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The Great Fossil Enigma

The Search for the Conodont Animal

Simon J. Knell

Publication Year: 2012

Stephen Jay Gould borrowed from Winston Churchill when he described the conodont animal as a "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." This animal confounded science for more than a century. Some thought it a slug, others a fish, a worm, a plant, even a primitive ancestor of ourselves. The list of possibilities grew and yet an answer to the riddle never seemed any nearer. Would the animal that left behind these miniscule fossils known as conodonts ever be identified? Three times the animal was "found," but each was quite a different animal. Were any of them really the one? Simon J. Knell takes the reader on a journey through 150 years of scientific thinking, imagining, and arguing. Slowly the animal begins to reveal traces of itself: its lifestyle, its remarkable evolution, its witnessing of great catastrophes, its movements over the surface of the planet, and finally its anatomy. Today the conodont animal remains perhaps the most disputed creature in the zoological world.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Series: Life of the Past

Title Page

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p. iii-iii

Copyright Page

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p. iv-iv

Dedication Page

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p. v-v

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-x

List of Illustrations

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p. xi-xi

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Preface & Acknowledgments

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pp. xiii-xx

This book has two beginnings. The story of the “great fossil enigma” begins with the Prelude. However for those expecting an analytical history of science, I suggest the afterword as a useful introduction because it explains how and why I have written this book and ...

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Prelude: The Impossible Animal

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pp. 1-4

As students, we drew and labeled a jargon-rich palaeontological world, only too ready to be captivated by the objects before us. Our tutor, however, seemed to have other ideas. He evidently had no passion for his subject. To him, ammonites and trilobites were just ...

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1: The Road to El Dorado

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pp. 5-34

They were jewel-like things: lustrous, colorful, and perfect. Their evocative shape suggested they had fallen from the mouths of living fish, but Christian Pander knew this was just a wonderful illusion, for he had not found them in any river, lake, or sea, but in some of ...

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2: A Beacon in the Blackness

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pp. 35-58

Just three years after the publication of Pander’s book on the conodont fishes, oil was discovered in the United States. A new black liquid flowed out of the ground and into American minds, altering them forever. (The conodont played no part in this discovery, but it ...

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3: The Animal with Three Heads

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pp. 59-80

In 1933, Ted Branson and Maurice Mehl believed the conodont would remain forever silent on the question of its anatomy. But they were wrong. Indeed, at the very moment they took possession of the fossil and turned it into a geological abstraction, new discoveries ...

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4: Another Fine Mess

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pp. 81-96

There were three ways to solve the riddle of the conodont. The first was to think differently about things known, but if anything too many people were thinking differently. The second was to find better material but this seemed only to deepen the problem. The ...

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5: Outlaws

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pp. 97-116

The animal that arrived in the 1950s, in America at least, had been disassembled into its component parts, cannibalized to build mythological fishes of much simpler form. These parts carried names suggesting that they were the animal, but nearly everyone knew ...

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6: Spring

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pp. 117-138

With a generation lost on the battlefields of Europe and Asia, the 1950s felt like a new beginning. A sense of optimism and renewal altered the everyday. It was felt on the streets of London, New York, and Berlin, in cafes, offices, and even laboratories, and inevitably it affected ...

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7: Diary of a Fossil Fruit Fly

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pp. 139-160

In Germany, every student of paleontology learned of their compatriot Roland Brinkmann’s 1920s centimeter-by-centimeter study of the English Oxford Clay. His three thousand beautifully preserved, ornate, and nacreous Kosmoceras ammonites recorded the reality ...

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8: Fears of Civil War

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pp. 161-182

In 1967, Willi Ziegler stood on the summit of a utilitarian mountain. Now, as he surveyed the world’s Devonian rocks, he fancied that he had within his grasp the means to correlate them all. This mountain had been built through the efforts of generations of ...

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9: The Promised Land

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pp. 183-208

Pander’s animal was as mysterious as ever, but during the 1960s it had begun to take possession of its skeleton. Fossils once considered teeth were no longer to be seen in isolation. For conodont workers this was a move toward biological truth and the only course if ...

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10: The Witness

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pp. 209-232

Through the 1970s, paleontology acquired an increasingly global outlook as geology as a whole embraced the unifying ideas of plate tectonics. Th e conodont workers felt this sense of the global even more profoundly as its field of study spread to every corner ...

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11: The Beast of Bear Gulch

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pp. 233-264

Many who had heard the conodont’s story doubtless imagined that impossible day when the animal would be found. In a corner of so many minds, there was intense curiosity about these tiny things. They were, aft er all, as Maurits Lindström had put it in 1964, “the ...

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12: The Invention of Life

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pp. 265-292

To most of Melton and Scott’s contemporaries, the conodont animal from Bear Gulch seemed impossible, even ridiculous – the latest and most spectacular addition to a heap of such impossibilities. To Melton and Scott , and a few others, of course, it looked ...

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13: El Dorado

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pp. 293-324

For those who went in search of Pander’s El Dorado, that distant city of gold was where the extinct mythological beast lay at rest, its flesh sufficiently preserved to at last reveal the truth.1 In 1923, Macfarlane had dreamed of such a place, “that some layer of subaquatic ...

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14: Over the Mountains of the Moon

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pp. 325-354

In the mid-1980s, out of sight of those debating the meaning of the first Scottish animals, the next big step was being taken in a part of the world that had thus far proven itself completely lacking in these extraordinary fossils: South Africa. Here, along a dirt road ...

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Afterword: The Progress of Tiny Things

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pp. 355-372

This book tells the story of a scientific journey of twists and turns through assertions and denials, past alien monsters and incoming asteroids, through a world of unexpected discoveries and real utility, which ultimately arrives at an animal that, rather surprisingly, ...


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pp. 373-401


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pp. 403-413

E-ISBN-13: 9780253006066
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253006042

Page Count: 440
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Life of the Past