The Great Fossil Enigma: The Search for the Conodont Animal


Simon Knell. The Great Fossil Enigma: The Search for the Conodont Animal (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), 440pp.


A preview of this book appears on Google Books.


It was so small, such a tiny, early, transitional mass, a coagulation of the unsubstantial, of the not-yet-substantial and yet substance-like, of energy, that it was scarcely possible yet–or, if it had been, was now no longer possible–to think of it as material, but rather as mean and borderline between material and immaterial.

Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, 1928.

This book tells the story of a scientific journey of twists and turns through assertions and denials, past alien monsters and incoming asteroids, through a world of unexpected discoveries and real utility, which ultimately arrives at an animal which, rather surprisingly, seems to say something about our own ancestry. In the course of all this travelling countless animals formed in scientific minds only then to dissolve, replaced by new apparitions. The fossils themselves were so small, that seeing them – really seeing them – was no easy matter. Indeed, the millions of these things, present in collections around the world today, might – if poured like so many grains of sand – fit into a few shoe boxes. We could be forgiven, then, for not knowing the conodont. But my aim in writing this book has not simply been to record a famous episode in the folk history of a science. Being so tiny and evocative, these fossils possessed a chameleon aspect. El Dorado-like, they pulled their victims into mirror-filled rooms, ensnaring their thoughts with mirages and illusions. Vanishingly small and impossibly ambiguous, they occupied that borderline between material and immaterial, never wholly one or the other. If one was not careful, it was possible to see in them what one wanted to see. What they saw then was no more than a thought; an imagined thing conjured into existence. If what the conodont workers thought they saw was then transcribed onto paper, one has, in these representations of the fossil, a tiny lens on the minds of those who found themselves inextricably entangled with these enigmatic material things. It was with this thought that I began this book and consequently my focus has been on fossils of the mind rather than their physical counterparts, for it was only in the scientific mind that these objects acquired their magical properties. 

So I positioned myself, like an anthropologist, on the edge of this scientific community…[taken from the concluding Afterword which also doubles as an introduction]


PRELUDE: The impossible Animal

As students, we sat there drawing and labeling a jargon-rich paleontological world only too ready to be captivated by the objects before us. Our tutor, however, seemed to have other ideas. He evidently had no passion for his subject. To him, ammonites and trilobites were just things to carry names. As each fossil was introduced in sequence, then drawn, annotated, named and removed, our enthusiasm waned. How could paleontology be so dull? Why would any tutor wish it to be so? Our disapproval turned to disdain. Then, one day, we were greeted by rows of binocular microscopes. We were to look at “microfossils” and, amongst these, some peculiar tooth-like objects. Immediately, and to our great surprise, everything now changed. Our roles were reversed. We initially thought these new objects dull (they were not the prettiest examples of their kind) but our tutor had woken up! He asked us what they were. We made a few feeble guesses which he easily rebuffed. He did, however, take our suggestions seriously. That too was new. Then he began to list other possibilities and each time explained that it too was incorrect. Before long, every blackboard in the room–and there were many–was covered with names and sketches of what seemed like the whole animal kingdom–and a few plants besides–and yet still we seemed no nearer the truth. We waited patiently for the inevitable answer, but that answer never came. Sporting a smile we had never previously seen, and with obvious relish, this dour Yorkshireman (or so we had thought) admitted he didn’t know what they were either. There was a moment of silence. Then we became brave. “What about…?”, “If…?”, “Couldn’t they…?” But our speculation was futile. In every case someone had been there before us. We looked again at these tiny teeth. They were so evocative. How could no-one have any sense of what they were? How could we not even know whether the animal which possessed them also possessed a backbone? How could a natural object exist in this advanced age and yet remain beyond the most general categorization? Undoubtedly enhanced by a perfect prelude–that dull journey through paleontological gems–our tutor’s performance had been quite brilliant. For years after, we would recall this impossible thing and dream a little about that magnificent moment when all would be revealed. Many years later, over a cup of coffee with curator, Peter Crowther, who was also one of the editors of the journal, Palaeontology, I recalled the wonder of this little fossil. His face lit up. It was clear that he, too, had experienced a similar moment. It was as though we had shared a religious rite of passage. Then he said, “And have you heard? They have recently found the animal!”

1 The road to El Dorado

The fossil is found—the search begins—Pander’s chicks—a friend of Murchison—Pander sees teeth and imagines fishes—others see trilobites, sea cucumbers—Owen sees anything but fish—Harley sees crustaceans—Moore in palaeontological ecstasy—the fossil arrives in Cincinnati—Newberry sees fish—Grinnell misses Custer’s Last Stand—Ulrich denies the fish and sees a worm—Hinde proves the fish—Smith’s surprise—Huxley’s encouragement—Zittel and Rohon murder the fish and see a worm.

2 A beacon in the blackness

Oil enters the American soul—fossils take on economic importance—microfossils take centre stage—scientific worth of conodonts recognized—the Black Shales problem—Godlike Ulrich vs. Kindle—Bryant’s fishes—Hibbard’s washing machine—Ulrich and Bassler’s proof of method—Stauffer’s chance discovery—Gunnell’s vision of the future—Chalmer Cooper the disciple—Branson and Mehl’s big campaign—Huddle’s accidental beginnings—an index discovered—Icriodus the ideal—Cooper’s cellophane fossils—contamination—Ellison’s logic.

3 The animal with three heads

The fight for biological paleontology begins—Croneis’s influence—the geography of thinking—Macfarlane’s conodont oil theory—giant conodonts—Kirk finds bone—Gunnell’s imaginings—Eichenberg’s novel idea—Schmidt’s assemblage—Stadtmüller’s influence—Scott finds oil, earthquake and assemblage, and worm—Jones finds assemblages and Denham thinks of sex—Ulrich and Bassler in denial—Loomis and Pilsbry see snails—Demanet finds the fish—Cullison’s remarkable jaw.

4 Another fine mess

Looking inside the fossil—chemistry like bone—Stauffer loses his teeth—Hass sees extraordinary detail—knowing the animal becomes impossible—more Ellison logic—Scott attempts to convince skeptics—Du Bois sees flesh—Germany plays catch up—Beckmann adopts German fish—Schmidt stuck in the past—Rhodes makes the assemblage a reality—a fine mess.

5 Outlaws

A chaos of names—the rights of nuts and bolts—Croneis’s military order—the problematic Commission—Rhodes’ duel with Sinclair—Lange’s revolutionary worm teeth—Sylvester Bradley and Moore’s parataxa—the solution to illegality is to change the law—the Treatise—Moore spells trouble—Arkell’s ammonites join the cause—arguments get political—the plan is thrown out—Moore explains how to ignore the problem.

6 Spring

Post-war optimism and the ‘50s generation—Rhodes’s overview of the problem and the future—Müller’s war—Gross’s influence—Cooper pioneers acids—acids take hold and the conodont world is turned on its head—Beckmann’s technique—Gross finishes off the dying fish—Schindewolf rises to power—the magic mountain—Müller in the Devonian—Beckmann reveals the German future—the rush for glory begins—Ziegler starts his meteoric rise—Müller escapes to the Carnic Alps—Walliser’s energy—Lindström the schoolboy geologist—Sweet changes track and meets Bergström.

7 Diary of a fossil fruit-fly

A fossil’s evolution—Simpson’s evolution—naive evolution—Haldane and Dobzhansky—New Paleontology—the problem of species—Müller’s evolving fossils—Helms’s evolutionary details—fruit-flies—Ziegler’s universal timescale—Ziegler begins global campaign—a little setback—the conodont becomes mainstream—the Pander Society formed—Müller’s Cambrian exotica—Youngquist’s Triassic proofs—the Cretaceous seems possible—Japanese Jurassic fossils—Mosher reveals fantasies—Gould and Eldridge deny the conodonts’ evolutionary journey—Klapper and Johnson enter the fray—the conodont workers march on regardless. 

8 Fears of civil war

Ziegler’s mountain—Rhodes begins to construct the skeleton—Huckreide and Walliser do the same—Bergström and Sweet see skeletons too—Lindström’s symmetry transitions—Rexroad and Nicoll’s fused fossils—Bergström and Sweet take a stand—Schopf and Webers join them—Ziegler’s world explodes—Lange’s critical fossils—Pollock’s clusters—Lane’s symmetry—Kohut’s numbers—arguing with Ziegler in Ohio—fears of fractricide—the Marburg peace accord—learning to speak a new language—Parataxa reappear—the ‘troublesome’ Melville—Aldridge’s diplomacy—Sweet’s magnificent letter—Melville’s astonishment—the turncoats.

9 The Promised Land

The promise of ecology—conodonts are like God—Rexroad’s provinces—Lindström’s honeymoon and Rosetta Stone—Sweet’s great campaign—Bergström’s Swedish-American fossils—Bergström and Sweet’s animal migrations—Schopf’s models—Glenister and Klapper’s Canning Basin—Druce in the field—Seddon’s reef ecology—Seddon and Sweet’s arrow worms—Druce’s modifications—more problems for Ziegler—Merrill’s changing ecology—the disruption of tectonic plates—Valentine’s influence—Barnes and co. put theory into practice—Waterloo—Jeppsson’s seasonal migrations—rising doubts about ecology.  

10 The witness

Catastrophism and color—Epstein acquires color vision—Alvarez and the asteroid—Schindewolf’s extraterrestrial causes—Walliser’s global events—Golden Spikes—MacLaren’s asteroid—Clark’s index of evolution—Fåhræus’s ballet—Walliser joins the club—Kellwasser—Ziegler, Sandberg and Dreesen imagine another world—Jeppsson’s island and his big idea. 

11 The beast of Bear Gulch

Man lands on the moon and the animal is found—the false dawn of Scott’s blebs—Lange’s mistake—Melton and Horner’s fish—strange fossils—the Chicago sensation—the rumor of Scott’s kidnap of Melton—Scott and Melton’s friendship—getting funds—the truth of Melton—trouble brews—Huddle’s doubts—closing ranks—publicity—writing up—Riedl’s alternative—trouble in the quarry—Horner and Lower—East Lansing—news spreads of the discovery—yet more trouble—the paper disappears in a snow storm—errors in publication—thrilled readers and the indigestible meatball.

12 The invention of life

Models of animals—the purpose of the tiny fossils—Fahlbusch’s algae and little victory—Nease’s plants—Gross’s animal-less conodont—Lindström’s first animal—the rush for the SEM—Müller and Nogami’s art—Lindström’s tentacled worm—Rietschel’s jaws—Lindström’s grand thought experiment and tiny barrel—Conway Morris’s conodont animal—denying Melton and Scott—Priddle looks to the lamprey—Bischoff introduces yet more animals—Hofker looks to the soil—Bengtson’s new teeth—Landing’s superteeth—Nicoll’s filter—Hitchings, Ramsay and Scott design filters—Jeppsson’s teeth—Szaniawski’s influential arrow worms.

13 El Dorado

Finding the real animal—the shock of the old—Clarkson’s puzzle—the Mazon Creek clue—meeting with Briggs—Halstead and the rumor—Aldridge’s luck—the first paper—Aldridge joins up—Clark’s extraordinary eye—rumors spread—The Conodont Animal—revisiting models—Dzik and Drygant remove the arrow worm—Janvier’s critique—Nicoll’s view—vandalism—the Waukesha animal—Nottingham—Smith strengthens the team—Norby’s model—rebuilding the apparatus—separating fact from myth—strengthening interpretations—Dzik asserts the vertebrate—Tillier and Cuif’s strange mollusks—Sweet’s critique—Aldridge and Briggs’ repost.

14 Over the mountains of the moon

The journey to the vertebrate—strange plants in the Cedarberg Mountains—Rickards’ intervention—Aldridge’s luck (again)—Theron’s collaboration—African giants—Gabbott and Purnell strengthen the team—Gabbott’s triumph—Kreja’s helping hand—Moya Smith’s expertise—Sansom’s remarkable discovery—the conodont vertebrate becomes a reality—views of the fossil past are shaken—Purnell’s bite—Briggs and Kear watch the dead—evidence continues to build—Donoghue’s attention to detail—the animal becomes an alien—the vertebrate enters the grand narrative of life—a gathering storm—is this El Dorado after all?

AFTERWORD: The progress of tiny things

Difficulty of truly knowing—fossils of the mind—like an anthropologist—all knowledge is contingent—the animal as a subplot behind the action—fossils as material culture—approaching with intentions—the role of belief—admitting other knowledge—recalling the past—the mixed composition of knowledge—individual constellations of knowledge—latent knowledge—the importance of individualism—the nature of luck—the intangibility of fossils—imagined patterns—material and immaterial or conceptual fossils—spatial dynamics of science—conflict and chivalry—avoiding arguments—fashion and forgetting—the progress of tiny things.