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Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?
April 25, 2012 7:01 PM   Subscribe

A group known as the Cincinnati Dry Dredgers have uncovered an unusual fossil (since dubbed "Godzillus") which is currently the subject of investigation and debate. Among the current questions? "Is it animal or vegetable?".
posted by radiosilents (37 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Triffid.
posted by trip and a half at 7:02 PM on April 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


I am part of this department. How have I not heard about this.

Not a paleontologist, but literally right down the hall from the people in the photos. HOW.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 7:06 PM on April 25, 2012 [18 favorites]


When's the next meteor shower?
posted by arcticseal at 7:06 PM on April 25, 2012


Those sneaky bastards kept it a secret for the north-central GSA meeting, yesterday. Clever clever. I'm a little surprised it hit these sites so fast!
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 7:10 PM on April 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Like Godzilla, it's a primordial beast that found its way to the modern era"

... in bed.
posted by swift at 7:10 PM on April 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Hmmm... hundreds of millions of years ago, organic but of unrecognized configuration, notably larger than other contemporary species....

Is this your card?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:17 PM on April 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Animal or vegetable is my favorite fossil question, as for a long time I was very confused about crinoids, which are also bizarre and frequently large! I am not exaggerating when I say this will probably be a topic of many family dinner conversations, so thank you!
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:23 PM on April 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Surely remnants of the Elder Things, which would account for the plant-like traits of the animal's hide.
posted by Krazor at 7:47 PM on April 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


Aren't these the creatures which were encountered at the Mountains Of Madness?
posted by hippybear at 7:48 PM on April 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


Dammit, Krazor.
posted by hippybear at 7:49 PM on April 25, 2012


I'm really sorry to keep posting in this thread but I have been both baffled and insanely excited by for almost an hour now.

I do want to reiterate that this is an exceptionally incredible find; again I'm not a paleontologist, but I've gone on plenty of fieldtrips in the area and possibly to the exact outcrop where this was discovered (I want to know this so badly, and am going to have to drill a few professors when they're back in town), and I know a decent bit about the sort of thing you find here. Something this big just isn't found in these deposits. It's amazing. The idea that we haven't found it because of the difficulty of soft-tissue preservation makes a lot of sense to me. They addressed this in the paper, but the friend I called pretty much immediately said he thought it was probably some kind of weird sedimentary structure, or in other words not biological. He didn't look too closely at the photos. We do have some weird trace fossils in our rocks here (see Kinneyia--my discussions with professors have boiled down to 'under debate') but this is so totally not that and I can think of no way this could be some kind of structure. So yeah. Crazy cool.

Also by looking more closely at the photo I've realized that I know the room they are keeping the fossil in, likely for the whole past year. That is both hilarious and infuriating. When do they start selling tickets.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 8:08 PM on April 25, 2012 [14 favorites]


.... I was coming in here to make a Mountains of Madness joke.

I'll just go now.

In all seriousness, though, what would the implications be for modern taxonomy if at some point we discovered a large organism that was right between animal and vegetable? Is that even possible? *biology newb*
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:08 PM on April 25, 2012


The stripes are horizontal instead of vertical? I'd go with Cactus Erniius, as opposed to our modern vertical striped Cactus Bertus.
posted by symbioid at 8:13 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Are you UC geo faculty, six-or-six-thirty? As an undergrad at Oberlin, my paleontology class tagged along on a field trip led by Dr. Carl Brett, one of the scientists pictured. One of the best field trips I've been on, for so many reasons.

Also, what is wrong with the UC webmaster? Make those pictures enlargeable thumbnails, damnit!
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 8:25 PM on April 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


HighTechUnderpants, I'm currently a graduate student there, working on something entirely unrelated. But I've been on a few field trips with Dr. Brett, and I've enjoyed them all despite being a non-fossil person and sometimes being almost painfully over-informed by the end of them. But who doesn't love collecting and learning about fossils? After dark by van headlights? In the rain?
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 8:51 PM on April 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


Dude that's a fuckin' were-carrot if I ever saw one.
posted by tumid dahlia at 8:51 PM on April 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'm now imagining a sad six-or-six-thirty, nose pressed to the glass, forever excluded from the beaming circle of happy palaeontologists within the magic chamber.
posted by Abiezer at 9:09 PM on April 25, 2012 [11 favorites]


The drydredgers website has some characteristics of a fossil itself, I estimate it dates to the Webonepointoian Epoch.

six-or-six-thirty -- you might be surprised how anal certain publishing outlets (e.g., Science) are about embargos on information. Not saying that's the case here, but part of the deal with some major journals is they absolutely 100% have to be the ones to host the press conference / send out the press release. So there may have been a need-to-know atmosphere out of keeping with normal run of the mill department chitchat.
posted by Rumple at 9:16 PM on April 25, 2012


So there may have been a need-to-know atmosphere out of keeping with normal run of the mill department chitchat.

Yeah, I'm absolutely certain there was. UC is really high-profile for paleontology as well, so these things are very important (good!) for the name of the program. And I don't blame them... with some people beer does not good secret-keepers make.

I'm now imagining a sad six-or-six-thirty, nose pressed to the glass, forever excluded from the beaming circle of happy palaeontologists within the magic chamber.

Leaving dusty noseprints from crushed samples as a haunting reminder that I was there all along. That I waited.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 9:22 PM on April 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


what would the implications be for modern taxonomy if at some point we discovered a large organism that was right between animal and vegetable?

Well for starters, WidgetAlley, it would be pretty unlikely. An organism that was right between animals and vegetables would probably be unicellular as the last common ancestor of plants and animals (the most recent organism that both plants and animals descend from) was probably a single-celled beast.

Now, you could propose that there was a third branch, a third lineage that split off from that ancestor about 1.6 billion years ago (which is when it would've happened) and whose descendants survived to this day somehow undiscovered. This is possible, though exceedingly unlikely especially if its hypothetical descendants were big like this fossil is. It could have happened though, in principle. The problem here is that it's not really meaningful to say that it would be "between" plants and animals. It would be the product of 1.6 billion years of evolution since the split, just like modern plants and animals are, and would be no more closely related to our common ancestor (which is the last thing that was truly neither plant nor animal but a bit of both) than modern plants and animals are. It would still be a huge discovery, make no mistake. Finding a new kingdom would be if not earth-shattering then at least seriously earth-shaking news for the field of biology.

Evoluntionary lineages don't hang around on a border between one line of descent and another. As time passes, they evolve. You could speculate about a line that was more tightly conserved from the last common ancestor than plants and animals are (less changed, maybe because it was really well-adapted to a particular environment and it continues to inhabit that environment to this day) but the more conserved it is the more it looks like that ancestor, i.e. a somewhat nondescript unicellular eukaryote.

Does that make sense?

Oh, and as an aside: you might be interested to know, if you don't know already, that fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants. We diverged from them a bit more recently than we diverged from plants, despite superficial appearances, so we're closer to them and they to us than either of us are to the plant kingdom. Weird, right?
posted by Scientist at 10:10 PM on April 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


"UC Paleontologist David Meyer, left and Carlton Brett, right, flank Ron Fine, who discovered the large fossil spread out on the table. "

Holy crap, it was right there the whole time.

Anyway, this is really cool. I'm guessing a plant of some sort, for no very good reason.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:18 PM on April 25, 2012 [7 favorites]


Also, and for no good reason, I'm going with "bacteria" on this one. Anyone care to start a betting pool as to which kingdom/domain this fossil will turn out to belong to?
posted by Scientist at 10:25 PM on April 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Could it be a coral? (totally naive question)
posted by newdaddy at 11:58 PM on April 25, 2012


A coral... probably not, they have highly developed skeletons. A sponge-like organism would be an interesting possibility though, I wonder what the environment was at the layer the fossil was found around the time the fossil was laid down.
posted by Scientist at 12:01 AM on April 26, 2012


The texture reminded me of some glass sponge fossils I've seen. However, Carl Brett wouldn't miss ithe ID, if that's all this strange creature is.

Again...why are the pictures so stinking small?
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 12:10 AM on April 26, 2012


"A coral... probably not, they have highly developed skeletons."

The soft corals, though, have (as the name suggests) a soft skeleton made of protein rather than calcium - a lot less likely to fossilize. But yeah, an experienced paleontologist would be unlikely to miss that.

As I understand it, the trilobites found in that region are deep-water types - correct? If so, and the ones found in association with the fossil are of similar type, that'd tend to discount 'plant' and lean towards 'animal'.
posted by Pinback at 12:22 AM on April 26, 2012


An organism that was right between animals and vegetables would probably be unicellular as the last common ancestor of plants and animals (the most recent organism that both plants and animals descend from) was probably a single-celled beast.

Can you elaborate on this for the clueless? Is there some common criterion for discriminating animals from vegetables that would apply to any multi-cellular organism?
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:42 AM on April 26, 2012


Non-scientist answer - plants are phototrophic (feed off light) and have chlorophyll.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 2:00 AM on April 26, 2012


Is it an animal or vegatable?

Trick question! It's a mineral, that's what happens to fossils.
posted by eriko at 3:29 AM on April 26, 2012 [14 favorites]


Can you elaborate on this for the clueless? Is there some common criterion for discriminating animals from vegetables that would apply to any multi-cellular organism?

1) Photosynthesis and the presence of chlorophyl are pretty sure-fire markers for plants and algae, and there are single-cell organisms that have these traits.

2) The presence of chitin in cellular walls is a sure-fire marker for fungi and animals.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:38 AM on April 26, 2012


The presence of cellulose in an organism is a great way to indicate "not an animal."

2) The presence of chitin in cellular walls is a sure-fire marker for fungi and animals.

Animals? Chitin in the cellular walls? That doesn't sound right.
posted by mediareport at 5:46 AM on April 26, 2012


Animals don't have cell walls. Fungi have chitinous cell walls (mostly). Other major groups differ in cell wall composition. For plants, it's mainly cellulose/pectin in the primary cell wall. Some plant cells have multiple layers of cell wall, where the other layers have a different composition (although still cellulose-based). Algae are kind of all over the place on the composition of their cell walls, but the green algae, like plants, have cellulose-based cell walls.
posted by pemberkins at 6:50 AM on April 26, 2012


Animals don't have cell walls.

I'd like a bit more clarification on this, please.
posted by hippybear at 11:54 AM on April 27, 2012


I'd like a bit more clarification on this, please.

Sure thing. All cells have plasma membranes . You can think of this as the "skin" of a cell. In some groups of organisms - but not animals - there is an additional layer called the cell wall, outside of the plasma membrane, that provides structural support (think of this as a cell exoskeleton, if you like.) The plasma membrane is flexible; the cell wall is stiffer. Even the cell wall is somewhat flexible, though. The support it provides in plants draws from the fact that it limits the cell's size, so when it uptakes water, the water pressure from the inside of the cell against its cell wall makes the structure more rigid. Some plant cells will develop a secondary cell wall outside the first that really is much stiffer - this is true for wood cells, for instance.

The advantage of a rigid cell wall is the structural support. A disadvantage is that it limits the ability of cells to specialize in size and shape, because they are constrained by the cell wall. So, specialized cell types like in nerves and muscle tissue are possible in animals because there is no cell wall constraining their size or shape.
posted by pemberkins at 1:28 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Checking in, later than intended.

I feel the need to again give the disclaimer: I am not a paleontologist and so might say some dumb stuff here, but I consider the people I've spoken to to be pretty reputable, and what with this still up in the air even with the experts as it were, there's nothing wrong with a little speculation.

First of all, the hook of this story (besides it being something new) is somewhat dependent on the fact that it was an amateur who found this thing. You have to admit, this is pretty cool. To be fair though, Ron Fine (the guy who found it) has a long history with the Dry Dredgers and is a pretty avid 'amateur'. So good on him! I've never met him, but I'd imagine he's pretty stoked by it all.

As for the fossil itself: the immediate, gut-response of many people has been the phrase 'some kind of algal mat'. One person suggested it was some kind of scaly algal cniderian. Algal mats sometimes prove difficult for preservation for the fact that they are soft little microbes, and hard for identification sometimes because they can come in a variety of forms or leave behind only trace fossils. One explanation (the preferred one, I think) for the kinneyia I linked to above is that they are some sort of sedimentary structure associated with the out-gassing of algal mats. So it would be interesting to see if kinneyia are found near this monster or associated with the same unit.

Please note though, some algal mats, like stromatolites, are ridiculously well-known and found in a lot of areas. And cool.

This specimen itself is unique for a lot of reasons, but a big factor is the weird, lobate structure of it. You might be able to see in the linked article photographs, but the sections of it are nearly uniform in both size and shape (it's my understanding that the rougher bits have not been fully cleaned up). I was told that this is kind of odd. In addition, their surfaces (and probably interior structure) are kind of fleshy or scaly, also very uniform. This isn't necessarily weird for algal stuff though.

For context, it was found in what is most definitely a storm deposit; some big event (these are sometimes linked with hurricane activity) ripped up a variety of stuff including concretions and likely the mat itself, transported it some distance, and deposited it in a mess of mud. The little trilobites they found attached to the underside were thought to either be in the wrong place at the wrong time and buried (storm events deposit a lot of stuff really quickly and the poor buggers wouldn't have been able to dig out) or maybe had hunkered down under it. The storm event has been nailed down pretty good.

Anyway, so it's pretty neat. The general feeling (amongst grads) is mostly puzzlement and a sort of 'well... guess we'll find out eventually'. I'm personally interested in knowing what sort of tests they might do to determine interior structure, but I'm sure they've put that off for now because such tests are inevitably destructive to some degree. It's better to collect as much info as possible before you go cutting stuff up. Luckily there's a lot of material, though!
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 1:50 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, and I did mean to say...

Even when first reading about this it did somewhat irk me that they had chosen to refer to it colloquially and temporarily as 'Godzillus'. This immediatly and I think unavoidably links it in people's minds to dinosaurs. And they didn't come around until like 250 million years later.

But you know. It's good to get in the press and show you have a sense of humor.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 1:54 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks! That's exactly what I needed to understand.
posted by hippybear at 1:54 PM on April 27, 2012


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