Your Inner Fish

Your Inner Fish premiers tonight on Public Television (PBS). This new series is based on the book of the same name by Dr. Neil Shubin. I don’t know the time, so tune in early and watch some of the other great science programs while you wait for it. I plan to turn it on about 6:00 pm (Central Time) to be sure I don’t miss it.

“Neil Shubin (born December 22, 1960) is an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and popular science writer. He is the Robert R. Bensley Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, Associate Dean of Organismal Biology and Anatomy and Professor on the Committee of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago along with being the Provost of the Field Museum of Natural History. He is well known for his discovery of Tiktaalik roseae.” — Wikipedia

Neil Shubin with Tiktaalik roseae
Neil Shubin with Tiktaalik roseae

Scientists had fossils of 365-million-year-old (myo) amphibians and the 385-myo fish they had evolved from (or at least closely related species). Shubin and his group of scientists and students wanted to find the creature that lived in between them, around 375 million years ago. The creature, that is, that descended from the 385-myo fish and then gave rise to the 365-myo amphibians, from which we are descended in turn about 365 million years later.

So they collected their geological maps to see where they could find 375-myo rocks exposed at or near the ground’s surface. The only remotely suitable place they found was a Canadian island way north of the arctic circle where it was only possible to work during the short summers.

Before they went to look, they described what they expected to find: a large, fresh-water fish with lungs, a neck (which other fish do not have), and thick, muscular fins underneath that it could use to push its head above the surface of shallow water. They made their plans and went, spending several summers working before they found anything remotely like what they were looking for.

When they were out of money and ready to give up, they finally found pieces of two fish that matched very closely what they had hypothesized. This made it possible to obtain further funding and return several more times. Eventually, they found many partial and almost complete skeletons up to about 10 feet long. They named the fish Tiktaalik roseae, which means something like “big river fish” in the local Inuit language. The name that was most often used, though, was its nickname, “fishapod.” It was a fish that was almost  a tetrapod.

I’m writing most of this from memory, because I loaned  my copy of Shubin’s book, Your Inner Fish, to a friend, and I can’t immediately check all my facts. If anything above is in error, I apologize. It’s the best I can do from memory.

Don’t miss the series. If it’s as good as the book, it’ll be great.

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