The Man Who Made Fossil Fish Famous

Our Archaeopteryx show has bedazzling fossils – the only Archaeopteryx skeleton in the New World, complete with clear impressions of feathers. Plus frog-mouthed pterodactyls, fast-swimming Sea Crocs, and slinky land lizards. Today we learn about the Louis Agassiz and his theories.

Louis Agassiz (1807-1873)

Paris and the Lure of Fish, 1836
Agassiz grew up in Switzerland where he excelled as a student in  chemistry and natural history. He went to Paris to study fish fossils under the Father of Paleontology, Baron Georges Cuvier. The geological history of fish seemed muddled at the time. Agassiz brought order to the fins and scales.

“There’s order in the way fish changed through the ages…” Agassiz concluded. He was the first to map out the long history of fish armor, fish jaws and fish tails.

1) The earliest time periods, the Paleozoic Era, most bony fish carried heavy armor in the form of thick scales covered with dense, shiny bone.

2) In the middle Periods, the Mesozoic, the armored fish became rarer and were replaced by fish with thin, flexible scales.

3) In the later Periods, the Cenozoic, thin-scaled fish took over in nearly all habitats.

4) Today, the old-fashioned thick scales persist only in a few fresh-water fish like the gar.

5) Tails changed too. The oldest bony fish had shark-like tails, with the vertebral column bending upwards to support the top of the fin. Later fish had more complicated tail bones, braced by special flanges, and the base of the tail was more symmetrical.

6) Jaws in the earliest bony fish were stiff, like the jaws of crocodiles. Later fish developed jaw bones that could swing outwards and forwards.

Discovery of the Ice Age
As he traveled across Europe, Agassiz saw evidence of giant ice sheets that had covered the mountains and plains. According to Agassiz’s theory, New England too had been invaded by mile-high ice layers. Giant hairy elephants – woolly mammoths – had frolicked in the frigid habitats. At first,  scholars harrumphed at Agassiz’s idea of a Glacial Period.  But by the mid 1840’s the theory was proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Boston 1846: Toast of the Town & the New Museum
Fish and glaciers made Agassiz the most famous scientist of his time. When he came to Boston in the 1846, his lectures were so successful that the New England intellectuals wouldn’t let him leave. Poets and politicians, rich merchants and artists all helped raise funds to get Agassiz a professorship at Harvard. He repaid the support by working tirelessly to build a grand laboratory of science and education at Harvard – the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Opened in the 1859,  the MCZ has been a leader in fossil studies ever since.

Design in Nature
Agassiz’s interests spread beyond fish and glaciers. He sought the Plan of Creation, the key to understanding all of Nature. Was it  Evolution? No. Agassiz rejected any notion that natural processes somehow had transformed one species into another. He was a fierce exponent of the theory of Serial Creation: every species of fossil creature was created to fill its ecological role in its special geological time zone.

Darwin and Agassiz
Though he fought Darwin’s theories for his whole life, Agassiz’s work in fact provided support for the new views of evolution. The long trends in fish fins and scales were best explained by Natural Selection. Agassiz’s best students at Harvard went on to become strong supporters of Darwinism.  Endowed faculty positions were established in Agassiz’s name.  Agassiz Professorships were given to Alfred Sherwood Romer, the greatest Darwinian  paleontologist of the 20 century, and to Stephen Jay Gould, the most eloquent defender of Darwin in the last thirty years.

Don’t miss Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution, currently on display at HMNS. To read more about Agassiz and Darwin, check out my earlier blog.

How To Make a Perfect Fish – Two Views

Ed Note: Many fossils from the periods discussed and the Solnhofen locality are currently on display in Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution. Join a live online discussion about the latest research into the title fossil with paleontologist Pete Larson on June 17.

Intelligent Design – For Jurassic Fish

Louis Agassiz

Right now,  in the 21st Century, the “Intelligent Design” is the latest development in arguments about Creation versus Evolution. Bur it’s not a new idea. The Father of Fossil Fish Science, Louis Agassiz, used Intelligent Design to explain Solnhofen sharks and bony fish in the 1840’s and 1850’s.

Here’s how Agassiz laid out the argument:

Expert Engineering in Fins and Jaws
Fish today have bodies that fit their environment. Bottom-living sharks and rays have flat bodies. Fins and teeth are “designed” to crush clams and crustaceans these predators find hiding in the sea bottom. In the open sea water, fast-swimming mackerel have thin scales, plump, streamlined bodies, and tall, narrow tail fins that seem ‘designed’ to catch small fish in fast attacks.

Jurassic Fish Were Built For their World
Each and every slice of geological time had fish shaped just right to fit their ancient habitats. The Solnhofen Gyrodus had the deep body ideal for hovering in quiet water near a reef. It carried incredibly strong teeth, dental tools that let the fish bite off chunks of coral and snatch clams embedded in the reef.

In Every Period, Fish Habitats Were Balanced
Each extinct habitat was balanced by precisely the right sort of predators and prey. Gyrodus pruned the reef, eating away excess algae, crabs and coral growth. That way the reef stayed healthy and no species became over-abundant. The aggressive reef predator Aspidorhynchus hunted the Gyrodus and kept its numbers down to just the right levels – not too rare, not too common. The big, fast teleost predators, like Thrissops, did their job in keeping Aspidorhynchus numbers in check.”

According to Jurassic Intelligent Design, the entire Solnhofen reef ecosystem was crafted by an unseen Creative mind that planned every detail.

Serial Creation, Agassiz’s view of Creation was not static. The entire World Ecosystem was revolutionized by change every million years or so. At the end of the Jurassic, many fish species went extinct. New species appeared. More extinctions and more waves of new species appeared at the end of the Cretaceous. More and more extinction-replacements occurred all through the next  Period, the Tertiary.

These revolutions were necessary because the World Climate changed fundamentally. Jurassic seas were tropical and Jurassic lands were as steamy as hot-houses. But the climate got cooler in later Periods. The fish that were perfectly designed for the Jurassic were not optimized for the Tertiary Period. Each new wave of extinction and replacement was required to maintain the exquisite balance in reef and coral-biter, coral-biters and Apex Predators.

The Theory of Natural Selection

Charles Darwin

Darwin and the Perfect Fish
Charles Darwin too was worried about perfectly designed fish. He recognized the extraordinary adaptations in predators that let them catch prey and the delicate balance among species in most habitats. But Darwin argued that natural processes could make ecosystems perfect, or nearly so. His theory had only a few simple steps:

All jaws and fins and bodies vary in all species
When a naturalist studied hundreds of specimens of Gyrodus or a living species, jaws and teeth and fins varied within the the species. Studies of domestic animals – Darwin liked pigeons – proved that much of the variation was genetic. Breed a tall pigeon female with a tall male and the chicks were, on average, tall. Breed a bigger than average goldfish with another big goldfish, and their young will be bigger than average.

Variations Pop Up All the Time
In 1859, when he wrote “The Origin of Species”, Darwin didn’t know where variations came from. The understanding of genes wouldn’t come until after 1900. But Darwin did know that new genetic variations arose in every population.

Nature is Cruel and Most Individuals Die Young
A big reef fish might spawn a hundred youngsters each summer. Few would live beyond six months. Only 1% or less would survive to breed. That’s the basic calculus of ecosystems.

Nature “Selects” the Genetically Fortunate
If a fish or wild pigeon hatches out with just the right genes, it gets an advantage. It can live longer, grow faster, and reproduce earlier than its relatives. Generation after generation, the lucky genes accumulate. In a thousand generations, a fish or bird species can be transformed.

Natural Selection Works All the Time to Keep Systems Nearly Perfect
Nature keeps selecting the lucky genes and keeps most of the species ideally “designed” most of the time.  That’s how Jurassic predators were kept fine-tuned to their prey. When climate changed abruptly, old species died out and new ones evolved.

In fide constans… Always loyal [Lucy's Legacy]

The model of Lucy created for
the Lucy’s Legacy exhibition.
Photo by reality photography

The Lucy’s Legacy exhibit was reviewed in early February by a representative of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which promotes Creationism and Intelligent Design. In the following paragraphs, I would like to add my observations to the statements found in this review.

Let me start with a few general remarks. First, a favorite approach by Creationists is to cast doubt on the subject of evolution, particularly human evolution and to drive a wedge between faith and science. This policy, known as the Wedge Document, is publicly acknowledged by the Discovery Institute as being theirs. Second, a favorite approach of Creationist writers is to represent issues in stark black and white terms.

The 2000-word document is sprinkled with terms that drive the message home: the study of human evolution fails as a belief system; the evidence is scarce and the interpretations fast and loose and not widely accepted. Moreover, some of the evidence is misrepresented.

The writer of the document stated that there is a “paucity of actual hard evidence for human evolution.” An interesting statement, but one which considering the presence of an actual fossilized hominin fossil, fails itself to carry any water. What harder evidence can one want, but for an authentic fossil, I wonder. The same author also quotes a statement that “unless more fossils are recovered (…) there is likely to be a continuing debate on Lucy’s posture…”  Two thoughts come to mind here. It is always good to have more fossil evidence. In fact, for years paleoanthropologists have continued to find fossils every year. Our database of fossilized early humans continues to grow, courtesy of an ongoing scientific effort. This growing database has led to the formulation of answers to old questions while at the same time giving rise to new questions which we need to answer. That is the essence of scientific research; it is a never ending quest for better insights in what we can observe.

These statements, using the terms “paucity” and “until more fossils are recovered,” are misleading. One wonders if the author knows that the remains of 300 Australopithecus afarensis individuals are known to the scientific community, making Lucy and her kind the best known of all of early human ancestors.

Turkana Boy
Creative Commons License photo credit: ideonexus
Turkana Boy

Another lament found in the document is the “incompleteness” of her (i.e. Lucy’s) skeleton.” The author continues “only 40% was found” and “very little useful material from Lucy’s skull was recovered.” I suppose one could say that everything is in the eye of the beholder. Of course, 50% or more would have been even better. However, another way of referring to Lucy and the preservation of her skeleton is that it is amazing that so much was preserved, considering she died more than 3 million years ago. 

Factually incorrect is a statement that “Lucy still represents the most complete known hominid skeleton to date.” There are currently older and better preserved fossils, including some of the same species as Lucy. Baby Selam for example, is much better preserved. More recent than Lucy, but better preserved is an early hominid known as Turkana Boy. Lucy is still the earliest known and most complete adult Australopithecus afarensis. Things were different in 1974, when scientists could say that she was the oldest known and best preserved skeleton of a distant human ancestor. The fact that this statement now has to be qualified to reflect more recent discoveries is a testimony to the dogged work carried out by teams of paleoanthropologists in Africa. It is also an insight that ought to have been included in the Discovery Institute document, as I am sure that this is something they are aware of.

Photo by reality photography

We also get to read that Lucy’s bones were found scattered across a hillside, a vague reference to an old creationist claim that Lucy’s bones do not all belong to the same individual. The fact that this claim has been debunked does not stop creationists from repeating it. The author – it seems – seems to prefer that Lucy’s bones would have been found together as a contiguous skeleton. Aside from the fact that intentional burial did not exist in Lucy’s time and that she did die more than 3 million years ago, it would have been a miracle (pardon the pun) if she had been preserved completely intact and as a contiguous skeleton. One should not, however, raise the reader’s hopes by presenting this a something that should have happened.

I would like to end by referring the author of the Discovery Institute piece as well as all the readers to this latest development: Lucy was scanned at the University of Texas, Austin campus, after the exhibit in Houston had ended. I have no doubt that scientists will be pouring over this new dataset and that this effort will result in improving our understanding of who we are and where we came from.

Loyalty to a cause is admirable; having the ability to see countless shades of grey instead of only black and white is even more desirable.