The Great Fossil Enigma: The Search for the Conodont Animal

The Great Fossil Enigma: The Search for the Conodont Animal

The Great Fossil Enigma: The Search for the Conodont Animal

The Great Fossil Enigma: The Search for the Conodont Animal

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

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 the oldest rocks then known. Oblivious to the chemistry of their surroundings, they had survived as objects of beauty when all around them had turned to stone or not survived at all. So small that several would fit on the head of a pin, these tooth-like things were also older than any known trace of vertebrate life. From the very moment of their discovery, then, they were quite extraordinary objects. Evocative, ambiguous, contradictory, and secretive, they had the capacity to mesmerize, to compel mind and body to go in search of the animal that had once possessed them. For more than a century and a half this animal was pursued, its assailants acquiring little more than glimpses as the animal repeatedly concealed itself in illusions. Before long it became science’s El Dorado.

We, too, will go in search of the animal, but our journey will not take us into dense jungles, a distant past, or much into the arcane world of rocks and fossils. Instead we shall journey through the minds of those who looked and believed, for only in the scientific imagination was this animal clothed in flesh and made to breathe. the animal was real enough – be assured of that – but no human ever saw it alive.

So to begin this journey, we must cast aside our fishes, fossils, and teeth – indeed, we must put out of our minds all preconceptions of what these things are or how they might be understood. the geologists and paleontologists discussed here needed to believe that these objects ex-

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