkness (1902)

 

JUST THREE YEARS AFTER THE PUBLICATION OF PANDER'S BOOK on the conodont fishes, oil was discovered in the United States. A new black liquid flowed out of the ground and into American minds, altering them forever. (The conodont played no part in this discovery, but it too was altered). Notorious wastefulness followed. Successive wells ran dry. But calls for conservation fell on deaf ears, as America developed its obsession with the automobile. In 1921 there were 10.5 million motor vehicles on the road. By the end of the decade there were 26.5 million. Demand for oil grew exponentially, but without the predicted oil shortage as discovery continued to outpace demand. A plague of oil derricks advanced across the American landscape, from Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Ohio and Indiana into California, the mid-continent (Kansas and Oklahoma), the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast, and Illinois.1 In the unregulated American economy, oil was soon in overproduction and prices plummeted, falling below that of water in some states during the drought years of the early 1930s. By then the once buoyant economy was in freefall and oil had played no small part in that collapse.

 

3 - The Animal with Three Heads

ePub

The figure that faces the principal entrance is the most remarkable in this excavation, and has given rise to numberless conjectures and theories. It is a gigantic bust, representing some three-headed being, or three heads of some being to whom the temple may be supposed to be dedicated.

CAPTAIN BASIL HALL,
Fragments of Voyages and Travels (1832)

 

IN 1933, TED BRANSON AND MAURICE MEHL BELIEVED THE conodont would remain forever silent on the question of its anatomy. But they were wrong. Indeed, at the very moment they took possession of the fossil and turned it into a geological abstraction, new discoveries were being made that threatened to tear their utilitarian dream apart. These discoveries did not do so, however, because Branson and Mehl's bubbling pots of mud and practical science fit perfectly into a country infatuated with oil. Who, by comparison, really cared about the biology of a tiny, obscure creature? Who would willingly sacrifice the fossils’ usefulness for the sake of incorporating this new anatomical information? Carey Croneis, doyen of the new micropaleontology at the University of Chicago, certainly valued this practical turn, but he objected to the willingness of oil company geologists to sacrifice science for the sake of economic gain. He felt that the very integrity of the new science was at stake and called upon the industry to employ “men not only of adequate scholastic attainments but even more important, men of a high type of intellectual potentiality, which is, of course, a very different thing.” His was not a solitary voice, but the economic reality of the new industrial paleontology was never going to be affected by the moralizing of paleontologists in universities and museums. Ted Branson's son, Carl, for example, working for Shell in Texas in the late 1940s, revealed how fundamentally different this utilitarian world was: “It has been five years since I have seen many non-oil seekers; too long…. I'm mostly tied to hunting for grease and get no time for reading or research.”1 As a result, in the United States, two overlapping cultures developed around microfossils. One was committed wholly to the economic project. For it, fossils were no more than abstract tools, and biological concepts, such as evolution, simply devices to be used to distinguish as many unique “species” (or time markers) as possible. The other community also valued the practical benefits of fossils, but it saw the fossils embedded more properly in sciences that sought to understand the past conditions of the earth and life upon it. One group, fed on its greasy diet, soon grew obese in participants, while the other remained small and, since it trained the new oil men and women, could never fully separate itself from the practical science. For many types of fossil this division of labor caused few problems because the fossils themselves were simple objects. The conodont, however, was a biological mystery and it was, as we shall see, about to acquire considerable complexity. This produced an animal with a schizophrenic identity.

 

4 - Another Fine Mess

ePub

Well, here's another nice kettle of fish you've pickled me in.

OLLIE HARDY,
in Laurel and Hardy's
Thicker than Water (1935)

 

THERE WERE THREE WAYS TO SOLVE THE RIDDLE OF THE conodont. The first was to think differently about things known, but if anything too many people were thinking differently. The second was to find better material but this seemed only to deepen the problem. The third – taking advantage of the kind of technological change Zittel and Rohon thought empowering – was to journey into the object itself, and no one had attempted that since the late nineteenth century. An unexplored trail down which progress might be found, in the late 1930s it called to a number of those who had recently become fascinated by the fossil. Among them was Clinton Stauffer, who was perplexed by that simple paradox that now seemed to be at the heart of the problem: an animal with a wormlike arrangement of teeth composed of material indicative of a vertebrate. It prompted him to ask, was the phosphate truly part of the tooth or mere contamination? If simply contamination, then the mystery was solved: The animal was a worm. He asked his technically minded Minneapolis colleague, Duncan McConnell, to resolve the matter. McConnell examined the fossil's chemistry and crystallography and reported that the conodont was indeed composed of material structurally and chemically similar to that making up vertebrate teeth. Stauffer could only conclude, “It becomes evident that the only way to relate conodonts to the worms is to postulate an entirely new group of extinct forms with vertebrate-like teeth.” He continued, “Which might be equivalent to suggesting that they are primitive vertebrates.” Stauffer had been on this vertebrate track for some time, but just as McConnell seemed to give him the confirmation he needed, Bill Furnish, supported by Branson and Mehl, debunked his earlier suggestion that the bar-like conodonts were jaws with teeth inserted in them.1

 

5 - Outlaws

ePub

Hence a chaos of false tendencies, wasted efforts, impotent conclusions, works which ought never to have been undertaken. Anyone who can introduce a little order into this chaos by establishing in any quarter a single sound rule of criticism, a single rule which clearly marks what is right as right, and what is wrong as wrong, does a good deed; and his deed is so much the better the greater the force he counteracts of learning and ability applied to thicken the chaos.

MATTHEW ARNOLD,
On Translating Homer (1862)

 

THE ANIMAL THAT ARRIVED IN THE 1950S, IN AMERICA AT least, had been disassembled into its component parts, cannibalized to build mythological fishes of much simpler form. These parts carried names suggesting that they were the animal, but nearly everyone knew these animals – Ulrich and Bassler's aquarium of different fishes – were mere impostors. A growing number of Americans were starting to see the fossils with Wilhelm Eichenberg's eyes – no longer as discrete things but as disaggregated skeletons demanding reconstruction. A way of seeing had changed, and with it the very idea of what might be legitimately considered an animal. Now the science needed to take control of a language that had grown absurd and return the names to the animals themselves. The proper way to do this would be to follow Eichenberg's lead and name fossils and assemblages according to the rules of zoological nomenclature. This course of action, however, was considered ill advised as it would undermine the linguistic foundations of a utilitarian science that had only just found its feet. Every word would need to be redefined, every object renamed, as terms that once referred to single things came to define sets or assemblages. A quarter century of effort would surely collapse into chaos. This, at least, was a widespread fear.

 

6 - Spring

ePub

What a joy that was, what a boon to the eyes, after so much white! But there was another green, surpassing in its tender softness even the hue of new grass, and that was the green of young larch buds. Hans Castorp could seldom refrain from caressing them with his hand, or stroking his cheeks with them as he went on his walks – their softness and freshness were irresistible. “It almost tempts one to be a botanist,” he said to his companion. “It's a fact, I could almost wish to be a natural scientist, out of the sheer joy at the reawakening of nature, after a winter like this up here.”

THOMAS MANN,
The Magic Mountain (1928)

 

WITH A GENERATION LOST ON THE BATTLEFIELDS OF EUROPE and Asia, the 1950s felt like a new beginning. A sense of optimism and renewal altered the everyday. It was felt on the streets of London, New York, and Berlin, in cafes, offices, and even laboratories, and inevitably it affected the mindset of those who took an interest in fossils. A temporal rift seemed to separate this world from the prewar one, which now seemed old and remote. For the new conodont workers this sense of distance was aided by the death, retirement, or withdrawal from the field of Ulrich, Bassler, Branson, Mehl, and others. Now a new, young, idealistic, and ambitious generation took possession of the fossil as none had previously.

 

7 - Diary of a Fossil Fruit Fly

ePub

Evolution proceeds continuously, and all jumps are deceptions caused by gaps in the record.

ROLAND BRINKMANN,
Monographie der Gattung Kosmoceras (1929)

 

IN GERMANY, EVERY STUDENT OF PALEONTOLOGY LEARNED OF their compatriot Roland Brinkmann's 1920s centimeter-by-centimeter study of the English Oxford Clay. His three thousand beautifully preserved, ornate, and nacreous Kosmoceras ammonites recorded the reality of evolution with wonderful picture-book clarity, each twist and turn on their evolutionary journey permitting a moment in time to be defined and used to order and correlate rocks elsewhere.1 Brinkmann's study traced the evolution of these fossils through just fifteen meters of the clay. Now Beckmann's disciples, armed with the gift of efficient acid preparation and the ubiquitous and rapidly evolving conodont, aimed to perform the same trick on a far grander scale – through the whole of the German Devonian. Quick to recognize the heroic possibilities of this new challenge, in the mid-1950s, this generation believed they possessed nothing less than the makings of a worldwide standard.

 

8 - Fears of Civil War

ePub

After a short but violent paroxysm, and about midnight, between the 11th and 12th of August, a luminous cloud enveloped the mountain. The inhabitants of the sides and foot of the volcano betook themselves to flight, “but before they could save themselves, the whole mass began to give way, and the greatest part of it actually fell in and disappeared in the earth.” This was accompanied by sounds like the discharge of heavy cannon.

HENRY DE LA BECHE
The Geological Observer (1851)

 

IN 1967, WILLI ZIEGLER STOOD ON THE SUMMIT OF A utilitarian mountain. Now, as he surveyed the world's Devonian rocks, he fancied that he had within his grasp the means to correlate them all. This mountain had been built through the efforts of generations of stratigraphers who had turned the conodont into an abstract timepiece. Buried somewhere near the mountain's base were Kindle's call to action and Ulrich's erroneous assertions. The greater mass was American and had been shaped by Branson and Mehl and few others. The summit, however – where Ziegler now stood, flag in hand – was largely German. Here, inspired by Beckmann's proof of the conodont's potential in the German Devonian, a whole generation had raced for glory, their heads filled with thoughts of mapping the evolution of animal parts. Only on the upper slopes did Ziegler scramble ahead, driven by ambition, extraordinary resources, and sheer hard work.

 

9 - The Promised Land

ePub

In this country the sun shineth night and day: wherefore this was beyond the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and also out of the reach of Giant Despair; neither could they from this place so much as see Doubting Castle.

JOHN BUNYAN,
The Pilgrim's Progress (1678)

 

PANDER'S ANIMAL WAS AS MYSTERIOUS AS EVER, BUT DURING the 1960s it had begun to take possession of its skeleton. Fossils once considered teeth were no longer to be seen in isolation. For conodont workers this was a move toward biological truth and the only course if their science was to be considered rigorous and legitimate. Nevertheless, many worried about chaos, and some questioned the benefits. It had been the study of isolated fossils – which they were now abandoning – that had made this science so useful and effective. And it was this that had also given the animal a history, or rather, an evolutionary genealogy. Of course, this wasn't really how conodont workers saw it; most were interested only in acquiring a more refined tool. But out of this necessity emerged glimpses of the biological flesh of the animal itself, and it would do so repeatedly as the conodont workers acquired new methods and new ways of seeing.

 

10 - The Witness

ePub

Near it in the field, I remember, were three faint points of light, three telescopic stars infinitely remote, and all around it was the unfathomable darkness of empty space. You know how that blackness looks on a frosty starlight night. In a telescope it seems far profounder. And invisible to me because it was so remote and small, flying swiftly and steadily towards me across that incredible distance, drawing nearer every minute by so many thousands of miles, came the Thing they were sending us, the Thing that was to bring so much struggle and calamity and death to the earth. I never dreamed of it then as I watched; no one on earth dreamed of that unerring missile.

H. G. WELLS,
The War of the Worlds (1898)

 

THROUGH THE 1970S, PALEONTOLOGY ACQUIRED AN increasingly global outlook as geology as a whole embraced the unifying ideas of plate tectonics. The conodont workers felt this sense of the global even more profoundly as its field of study spread to every corner of the earth. In this period, the living animal became a mobile entity inhabiting clearly defined niches and repeatedly evolving similar anatomies to deal with the return of particular environmental conditions. Progress for the conodont workers, as for most of paleontology, had been logical and incremental. But then two unexpected events forced them to look and think differently, and even to imagine the unimaginable.

 

11 - The Beast of Bear Gulch

ePub

That's one small step for man…

NEIL ARMSTRONG,
on landing on the moon, July 21, 1969

 

MANY WHO HAD HEARD THE CONODONT'S STORY DOUBTLESS imagined that impossible day when the animal would be found. In a corner of so many minds, there was intense curiosity about these tiny things. They were, after all, as Maurits Lindström had put it in 1964, “the biggest and most important group of fossils about which the zoological relationships are entirely unknown.”1 The fossils seemed to defy comprehension. That special day did, however, come. It was September 5,1969. That, at least, was the day of realization. Less than two months after Neil Armstrong stepped onto an alien world, paleontology produced its own alien and it was utterly bizarre. Before long, the news spread across the same networks that had covered the moon landing, though rarely warranting more than a column inch.

The animal's reception – at least in the scientific world – was, appropriately enough, that reserved for aliens in those classic American sci-fi films of the 1950s: From the moment of its innocuous arrival, mankind, so it seemed, sought the alien's destruction. And in keeping with that tradition, it seems appropriate that our hero is also our antihero, his integrity doubted, his actions condemned. His name was Harold Scott. It will be recalled that he, as a young man in the 1930s, had made that giant leap to reveal the animal's complexity – a discovery that ultimately turned the science on its head. In 1969, he was at the other end of his long career and nearing retirement, yet his role in the drama was no different. As in the 1930s, Scott was again making assertions few could, or wanted to, believe. His critics thought this latest conodont animal was the product of a fertile imagination. Scott however, had good reason to believe that he would again prevail.

 

12 - The Invention of Life

ePub

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

MARY SHELLEY,
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818)

 

TO MOST OF MELTON AND SCOTT'S CONTEMPORARIES, THE conodont animal from Bear Gulch seemed impossible, even ridiculous – the latest and most spectacular addition to a heap of such impossibilities. To Melton and Scott, and a few others, of course, it looked entirely plausible; the reasoning that had brought it into existence was sound enough. Most conodont workers, however, liked to imagine the animal existed elsewhere. Some even thought it might already exist but remained lost in a paleontological blind spot – known but not recognized. A long list of outsiders had taken this kind of thinking to the extreme and imagined the key to the mystery already existed out there in the zoological world. With this thought in mind, we might ask if it was really so ridiculous for the young Klaus Fahlbusch to propose, in 1963, that conodonts were secreted by algae? Lindström, who had just sent his conodont book to the publisher, simply could not believe it, and Ziegler, who examined Fahlbusch's material, told him not to. In his naïvety, Fahlbusch had hit a hornets’ nest, and almost immediately the swarm (Beckmann, Collinson, Helms, Huckriede, Klapper, Lindström, Rhodes, Walliser, and Ziegler) was upon him, stinging him with accusations of poor science. Later, Lindström would feel nothing but regret for this incident, but when he did, he had perhaps forgotten that “conodontology” was not, in 1963, the respected science it was to become. It was still scrambling for recognition. In time, however, Fahlbusch would find some relief, for it was in this paper that he also told his seniors that their methods of acid preparation were damaging their fossils. On this point, too, they were outraged, but here Fahlbusch was to be proven right. And, as it turned out, he was not the last to look at this group of fossils and see plants. In 1969, Felton Nease published a paper suggesting that bar-like conodonts formed the midrib of aquatic plants found in the Chattanooga Shale, plants he called Conodontophyta chattanoogae. It was a suggestion treated with laudable seriousness by Huddle in the Pander Society Letter, although the idea must have tickled the conodont research community, which was then sufficiently mature to be unruffled by such outlandish ideas.1 Many years later, conodonts would again be mistakenly identified for plant remains, but on this occasion, as we shall see, it led rather unexpectedly to discoveries of huge significance in the hunt for the animal itself.

 

13 - El Dorado

ePub

…and the discovery of the Golden City, or El Dorado – believed by him to be situated in Guyana – and the conquest of that country, occupied his mind; but which appear to have been some time before in his contemplation, and required only the circumstances in which he was now placed, to give them life and activity to exert a controlling influence over his thoughts.

Account of Sir Walter Raleigh's search for El Dorado,
JACOB ADRIEN VAN HEUVEL, El Dorado (1844)

 

FOR THOSE WHO WENT IN SEARCH OF PANDER'S EL DORADO, that distant city of gold was where the extinct mythological beast lay at rest, its flesh sufficiently preserved to at last reveal the truth.1 In 1923, Macfarlane had dreamed of such a place, “that some layer of subaquatic volcanic ash may yet be discovered.” Many had dreamed, but the animal had not revealed itself. Few, if anyone, had imagined that this sacred place might be a shelf, box, package or drawer. But there it was, this Holy Grail of science. And there it had been for some sixty years. Hidden from view and beyond the reach of all earlier attempts to find it, it might just as well have been lost in the mountainous jungles of Guyana. Then, in 1982, Euan Clarkson found it – though at first he did not know precisely what he had found. A paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh, he had been searching for fossil shrimps in the Granton Shrimp Bed. This rock outcrops where that city meets the sea, but Clarkson was not braving the Scottish weather. He was working his way through old collections held by the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh, much of which had been collected by the Survey's fossil collector, David Tait, early in the twentieth century.

 

14 - Over The Mountains of the Moon

ePub

“Over the Mountains

Of the Moon,

Down the Valley of the Shadow,

Ride, boldly ride,”

The shade replied –

“If you seek for Eldorado!”

EDGAR ALLAN POE,
“Eldorado” (1849)

 

IN THE MID-1980S, OUT OF SIGHT OF THOSE DEBATING THE meaning of the first Scottish animals, the next big step was being taken in a part of the world that had thus far proven itself completely lacking in these extraordinary fossils: South Africa. Here, along a dirt road in the Cedarberg Mountains, some two hundred kilometers north of Cape Town, Geological Survey officers Danie Barnardo, Jan Bredell, and Hannes Theron came across a new borrow pit for road metal exposing the soft and rarely seen Upper Ordovician Soom Shale.1 They stopped to investigate and found their curiosity rewarded with some intriguing fossils reminiscent of graptolites. Graptolites are one of those classic groups of extinct animals all paleontologists study at some point in their training. Tiny, colonial – bearing a passing resemblance to corals and bryozoans – their fossil remains are most common in shales, where they look like minute flattened saw blades. Theron sent a specimen to Barrie Rickards at Cambridge University in the UK, an expert on this group, to see if they really were graptolites. Rickards said they were not.

 

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