Don’t you love seeing how science is done?

I have a few fossil molluscs from the Devonian — they’re fairly common orthocerids, these cone-shaped shells that once housed mighty ancient cephalopods. Mine are small, but some of these shells get to be 5 or more meters long. We have to imagine big eyes and swarms of arms writhing out of the broad end of the cone, because those squishy bits don’t fossilize well. Well, not just imagine, because we do have data that lets us reasonably infer what the animal looked like. Here’s an excellent post that describes how this kind of reconstruction of Endoceras was done.

That’s not guesswork. Using trace fossils and phylogenetic bracketing and assembling bits of evidence from multiple specimens, you can make an informed estimation of the main features of the animal.

And it is awesome. Bring ’em back.


  1. says

    Something a bit Lovecraftian about that creature. Are we sure the Great Old Ones are still asleep? Maybe all that Xanax and anti-depressant runoff going into the ocean isn’t all bad. If we’re lucky Great Cthulhu will wake up in a good mood and give us all free candy.

  2. says

    I have a fantasy that someone would be able to collect enough fossils (privately owned and not sufficiently unique or otherwise scientifically valuable that they need to be returned to museum/university collections) to assemble a visualization of the radiation of a clade.

    In a square arrangement the earliest fossil would be set in one corner, with lineages radiating out from that corner so that the youngest fossils line the edges farthest away from that starting corner. In a round arrangement, the earliest fossil would be set in the center.

    Got all the fossils laid out appropriately? Okay. Now drown them in lucite to make an actual table that you can put in the library of a primary school, adding slight tints of different hues in contour lines to communicate age, each color representing a specific number of years in the past. Next gather more fossils and repeat, not necessarily using the same clade. Make enough of tables so that we can ensure one to all the school libraries in the world, with one left over for my house.

    I can’t imagine that these wouldn’t be both beautiful and educational, allowing kids to visualize certain physical aspects of evolutionary change instantly. And if the table is simply part of the everyday backdrop of education instead of a diagram seen once during a two week unit on biology during one specific year of education, they’d be more likely to remember it.

    A communication of beauty and truth: every time I hear of fossils in private hands I think of this and its potential.

  3. monad says

    I still wonder about features based on living nautilus species. I don’t know how you can do better, but it’s a single genus left from a vast lineage, and sometimes those survived because they are weird ones – living chondrostei and coelacanths come to mind. Who knows how many of its features are actually unique?

  4. says

    I’m curious, monad, in what ways are living coelacanths “weird ones” compared to their ancestors? The only thing I know about them being weird is their overall size (average sarcopterygians were not tiny, but were much smaller than average adult coelacanths today). Their outward anatomy shows pretty clear similarities, but with good fossils you can examine more than outward similarities, so I admit it’s very possible that there could be major differences: I just don’t happen to know them.

  5. monad says

    Well, maybe I’ve oversold them.

    From what I remember, though, the absence of lungs and various related changes to other organs was supposed to peculiar to modern coelacanths, an adaptation to moving into the deeper sea – they have fatty sacks instead. I’ve also seen a chart with sizes, and they’re more than twice as big as most of their ancient relatives, which I imagine involves its own changes. And they do fall in the same general range of shapes, but looking at them it seemed like they were one of the most dedicated to the weird lobeish fin deal.

    So not like paddlefish weird, but still an endpoint you could make mistakes generalizing backward from.