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Scientists Discover the Very First Hipster

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You’ve seen the cartoon before: a fish hoisting itself up on land with its front fins, being greeted with some snarky sign like, “Evolve at your own risk,” or something similar. This fish has become a meme, so much so that when the discovery of Tiktaalik roseae, a 375-million year old fossil that displays a mix of fish and tetrapod characters, was announced in 2006 by the lab I was working in at the University of Chicago, I thought I’d start a movement with the geekiest version of the Darwin fish ever:

Tiktaalik bumper sticker

The world's geekiest version of the Darwin fish bumper sticker. Too bad it's WRONG!

Well, wouldn’t ya know it, that pesky thing called progress has unseated the “front-wheel drive” version of life invading land and replaced it with something much more… well, hipster. More evidence is in, and Tiktaalik, it seems, was built like an old Volvo – with rear-wheel drive.

A new paper in the January 13th early edition of PNAS describes Tiktaalik‘s newly discovered tail end, complete with a beautifully preserved pelvic bone and partial hind fin from the same specimen that made headlines in 2006. Finally, a near-complete image of Tiktaalik is emerging:

Tiktaalik reconstruction

Tiktaalik reconstruction © Kalliopi Monoyios

What is so incredible about this find is a delightful detail of the pelvis. The hip socket is smooth and round – a ball and socket joint – that suggests the hind fin had quite a wide range of motion. This is unlike the shoulder joint which has an oblong shape with an angled facet that would have prevented the front fin from rotating up and around. Judging by fossil data alone, the front fins were robust and capable of supporting weight but they were probably not helping Tiktaalik walk like an amphibian on land without some serious body drag. The hind fins were also quite strong and clearly played a part in holding up the beast. But what of the ball and socket hip joint?

The trouble with fossils is that they’re terribly static. We can learn a lot about what was physically possible from looking at the anatomy, but we can never hot-wire a fossil into moving again, and we certainly can’t observe their behaviors in their natural environment. But this is where interdisciplinary studies can be so powerful.

Upstairs from Neil Shubin’s paleontology lab at the University of Chicago in 2010 was a graduate student named Heather King. King was studying the biomechanics of African lungfish and had rigged up a long, thin aquarium where she could film the lungfish as they did what lungfish do (spoiler alert: not much). Very occasionally, she noticed a bizarre behavior: the lungfish would use their whip-like hind fins to walk along the bottom of the tank.

It was at a presentation to her advisory committee that King first revealed this behavior, and Shubin and another adviser familiar with Tiktaalik‘s pelvis, Michael Coates, nearly fainted. Lungfish, after all, are one of Tiktaalik‘s closest living relatives, being part of a group of fish known as lobe-finned fish (most of the fish you can think of – tuna, goldfish, blobfish, chub – belong to a different group, the ray-fins). Suddenly, the round hip socket of Tiktaalik came sharply into focus. Would Tiktaalik have been capable of walking along the bottom of a stream with its hind fins like its cousin the lungfish? Was Tiktaalik a rear-wheel drive beast?

And with that revelation, I declare it’s time for a new meme:

Rear-wheel drive fish

Rear-wheel drive fish by Ed Heck,
Articles cited:

Neil H. Shubin, Edward B. Daeschler, & Farish A. Jenkins, Jr. (2014). The Pelvic Girdle and Fin of Tiktaalik roseae PNAS : 10.1073/pnas.1322559111

King HM, Shubin NH, Coates MI, & Hale ME (2011). Behavioral evidence for the evolution of walking and bounding before terrestriality in sarcopterygian fishes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108 (52), 21146-51 PMID: 22160688

Kalliopi Monoyios About the Author: Kalliopi Monoyios is an independent science illustrator. She has illustrated several popular science books including Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish and The Universe Within, and Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True. Find her at Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Alexandstein 7:32 pm 01/15/2014

    Unfortunately, arthropods beat Tiktaalik to terrestrial locomotion by millions of years.
    So it was already mainstream. (Although, quite literally they could have physically left the Main Stream!)

    Link to this
  2. 2. David Marjanović 3:04 pm 01/16/2014

    Importantly, the paper is open-access!!! That’s not normal for PNAS!

    A new paper in the January 13th early edition of PNAS describes Tiktaalik‘s newly discovered tail end

    Well, no. The tail is still unknown. That’s why, in your painting, the tail of one is cut off and that of the other fades out in the distance. :-)

    Lungfish, after all, are one of Tiktaalik‘s closest living relatives

    …Yeah, the second closest – the closest after us tetrapods.

    Link to this

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