see if you can guess this month’s fossil from the underside of the box
July 28, 2014 7:05 PM   Subscribe

"It’s underwhelming fossil fish of the month again. That wonderful time of the month where we take a look at one of the underwhelming fossil fish specimens in the Grant Museum collection. By staring at and reading about unloved, unspectacular fossil fish specimens I hope to increase global fishteracy as well as explore the question, why do we have material like this in museums? What is the point? What is the value? Maybe we also learn something important about ourselves. Something like, ‘I don’t find bad fish fossils particularly fascinating’. Which isn’t a bad thing at all. It’s the journey not the destination that matters right?" posted by moonmilk (11 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
The author accidentally whelmed me a great deal I would like to request All of my money back.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:19 PM on July 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

When I'm worried about being underwhelmed by fossils, I just remember how freakin' old they are. BAM! Instant whelm.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:36 PM on July 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Paleontologist here.

My colleagues and I've been talking about this. We can't decide if it's genius paleontology marketing or a release of some very real pent up frustration about our obsession with rocks.

See, here's the thing: you're out in the field, and you're collecting or just looking around, and you see, say, an inoceramid fossil, which is a type of clam. You get excited. It could just be a mold or just some of its calcite prisms, but it's more likely just this. So you collect it.

....and there it sits, in its little baggie or with its little tag, on your porch or in a box or on shelves in your basement, because you only have 100 of the fuckers already, and it's nothing new or particularly exciting. You're not going to learn anything new about Inoceramus from it. But now you have it. Even though as you stood there, thinking, I already have a hundred of these, it's not even whole for christ's sake, and I've got to walk a mile back to the car with all the other oyster and clam and rocks with oooh pretty stratigraphic structures that I also have a hundred examples of (but they're all different!) in my backpack, why am I picking this up. And part of you knows you're going to have to move again, have to carefully pack this rock, along with all the other fossils and rocks, and unpack it into another garage, or hell, leave it packed, what's the difference, really.

A dirty secret about paleontology is that about 95% of the fossils we find are not nice. They're in halves or chunks or pitted or only partially preserved or whatever, they're just not pretty. Yet you can't stop yourself. You think, maybe if I pick up enough Inoceramids I could do some kind of study someday! But you never will. You'll never look at it again.

I'm not even a goddamn invertebrate paleontologist. That's not my paleontological obsession. That's not even my professional collection.

And one day I'll die, and someone is going to have to go through all these rocks and do something with them, and they'll think, maybe I should donate it to a museum.
posted by barchan at 8:13 PM on July 28, 2014 [27 favorites]

Paleontologist's spouse here. The half fossils are fine, it's the bags and bags of ooids....
posted by benk at 8:32 PM on July 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Bags of Ooids is my new funk-klezmer trio.

Do you paleontologists ever wonder what will happen when millions of years from now paleontologists discover the remains of your garage? I guess they'll be able to tell it's a human collection, even if your garage is pushed into a tarpit by a lahar.
posted by gingerest at 9:22 PM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love this so much.
posted by bq at 9:39 PM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

At least you pick up fossils barchan. We biologists just pick up pretty rocks. Everyone's office is full of them. We don't even know what they are.
posted by fshgrl at 9:56 PM on July 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Although I do have some fossil leaves in my rock collection. Pretty sure they are underwhelming leaves.
posted by fshgrl at 9:56 PM on July 28, 2014

You think, maybe if I pick up enough Inoceramids I could do some kind of study someday! But you never will. You'll never look at it again.

I have a similar problem with carnivorous plants: my plants grow or set seed, I trim them back and because I remember back when just learning how to keep them alive was all new and each plant was so precious, I can't bring myself to throw the cuttings or seedlings away. So I root them into little pots and soon my greenhouse is bursting with hundreds of the exact same species of plant, each on their way to growing big enough to set seed or need pruning themselves.

After my third greenhouse expansion, I finally figured out the solution: give the extras to kids. I visit 3rd-8th grade classrooms to talk about the plants and unload a batch, I give them away at plant shows and nature festivals while manning my plant society's booth. Kids cannot believe their luck when they get a free carnivorous plant. If their plant falls to misfortune, I tell them to come back and I'll give them more plants.

I figure most of these kids will get bored with the whole "Hey, my plant eats bugs" thing well before they hit their teens. But maybe some will stay interested a little longer. Maybe she or he will pursue that interest through college, into a science career. Or maybe a few of them will turn out like me: someone who followed another career path but comes home to her plants, an avid hobbyist who enjoys sharing her interests with others. I like to garden, I think of this as cultivating kids, planting some seeds for the future.

Go forth and plant some future paleontologist seeds with all those lesser fossils in your garage.
posted by jamaro at 11:47 PM on July 28, 2014 [15 favorites]

If you ever have a chance to visit the Grant Museum, don't miss the jar of moles, jar of lizards, and jar of fetal pigs (among many other interesting things-in-and-out-of-jars). Though I guess underwhelming fish fossils need love too.
posted by Gordafarin at 1:44 AM on July 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

The more I read this blog, the more I loved it. I spent years examining herbarium specimens from around the world in order to measure the length of a pore at the tip of the ascus of a common species of powdery mildew. It was exactly as exciting as you suspect. However, thanks to generations of mycologists all over the world, doggedly collecting and preserving this underwhelming fungal species, I was able to compile a large dataset that allowed me to determine that this was actually *three* nearly identical underwhelming species. Universities increasingly question the utility of their herbaria, thinking they are quaint wastes of space, but these specimens ought to be treasured. With new DNA technologies, they become even more valuable. I had to determine which of my underwhelming species caused an epidemic of plant disease in the early 1900s. Thanks to a mycologist who took the time to collect and preserve some samples, I could answer the question.
posted by acrasis at 4:44 PM on July 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

« Older On balancing career and family as a woman of color   |   How Gary Gygax Lost Control of Dungeons &... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments