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Fishing in the Museum Archives: The Specimens You Won't Often See on Display

One curator is championing the underdog of museum collections: fossil fish.

by Victoria Turk
Aug 13 2015, 9:00am

Millions of years ago, the oceans were filled with some fearsomely magnificent creatures. There was Megalodon, the shark with teeth like a great white but many times bigger; Leedsichthys, possibly the largest bony fish ever to have existed; and Dunkleosteus, an imposing armoured fish from the Late Devonian period.

You won't find any of these at University College London's Grant Museum of Zoology. They're far too exciting. Tucked away in the museum's library is a huge collection of fossil fish that share one common trait: they're just not that interesting to look at.

A specimen of Benneviaspis, featured as September's Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month. Image: Victoria Turk. Courtesy of UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology

"You can put a few out, but even for the most ardent fossil fish fan your eyes glaze over and you lose interest after one or two, because at best they look like a medium-sized standard fishy thing," said Mark Carnall, the museum's curator.

It's not the evangelical patter you hear from most museums about how great their specimens are. Carnall has instead embraced the bemusement even the keenest fossil fans must feel at being faced with sample upon sample of nondescript rock that—if you're lucky—boasts a hint of a fin. To draw attention to these unloved specimens, Carnall started the blog "Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month," an irreverent and hilarious tour of some of the less eye-catching objects in the museum's more niche collections.

Bothriolepis canadensis. Carnall calls this "kind of like a C-list fossil fish." It's "way too whelming" for his blog. Image: Victoria Turk. Courtesy of UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology

"We've got about 68,000 specimens in the museum, and only about 3,000 on display—which is quite a high proportion for a natural history museum," Carnall explained. "So we try to make the most of everything we've got, not just the beautiful things we can put on display." Very few fossil fish make the display cases.

When Carnall agreed to show me some of the remarkably dull collection, I kind of expected to find out that, beyond the banal exterior, these particular fossil fish were of surprising significance to science. They're not.

"Some of these had their heyday, but by 'heyday,' were published in a niche paleontological journal. That's about as good as it's going to get for them."

Cheirodus granulosus. A triangular-shaped fish from the Devonian period, packaged here in a cigarette box. This one's missing ahead, otherwise it'd be way too sexy. Image: Victoria Turk. Courtesy of UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology

The museum's fossil fish legacy goes back largely to former curator D.M.S. Watson, whose initials can be found on many of the specimens. Carnall explained that Watson collected, traded, "and sometimes borderline stole" a broad array of fossil fish specimens.

But as curators came and went, including Watson, they'd often take some of the best specimens with them. "So not wanting to downplay the collection too much, but for some curators we do kind of have the dregs of what they didn't take, or what they didn't think was important enough to send to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington," Carnall said.

Cladoselache, an extinct shark. This shows a bit of the fin. Image: Victoria Turk. Courtesy of UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology

That's not to say the Grant Museum's specimens don't have a part in research. As it's uncommon to find a perfectly preserved organism, large collections of bits of fossil are necessary to piece together how a species might have looked—a bit of fin there, a tooth here, yet another fishy-shaped tail. One specimen Carnall featured on his blog, from the genus Coccosteus, boasted the catalog description, "shows 'palatal' teeth better than any yet described." Some Millerosteus specimens were also pretty important, he said—"for that one research group, for that one year."

So they do have their place in scientific research; that place just isn't usually particularly thrilling. As Carnall puts it, "Some of these had their heyday, but by 'heyday,' were published in a niche paleontological journal. That's about as good as it's going to get for them."

Fragments from the lower jaw of armoured fish Coccosteus. Carnall's verdict: "That's perhaps too underwhelming." Image: Victoria Turk. Courtesy of UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology

One time, Carnall recalled, a colleague discovered a "type" specimen: one recognised as a new organism that gets a whole new name. In fact, this Endemichthys likhoeli specimen was a holotype—the single example used to describe that species, and one that no one's found since. "We got in touch with some fish palaeontologists and they just couldn't be less interested," he laughed.

Most of the time, the fossil fish stay undisturbed in the drawers.

Carnall suggested one reason for the lack of fossil fish love is that we find other creatures more impressive, or at least more relatable. Dinosaurs and mammoths are "the stuff you can slap on a lunchbox," and the taxonomic positions of mammals as man's closest relatives makes them naturally more intriguing. While he noted an amazing diversity in fish, he conceded that "by and large they're all made up of the system of head at one end and tail at the other end, and a varying number of fins in between."

This smoking tin contained something particularly underwhelming when we opened it: a bit of plastic, covered with some orange rust, and completely devoid of any actual fossil material. Image: Victoria Turk. Courtesy of UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology

But Carnall hopes that his blog will give the samples another little moment in the limelight. It's a tongue-in-cheek effort to turn the "star specimen" format favoured by most museums on its head.

Reaching into one of the drawers of fossil fish, Carnall pulls out a specimen and quickly dismisses it as "probably a bit too sexy." It almost actually looks fish-shaped. He pulls out another, which he explains is perfect as an underwhelming specimen: in fossil reference books, it's often compared to a paving slab. It's actually a tooth of a big fish from the genus Psammodus, which would have been used to crush shells. Paving slab-like or not, I admit that's pretty cool.

The Psammodus tooth. Image: Victoria Turk. Courtesy of UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology

My enthusiasm doesn't quite stretch to Carnall's glee at exploring features of historical museum documentation. He points out bad practices like writing directly on the specimens in permanent ink, multiple numbers on the same item, and splatters of blue paint that seem common among D.M.S. Watson's material. He even gets excited by how unexciting the boxes containing specimens are; several in the drawers we look through used to contain old smoking materials, presumably hastily repurposed on field trips.

Exposing the more mundane aspects of the museum curator's life might not be the done thing, but Carnall reckons his honest approach is working. And underlying his self-deprecating humour is a clear, genuine fervour for fossil fish.

"I absolutely love this material," he said. "But I totally understand if you're not going to instantly fall in love with it by seeing it."

Hell or Salt Water is a series on Motherboard about exploring and preserving our oceans. Follow along here.