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March 18, 2005

Friday extinct herring blogging!

This is a Knightia, a herring that lived in a large freshwater(ish) lake in North America during the Eocene period, about fifty million years ago.

The lake, called "Fossil Lake" for some reason, is gone, but its sediments live on in the Green River Formation in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. The Green River Formation is the source of many of those gift shop fossil fish you've seen that look pretty much like this one. But there are a few less-common fossils that have been pulled out of the rock along with the herring, the oldest known bat fossil being an example.

What distinguishes the fish here from those gift shop fossils is this: I pulled it out of the rock myself, along with the about two dozen other fish that keep it company in my glass-topped coffee table. It was "pay to play" fossil hunting in a privately leased quarry, so there was no particular skill involved on my part. But I did get to sshove the metal blade into the cracks in the rock, twist to loosen the slab, and pick through the result to find the fish under the cold Wyoming sun. And I got to do so in the company of one of the most skillful fossil preparators in the country, Carl J. Ulrich, who is a hell of a cool guy.

Yes, that's "preparator." It's inelegant jargon, but it's the jargon nonetheless.

Ulrich has a number of examples of his work in the Smithsonian. I can't imagine the patience involved in carefully freeing just one large fish from its rock matrix, and Ulrich has done thousands over the course of his long career. I know of the general disregard with which private fossil collectors are often held by paleontologists, but I have never heard anyone speak of Ulrich in anything but the most glowing tones. It was a privilege to shell out sixty bucks to stand next to him for three hours. Plus I have fish.

Breaking Eocene news update: Carl Dennis Buell sent along a couple of his fantastic paleontological paintings today after reading the first half of this post, and I'm sharing one with you with Carl's permission. The two big rhinoey things in the water are Brontops, a big rhinoey member of the brontotheres, which were big rhinoey relatives of rhinos. The brontotheres were widespread in the northern hemisphere, with a fair number found in Mongolia and (literally) tons in Wyoming. The brontothere distantly related hyracodont Indricotherium, once called Baluchitherium, was the largest known land mammal of all time at around 18 feet tall and ten tons. (Indricotherium is often said to have been discovered by swashbuckling paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews on one of his Central Asian expeditions, but the species was in fact first found and named by Sir Clive Foster Cooper in 1911. Andrews did find the first more or less complete Indricotherium skeleton.)

Brontops was far smaller, only about eight feet tall. When I was a kid looking through books on paleontology, I used to think it would be cool to have had a Brontops as a friend: I could have ridden on its back and shot at things with that slingshot on the beast's snoot.

Running in front of the Brontopses is a Hyracodon, an early rhino (though not directly ancestral to modernday rhinos). North America was once a center of horse-rhino diversity, and both of those related groups of perissodactyls have pretty much died out. Oh, there are lots of Equus caballus still around, but conservationists eye the other seven extant horse species - from asses to zebras - with some concern, and three of the species teeter on the brink. There are five species of rhinos left, all threatened.

This is a really spectacular painting, of a scene that might well have been contemporary with the mortality of my Knightia near Fossil Butte National Monument outside Kemmerer Wyoming. I can't imagine how Carl got all those perissodactyls to stand still for long enough to paint them.

Correction: Karl, in comments, points out a mistake I made, which I have both corrected and preserved above.

Posted by Chris Clarke at March 18, 2005 08:37 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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On Herrings: An Honest Question
Excerpt: In response to Chris Clarke's Friday extinct herring blogging, I asked: I've heard that modern herring communicate through flatulence. Is this true? If so, I think I've found my new totem animal. Listen - I'm communicating right now. He responded: ...
Weblog: feministe
Tracked: March 19, 2005 10:46 AM
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decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs


I am totally jealous that you have a fish fossil.

Posted by: beth at March 18, 2005 12:46 PM
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Ah yes, one of the original moonbats! Icaronycteris. Unfortunately, it's a fully formed and functional bat. I say that only because with their small and delicate bones, they don't fossilize often and creationists (having lost birds and whales as critters without transistional forms) still cling to bats as being impossible to evolve.

Posted by: OGeorge at March 18, 2005 02:24 PM
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Aurgh! Transitional (sp) of course. And yes I know they don't accept the whole bird and whale thing either, but that's just obstinance now.

Posted by: OGeorge at March 18, 2005 02:34 PM
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So, Carl, where is that webpage?

And are you going to have an online store? I think I'd buy about a zillion prints of your work.

Posted by: PZ Myers at March 19, 2005 06:41 AM
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A question, sort of off topic: I've heard that modern herring communicate through flatulence. Is this true? If so, I think I've found my new totem animal. Listen - I'm communicating right now.

Posted by: Lauren at March 19, 2005 07:30 AM
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It's true that some herring fart. Here is an impressive and prestigious link as evidence. Whether the farts are a form of communication is still unknown.

I do see some problems inherent in communicative flatulence:

"Who said that?"
"I didn't say it. He must have said it."
"No way, man. He who heard it spurred it."

Of course, there are obvious parallels between the use of farts as communication and the dynamics of male blogging practices, the elucidation of which has been left as an exercise for the reader.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at March 19, 2005 08:44 AM
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Oh, and PZ, I apologiize for the boring old vertebrate post. Next week: gastropods!

Posted by: Chris Clarke at March 19, 2005 08:46 AM
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No need to apologize. At least they are representative vertebrates, rather than those weird and obscure and highly derived tetrapods with fur.

Posted by: PZ Myers at March 19, 2005 01:26 PM
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Oh, but I beg to differ on the differences in the subtleties of flatulence for communication! There are all sorts of farts...

• big, explosive ones denoting dominance and anger
• thin, long, dry ones used to communicate petulance or disdain
• short, raspy dry ones to indicate irritation or disagreement
• high, sharp, whistling ones to declare joy or alarm
• low, blubbery wet ones for when sadness or disheartenment are felt
• the generic, even-toned hummer for when no opinions are indicated
• or even long, slow silent ones to describe ire or bliss

Surely, in our unwillingness to engage in flatulence analysis we must somehow be missing the tiny discrepancies in herring communication. Perhaps it is those bravest of researchers who dared to broach the subject in its purest, scientific form, Monty Python, who best decoded the herring language:

Ekki ekki, which translates thus.

via Monty Python's Completely Useless Website

Posted by: Miguel at March 20, 2005 05:01 AM
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Great painting, Carl, and a great post. I just farted, thereby expressing my appreciation and satisfaction.

Posted by: Hungry Hyaena at March 20, 2005 08:37 AM
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Er... Indricotherium (known as Paraceratherium to some) was not a brontothere... it was in fact a hyracodont rhinoceros, a close relative of the Hyracodon in the paintings.

Posted by: Ivan at March 23, 2005 09:57 AM
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