Scientists May Have Solved the Mystery of an Ancient ‘Alien Goldfish’

Scientists may have finally figured out where an ancient sea animal fits into the “tree of life.” The animal, known as Typhloesus wellsi, perplexed scientists for nearly 50 years, leading them to dub it the “alien goldfish.”

Typhloesus was just 90 mm long when it was alive. It had no fins other than a singular large tail fin. Bizarrely, it also had no backbone, anus, eyes or shell.

Scientists previously thought the creature was a conodont, a group of jawless vertebrates that resembled eels. Upon closer inspection, scientists realized that the Typhloesus fossil specimen actually showed the animal had the remains of a conodont inside its digestive tract, indicating the Typhloesus ate conodonts.

The recent discovery of a tooth-covered ribbon-like structure in the Typhloesus helped scientists figure out its possible taxonomic placement. Paleontologists believe they were most likely a marine mollusk and an ancient relative of gastropods like sea slugs.

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Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron and Dr. Simon Conway Morris, paleontologists at the University of Cambridge, made the discovery after examining several Typhloesus fossil specimens taken from a 330-million-year-old fossil deposit in the Bear Gulch Limestone site in Montana, US.

Dr. Caron found the toothed tonguelike structure under a high-powered scanning microscope. The structure was similar to that of a radula, an anatomical structure snails and mollusks use to scrape food into their mouths.

The scientists believe the structure was likely attached to a retractable trunk. The alien goldfish would extend it whenever it was feeding, much like a lizard. The existence of the Typhloesus’ radula led scientists to deduce that the mysterious creature may be a mollusk.

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Dr. Caron believes the creature was similar to a sea slug, which swims through water, sticking its radula through trunklike proboscis to hunt prey. Typhloesus also had a flexible body and large tail. They were likely good swimmers and did not move along the sea floor.

Professor Mark Purnell from the Center for Paleobiology at the University of Leicester in the UK suggests that scientists cannot definitively say “the very strange animal” is a mollusk.

“[The researchers] have found some tantalizing new information, but it is far from being a slam-dunk case in terms of definitely knowing what this weird thing is.”

Typhloesus fossils predate the rest of the swimming snail fossil record by over 100 million years. Dr. Christopher Whalen, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History, said that since sea slugs lacked shells and other features commonly imprinted in fossils and quickly swam in the water, they are not as present in fossil records.

Understanding the Typhloesus will help paleontologists learn more about the evolution of mollusks, the planet’s second largest group of invertebrates.

According to Dr. Caron, studying the strangest creatures often unearths the most valuable discoveries.

 “They are enigmatic, but they reveal a lot of important evolutionary information.”

Ozone Layer

Research Team Discovers Evidence Of Mass Extinction Event From 359 Million Years Ago

Researchers at the University of Southampton recently published findings in the journal of Science Advances that revealed evidence of a mass extinction that took place on Earth nearly 360 million years ago. The extinction was a result of high levels of UV radiation that destroyed the planet’s forest ecosystems and killed thousands of species of fish as well. This influx in UV radiation was a result of one of Earth’s climate cycles that collapsed part of the ozone layer.

The ozone layer depletion was a direct response to the rapid warming of the planet brought on by the ending of an intense ice age. The researchers behind these findings were adamant about sharing this evidence, as Earth’s current climate status is showing parallels to what it was like 359 million years ago when this mass extinction took place. The team’s research consisted of collecting rock samples from the mountains in East Greenland. The area of land they were specifically collecting from used to be the location of a huge ancient lake that was “in the arid interior of the Old Red Sandstone Continent, [which] made up of Europe and North America.”

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“This lake was situated in the Earth’s southern hemisphere and would have been similar in nature to modern-day Lake Chad on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Other rocks were collected from the Andean Mountains above Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. These South American samples were from the southern continent of Gondwana, which was closer to the Devonian South Pole. They held clues as to what was happening at the edge of the melting Devonian ice sheet, allowing a comparison between the extinction event close to the pole and close to the equator,” according to media reports.

In a lab setting the researchers dissolved the rocks in hydrofluoric acid which, according to the research, released microscopic plant spores that looked like pollen. These spores had somehow managed to remain preserved for hundreds of millions of years, and upon further exploration, the team discovered these spores had strangely formed spines on their surface. The spores also had dark pigmented walls, which led the team to believe both abnormalities were a result of UV radiation damaging the DNA of the spores themselves. 

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The conclusion was now that during a time of rapid global warming millions of years ago, the ozone layer must have collapsed for a short period, which then resulted in the Earth and all its living inhabitants to be exposed to extremely harmful levels of UV radiation, and thus triggering a mass extinction on both land and in shallow waters. 

“During the extinction, plants selectively survived, but were enormously disrupted as the forest ecosystem collapsed. The dominant group of armored fish became extinct. These extinctions came at a key time for the evolution of our own ancestors, the tetrapods. These early tetrapods are fish that evolved to have limbs rather than fins, but still mostly lived in water. Their limbs possessed many fingers and toes. The extinction reset the direction of their evolution with the post-extinction survivors being terrestrial and with the number of fingers and toes reduced to five,” said Lead researcher Professor John Marshall, of the University of Southampton’s School of Ocean and Earth Science. 

As previously mentioned, Professor Marshall’s main goal with releasing all of this newfound research is to warn humanity of how similar our planet’s current climate looks to how it did right before this mass extinction that killed thousands of species and redirected the way we evolved. The team plans on continuing their remote research in Greenland in hopes to further learn more about past climate emergencies, and how to better prepare for them today.

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea’s History To Be Featured As A Digital ‘Exhibit’

We often take history books for granted, but in many cultures, the passage of knowledge, history and tradition is often by word of mouth only. An anthropologist at the University of Virginia is helping to bring the vision of a man from Papua New Guinea to life though the digitization of his village’s history and culture.

Back in 2006, Lise Dobrin had received an email from a man she had met in Papua New Guinea several years earlier whilst completing fieldwork for her dissertation. Attached to the email was a word document written by the man which revealed the fascinating history of his village in great detail.

The man was Bernard Narokobi, an important political and cultural figure in his country. He was worried that if he didn’t write it all down, it would be lost forever. As the generations aged and passed away, oral history was dying with them, and he wanted to ensure this vital piece of his culture and his roots were preserved for future generations.

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Narokobi initially sent his work to Dobrin because he felt he could not publish it and own it under his name. Dobrin explained that this was because he would have wanted to discuss it with the village elders so they could approve it and add to it, but he said that anyone with such standing had already died.

Sadly, Narokobi died in 2010, after which his family gifted the letter to UVA’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. Dobrin remained committed to seeing his wishes come to fruition and is now working on making this resource available online. She hopes this will provide the Arapesh people of Papua New Guinea with access to their cultural history, as many have since moved away and may have lost touch with their roots and historical knowledge. She also hopes it will be a valuable resource for other researchers who are interested in the area and its culture.

The fascinating project has been made possible by a year-long National Endowment for the Humanities-Mellon Fellowship for Digital Publication. A dedicated website is currently being built which will include a range of mediums such as video, audio, and maps, as well as dialog boxes to help explain the history of the village in greater detail. It will be highly interactive which Dobrin felt was vitally important, as this fitted in well with the cultural traditions of discussion and oral history story-telling that are part of village life.

The digital publication will also pay homage to its originator, Narokobi, who Dobrin compared to Thomas Jefferson for his dedication and ability to put forward a vision for a new nation. Narakobi was a well-respected lawyer, author, public intellect, and member of Parliament. He also helped to compose the Constitution of Papua New Guinea after it gained independence from Australia in 1975.

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Dobrin believes that Narokobi’s village history has particular political significance because it sheds light on how alliances were formed throughout the ages. It explores inter-village leadership, village relationships, early colonial encounters, and the roles played by villagers during the pre-independence period. In addition, the more social aspects of village life are revealed, including arts, games, and dancing and there are also many examples of villagers who moved away and gained notable success.

Dobrin considers Papua New Guinea to be “one of the most culturally diverse countries on Earth,” as over 800 languages are spoken, little of which were previously written down. Naturally, some of these languages have faded away over the years, including the Arapesh language which is no longer spoken by current generations. Keen to preserve this element of history, Dobrin had already created a digital repository of the Arapesh language from her previous work. She was reminded of this repository when reading Narokobi’s “History of Wautogik Village”, and this work appeared to perfectly complement his, including alternative translations and versions of parts of his story written in English. It was these kinds of connections that Narakobi knew were needed if his document was to ever be published.

After Narakobi’s death, Dobrin continued with her work and knew she needed to help validate this. She travelled to Papua New Guinea to seek out elders who would be willing to help her and was delighted to find five or six who were happy to do so. She read Naroboki’s writings to them and invited them to provide their feedback and additions. Now working on the final edit, Dobrin will return to present to them the final draft, where she will also write an introduction with Narokobi’s son, Vergil, now a member of Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court.

The final version of “History of Wautogik Village” will be made available in open-access and likely through Facebook, which Dobrin says is the medium they favor, due to greater access to mobile phones than computers. She hopes that her work will mark ‘a new frontier for linguists’ and it has already sparked inspiration for a new course she is teaching on “Curating Culture.”


Oldest Art Known To Man Discovered In Indonesia

The oldest artwork ever created by humans has been discovered in Indonesia. The cave art found can be dated back 44,000 years, and it’s definitely not your average cave painting. The figures depicted in the painting seem to be half human, half animal and are known as therianthropes. Therianthropes typically are illustrated with human bodies and animal heads, and are often used in mythology. In this particular painting, the therianthropes are hunting pigs and buffaloes using spears and ropes; a rather normal cave painting scene, minus the animal heads. The story was originally published in the online science journal known as Nature. In the journal’s report, scientists believe that the figures in the painting could potentially give us an insight into the original foundation of human spirituality, given the fact that the characters in the painting have animal heads. 

“To me, the most fascinating aspect of our research is that humanity’s oldest cave art is at least 44,000 years old and it already has all the key components relating to modern cognition, [like] hand stencils, figurative art, storytelling, therianthropes and religious thinking. So it must have a much older origin, possibly in Africa or soon after we left Africa,” said Maxime Aubert, study author

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Sulawesi, Indonesia is the specific city in which the cave painting was discovered. The city is known for its vast amount of limestone caves. According to Aubert, there are at least 240 known cave art sites in Sulawesi, but considering it’s the 11th largest island in the world, and has barely been explored for cave art specifically, who’s to say what else is left to be discovered. It’s likely that there’s even more insight into what life was like 40,000+ years ago hidden amongst the limestone. 

This artwork in particular was initially discovered back in 2017; Aubert and his team were exploring another cave, when one of his associates noticed there was another cave hidden farther above a cliff that was nearby. Upon further exploration, the 44,000 year old art was discovered, and it was covered in what researchers call “cave popcorn.” This term is for the layers of mineral growth that are often found on top of ancient cave paintings such as this one. These layers are very important for scientists when it comes to determine how old the artwork is. Scientists are able to measure the radioactive decay of specific elements within the mineral layers and based off how decayed they are is what determines the age of the drawings. 

What’s so astounding about this paintings discovery in particular doesn’t even fully have to do with how old it is, but instead the content of it. Aubert discussed how before this, the oldest cave paintings were thought to be in Europe, and those pieces depicted many abstract symbols and were likely created 40,000 years ago. Fast forward another five thousand years and the cave art became slightly more sophisticated, depicting animal and human shaped figures. However, it wasn’t until about 20,000 years ago where the first cave paintings depicting scenes that share a clear story with therianthropes appeared; until now. 

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“[It] suggests that there was no gradual evolution of Paleolithic art from simple to complex around 35,000 years ago — at least not in Southeast Asia. The hunters represented in the ancient rock art panel are simple figures with human-like bodies, but they have been depicted with heads or other body parts like those from birds, reptiles and other faunal species endemic to Sulawesi,” said Adhi Agus Oktaviana, study co-author.

The study is so groundbreaking because it’s giving scientists the earliest known evidence of human beings conceiving concepts that are beyond the natural world. Spirituality, religion, mythology, narrative fiction, gods/spirits, etc. these are all concepts that, up until this point, scientists believed humans didn’t have the capacity to understand until about 20,000 years ago. Now, that’s all being thrown out the window, and the study suggests that this discovery could mean that human conceived spirituality could go beyond being just 44,000 years old; with all of the areas still yet to be explored. 

Research has also indicated that human beings first arrived in Southeast Asia almost 70,000 years ago, meaning there could be artwork even older and more complex than this one! However, scientists must move quickly, as art as old as this is quite fragile and continues to deteriorate at an alarming rate. 

“The early rock art of Sulawesi may contribute invaluable insight into the rise of human spirituality and the spread of artistic beliefs and practices that shaped our modern minds. It would be a tragedy if these exceptionally old artworks should disappear in our own lifetime,” Oktaviana said.