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Success awaits on top of the world: Fish paleontologist explains the connection between sea animals and humans

April 19, 2010

Cover of Neil Shubin's Book "Your Inner Fish"

PDF version: Neil Shubin article

Would the threat of a hungry polar bear deter you from your dream?  Neil Shubin decided to take the risk.

In the Canadian Arctic the nearest town is 250 miles away. There is no food. The region is impassable by car and prone to   carnivorous polar bears. None of these obstacles hindered Shubin in his plight.  Seven hundred miles from the North Pole he found the skeleton, the Tiktaalik roseae, he needed to prove the correlation between sea and land animals.

Shubin, fish paleontologist and University of Chicago’s anatomy professor, explained his new book Finding Your Inner Fish and the resemblance between the skeleton of sea animals and land animals Monday in McCrary Theatre.

“Many of the muscles, nerves and bones that I’m using to talk to you, and many of the muscles, nerves and bones that you’re using to hear me now can relate to the muscles, nerves and bones in a fish,” Shubin said. “Medicine that makes our lives better will come from work done on worms flies and fish.”

While scientists’ jargon is typically hard to follow, this paleontologist peppered his lecture with humorous anecdotes, intriguing Elon University students of all majors.

He opened with an anecdote regarding his first teaching position at University of Chicago. When he first arrived as Chairman of the Anatomy Department a number of the best teachers retired. He assured the audience there was no correlation between the two events, but this faculty change left him as the professor of the Human Anatomy class.

“It became clear that the students were not particularly pleased with having a fish paleontologist as their professor,” Shubin said. “But a fish paleontologist is a very powerful way to teach human anatomy.”

The best way to teach the map of the human body is to understand the basic structure, he said.

A diagram featuring a fish on top and a limbed land animal on the bottom inspired Shubin to find a transitory animal to explain the evolution.

“Golly, this is unbelievable,” he said. “With some luck I can find some intermediate from fish to land-living creatures.”

An intermediate skeleton would contain scales, gills and fins of a fish, but a flat head, neck, bones and joints of a mammal.

Shubin began his search in the Catskills in Pennsylvania. He explained that he needed an area exorbitant in sedimentary and exposed rock. The rock also has to be the right age in order to house the desired fossils. The rocks needed to be between 365 and 395 million-years-old to satisfy Shubin’s experiment.

Shubin found multiple limbed animal fossils, but not one transitory skeleton, proving the rocks were not old enough.

“What I wanted to understand was the intermediates between this fish animal on top of the diagram and this land animal on the bottom,” Shubin said.

A day in the office changed his course. An argument with colleague Ted Daeschler provoked Shubin to open a textbook that pointed him in the right direction.

“Boom,” Shubin shouted into the microphone. “I found a figure that changed my research career for the next 12 years.”

Neil Shubin holding the Tiktaalik roseae fossil. Credit: University of Chicago webpage

The diagram in the textbook suggested that Shubin and his team excavate in the Canadian Arctic. Shubin’s next fortune cookie said, “soon you will be on top of the world,” providing Shubin with greater confidence that he was traveling in the right direction.

The process was not smooth and took almost seven years to discover the transitory creature between sea and land animals. Shubin owes his team’s success to a college student.

The remarkable discovery began with fear and ended in excitement. Each team member was expected back at the tent at 7 p.m., but when 7:15 rolled around and the youngest team member was not found alarm enveloped the group.

“The tent unzips and in comes Jason, his eyes aglow and he goes ‘I found it,’” Shubin recounted. “And we knew it wasn’t a polar bear.”

About 500 bone fragments filled Jason’s pockets. The team raced to the site of Jason’s discovery and dug until they found a skeleton of the fossil of a fish.

“I looked at it and I knew that our seven years of effort was now successful because I looked at it and I knew I found a flat-headed animal,” Shubin said. “Not just a flat-headed animal, but a flat headed fish.”

Shubin and his team spent approximately a year and a half unearthing the skeleton from the dirt. The completed project supported Shubin’s hypothesis.

Shubin had the privilege of naming the skeleton, but wanted a name that was significant to the Inuit people. He shared the privilege of naming the skeleton with the council of elders, but the team had to be able to easily pronounce the name.

“This committee did not give me much confidence,” Shubin said.

The team decided to name the skeleton Tiktaalik roseae, meaning fresh water fish.

This transformation from life on water to life on land happened 350 million-years-ago.

“What is its relevance today?” Shubin asked. “These are features that are part of our own anatomy.”

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