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    Friday Fossil
    By Oliver Knevitt | March 18th 2011 12:30 AM | 5 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Oliver

    In a nutshell: I like fossils. But even more than than that, I like arguments about fossils. Which is why my current occupation as a PhD researcher...

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    Every friday from now on I'm going to pick out a cool fossil and stick it here. It's not necessarily going to be from the recent literature, and I'm an invertebrate paleontologist, so don't expect many T. rexes or any other overhyped big silly things with teeth! This idea is admittedly a blatant steal from PZ Myers' Monday Metazoan but, hey, I'm sure he'll get over it. Besides, mine's on Fridays, and his is on Mondays.

    To start of with, I'm also going to step on the toes of Kevin Schindler of Suite 101, because this week's fossil is the Tully monster (Tullimonstrum gregarium), which happens to be the state fossil of Illinois (he's doing a series on state fossils).



    The tully monster could also be a candidate for one of the weirdest fossils ever to be found. When an amateur collector found it 50 years ago, paleontologists were dumbstruck as to what it could be, and the situation still hasn't changed today. This is in spite of many, many exceptionally preserved Tully fossils being found. We're pretty sure that it's an animal, but that's as far as it goes.

    It's thought to look like a comically fat worm with a bizarre elephant-trunk like probocis with a pincer on the end:



    Such weird curiosities as the Tully monster are a real pain in the arse, because they are effectively useless to paleontologists. Because we can't neatly place it in a convenient stem group, it tells us absolutely nothing about the evolution of anything. It might as well be plonked in the fossil record by a martian. The policy is basically: quietly ignore it and move on!

    Thankfully, it is restricted to the state of Illinois where it can't bother us, albeit with great profusion. But if ye be traveling through Illinois... Mark Purnell has told me that he is still haunted by the time that he was driving through Illinois and, as if in a dream, a 20ft long Tully monster was eerily cruising along beside him, as if to mock him for our utter ignorance it's affinity.

    The tully monster was emblazoned on the side of a truck, being as it is the state fossil of Illinois.

    Comments

    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Interesting article Oliver, the Tully monster shape reminds me a bit of the shape of a river dolphin.

    My latest forum article 'Australian Researchers Discover Potential Blue Green Algae Cause & Treatment of Motor Neuron Disease (MND)&(ALS)' Parkinsons's and Alzheimer's can be found at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Oliver Knevitt
    I see what you mean; it looks a bit like the chest burster from alien!



    But if we saw the skeleton of the river dolphin, straight away we'd see the homolgous bones in the fins, making it a mammal. There's pretty much no features of the morphology of the Tully monster that we can say makes it closely related to anything else - or of alien for that matter!
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    I didn't think for a moment that it was related to a dolphin Oliver! I just thought the shape was a bit similar so maybe it was a water creature. Seeing that picture from the Alien movie brings back very bad memories, I walked out of that movie in London, when it made its suspected appearance as rumblings in someone's stomach and I even managed to go 20 years without seeing these gruesome details until now.........thanks! BTW I also walked out of 101 Dalmations as a kid, so I have a weak stomach (excuse the pun). Going back to the analogy of the tree of life and its branches, could the Tully monster be analogous to a bit of bark of unknown origin maybe?
    My latest forum article 'Australian Researchers Discover Potential Blue Green Algae Cause & Treatment of Motor Neuron Disease (MND)&(ALS)' Parkinsons's and Alzheimer's can be found at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Oliver Knevitt
    ...sorry about that, Helen. I probably need to put an 18 certificate at the top of the blog entry now! I had been told about that scene long before having seen alien, so I was actually really looking forward to it the first time I saw it!

    I know you didn't mean to imply that it was related to dolphins, I just wanted to shoehorn in an analogy :) . The thing is with the tully monster is that it is so different to anything else that there is clearly a big branch between it and anything else that we know about; if only we could recognise in the tully monster something like homologous bones in its fins like we can dolphins, then we'd be able to place it in our phylogeny.

    I would hope that if it was bark from the tree (or bush ;) )  of life, knowing what we do about the trends of different forms we would recognise it and place it in its place (btw these "bark" fossils are generally referred to as stem group, i.e. stems coming off of branches that don't form major groups). The real problem I guess is that fact that there only seems to be one tully monster. If only there was a family of them, we could recognise evolutionary trends. But there isn't. Maybe one day we'll find intermediates, though.
    Interesting article and animal.