Silly Shark, Tricks are for (vampire) Squid

21 September 2006

From Miki Malör’s Vampyroteuthis infernalis (left) shipboard photo by Carl Chun (right)

Via, Pharyngula, please watch this National Geographic clip on the Vampire Squid.

Careful viewers will note the “LF” bomb dropped liberally within the narration. Darren Naish recently skewered the “living fossil” moniker as a tag for the hirsute Sumatran Rhino regarded by others as a throwback to the days when large wool(l)y quadrapeds tramped across Eurasia.

Living fossil” has been used to describe taxa with lengthy fossil records (sharks and crocodilians), phylogentically isolated taxa (Ginkgo) and taxa with previously widespread but now highly restricted distributions (Sphenodon), taxa with presumed primitive or highly conserved morphologies (Monotremes, horseshoe crabs), and taxa previously known only from the fossil record (Coelocanths, Metasequoia). Note that many of the groups listed may also fit some or all of the other various connotations.

Chuck D himself deployed the term In The Origin,

…All fresh-water basins, taken together, make a small area compared with that of the sea or of the land; and, consequently, the competition between fresh-water productions will have been less severe than elsewhere; new forms will have been more slowly formed, and old forms more slowly exterminated. And it is in fresh water that we find seven genera of Ganoid fishes, remnants of a once preponderant order: and in fresh water we find some of the most anomalous forms now known in the world, as the Ornithorhynchus and Lepidosiren, which, like fossils, connect to a certain extent orders now widely separated in the natural scale. These anomalous forms may almost be called living fossils; they have endured to the present day, from having inhabited a confined area, and from having thus been exposed to less severe competition. (Darwin 1859)

Darwin may be missing the mark here, life in fresh water lakes was apparently no impediment to the rapid radiation of Cichlids. The deep ocean has seemingly been a better archivist of living evolutionary history.

Neopilina was dredged from 3000 m, in one unsung evolutionary victory, validating and challenging platonic notions of mollusc evolution. Crinoids and brachiopods trade worn jokes filtered from the detrital rain of the upper-world. Vampire squid have held on to their old-time neocoleoid relijun. Archea, so named, bear their chronic burden at the interface of earth and sea. Or maybe not.

Evolution is a complex process played out within the spaces between innumerable overlapping breeding populations varying across space and time. There is no lockstep march forward, even if nucleotides do throb at an even pace. There is no more reason to believe that monotremes or tuataras ought to catch up to Quaternary morphologic standards, than to think our fellow Catarrhines should be learning how to use a salad fork correctly.

6 Responses to “Silly Shark, Tricks are for (vampire) Squid”

  1. Nick Valvo Says:

    I read a few of the things you linked to. Isn’t the LF-bomb clearly just a work of mourning, an emotional preparation for the extinction of the species in question on the part of the natural-historical community? Especially viz. those rhinos?

  2. Chelsea Says:

    Nick – don’t think about fossils as being used to describe “dead things” but simply “tangible specimens.” I think the sort of commodified definition of evolution has a lot to do with constant change (this is convenient because the capitalist market will bear and in fact thrive under constant change) but in nature, things only change when selective pressure is applied to them (errr… nah, I’ll stick with that, genetic drift be damned.

    So, if something looks the same as it did a long time ago, it’s well adapted. We have an idea that being “unable to adapt” is bad (inbreeding in the natural sense, or above 25 years old in the advertising world) but this is not to say that a population that hasn’t changed doesn’t still have the ability to do so. My point is, living fossils are static for now. That doesn’t mean they can’t change, and if they can still change, they stand just as much a chance as any other species of surviving sharing the planet with humans (which I feel is the reason you sort of meant extinction seemed likely? maybe not.)

    Neil – what the heck is “throb” supposed to mean? Isn’t this somewhat a blog entry about syntactical precision? I realize it is also a blog entry following a picture of David Berman, but I don’t get purple prose applied to DNA.

  3. Neil Says:


    Most terrestrial vertebrates saddled with the “living fossil” denomination (e.g. sumatran rhino, tuatara, laotian rock rat), share a few features that predispose them to extinction, like numerically limited populations and geographically isolated ranges. Widespread (i.e. “successful”) vertebrates do tend to be regarded as “modern” and thus not “living fossils” regardless of their fossil records.

    Interestingly, many invertebrates commonly regarded as “living fossils” (most famously cockroaches, but also millepedes, silverfish etc) are widespread and seen as so evolutionarily durable as to be essential indestructible (but see horseshoe crabs). This might display an entrenched bias in regarding invertebrates as inherently ancient/primitive.

    “Throb was a sitcom syndicated from 1986 to 1988 in the US. It revolved around thirty-something divorcee Sandy Beatty who gets a job at a small New Wave record label, Throb. Beatty’s boss is Zach Armstrong, who looks like Michael J. Fox but dresses like Don Johnson. Beatty also has a 12-year old son named Jeremy.
    Most notable was that it was the first time much of the American TV audience saw Jane Leeves, who later gained fame as Daphne Moon on Frasier. The show was distributed by Proctor & Gamble productions.” – .wikipedia.

  4. Blogrolling: M

    Smack in the middle of the alphabet! Let me know what’s missing from this list……

  5. […] health of the specimen, as in, “is that thing alive?” Of course, the putative “living fossil” was, in fact very dead–although a certain fish expert I know with quite a bit of […]

  6. Mickey Says:

    Hola , Happy April Fool’s Day!

    A couple goes out to dinner to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. On the way home, she notices a tear in his eye and asks if he’s getting sentimental because they’re celebrating 50 wonderful years together.
    He replies, “No, I was thinking about the time before we got married. Your father threatened me with a shotgun and said he’d have me thrown in jail for 50 years if I didn’t marry you. Tomorrow I would’ve been a free man!”

    Happy April Fool’s Day!

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