Friday, February 8, 2008

David Temple - Lysorophus found!

- OR -

The perils of marriage to a paleontologist

I first met “Nicole” in a wash about 800 meters from the main quarry our team has been working in Seymour. The day was winding down, sun was shining at a raking angle, and we were all tired of sitting on lumpy, pointy rocks.

So, we took a short paleo “road trip” and in order to do some prospecting. The Doctor and Flis headed south and east, I went north and west.

Usually, this kind of contrarian behavior on my part results in the opportunity to admire everyone else’s fantastic finds. You would think that since this happens so often, it would encourage me to follow the pack. Still, it’s at least a little easier on the ego to admire everyone’s discoveries back at the vehicles, rather than at the outcrop. (Particularly after they have asked me to move some part of my body so they can retrieve or examine said fantastic find, which I have been unwittingly laying or sitting on. I have not been successful in arguing that standing, sitting, leaning, lying, on or next to a fossil, constitutes “discovery.”)

When I brought “Nicole” back to the vehicles to meet the folks, as it were, I knew the kidney-shaped rock was something interesting, as The Doctor immediately became very excited. It was a Lysorophus, a small amphibian that resembles a modern amphiuma. Faint outlines of ribs could be observed sinuously disappearing into the rock.

This was the fossil of a complete animal, still coiled in its burrow. During the late Permian it had burrowed in the mud to escape drought and wait for rains that never came.

The fossilized Nicole. You can see the ribs curling around the lower right corner.

In his excitement, the doctor called for a name. As is his habit, he suggested the name of my first girlfriend. This required some thought, as I briefly but awkwardly recalled her identity, realizing that the minimal qualification for “girlfriend” status is mutual affection.

Then – thankfully – I experienced a moment of clarity, a fast mental flash-forward, as I return home to the missus with news of the find, the name and an explanation.

“But Sweetheart, I could never name a wriggling, tiny-limbed, slime-covered amphibian that burrowed in the mud and ate by sucking - and a dead one at that – after you! I’m saving that honor for the discovery of a graceful, long-limbed and beautiful new species.”

A Lysorophus closes in on its prey. (c) Robert T. Bakker

But, this moment of clarity brought with it a mental soundtrack: Gordon Lightfoot , The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald:

“Does anyone know where the love of God goes;
When the words turn the minutes to hours...”

No matter what you’ve found, naming opportunities are few and far between. So, I did the smart thing and named it after the wife, who was polite but not particularly enthusiastic, despite assurances that I had no hidden agenda in naming a dead, wriggling, tiny-limbed, slime-covered, mud-burrowing, suck-eating amphibian specimen after her – that this act was, in fact, complimentary.

Defending this claim was problematic. So, I reminded her that 292 million years ago, this thing was quite a looker…. at least to members of its species… maybe even the cutest one…and after all, it was very thin.

A X-ray of Nicole.

Hello Rock, meet Hard Place. If I ever get christening rights again, I am sticking with U.S. presidents, beloved pets or Batman villains.

I think I made the correct choice – would you have done it differently?

Nicole – the fossil, not the wife – will eventually end up freed from her burrow and on display in our new paleontology hall.