Students find their ‘Inner Fish’ of evolution Organismal biologist presents research at Elon University By Hannah Barry
Most first-year medical students enrolled in a human anatomy courses expect their professor to be a doctor of a specific medical field, but at the University of Chicago, that is not the case. Neil Shubin’s students were surprised to find out that he is in fact a fish paleontologist. Little did they know that the structure of fish and humans are actually relatively similar according to Shubin’s renowned research over the past 10 years. Monday night, students, faculty and staff, as well as members of the surrounding Elon and Burlington communities attended Shubin’s “Finding Your Inner Fish” lecture held in McCrary Theatre at 7:30 p.m. It was hosted by Voices of Discovery and the Liberal Arts Forum. Shubin, the associate dean of the organismal biology and anatomy department, is known for his discovery of the Tiktaalik roseae, the missing link between aquatic and land animals. This 375-
million-year-old creature is typically found in Devonian rock beds across the globe, and Shubin has been to more than several of them. “Knowing fish anatomy changes the way you look at the world,” said Shubin. The lecture included various slides showing skeletal images of human spinal cords, fish backbones, flies and other animals with related structures and bones. The connection between fish and humans is much more significant than people know according to Shubin. He even compared Albert Einstein to the Tiktaalik roseae in one of his slides. But this discovery was no simple task. Back in 1998 when Shubin first began his research, financial means were scarce. The beginning point actually started in the Catskills Mountains of Pennsylvania, which was about a three-hour drive from home — cost-efficient compared to flying to other remote areas around the
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world. “Our goal was to find new fossil evidence that bridged the gap,” he said. Shubin and his partners soon realized that older Devonian rock beds were necessary to close the gap, specifically areas of the world that have searchable areas with
“Knowing )ish ana tomy changes the way y ou look at the world.” Neil Shubin rocs 375 million years old and over. This led them to the Canadian Arctic in 2000, to southern Ellesmere Island. The crew finally discovered the fish fossil to bridge humans and fish — the Tiktaalik roseae in
“We share so much with the rest of life on our planet.” 2004. After years of searching the Arctic tundra, digging through rock beds, building wind walls around tents, carrying guns to fend off polar bears and doing endless research, Jason Downs, Shubin’s youngest crew member, an intern from the University of Pennsylvania, stumbled across a sea of fossils. But not until five months after returning from their dig, did the crew get to see the first complete skeleton of the Tiktaalik roseae. Once a potential skeleton is found, paleontologists usually dig around what they think would be the full body of it, and later send it to be carefully dissected. The process is time consuming. Each grain of dirt is individually removed with a needle so that risk of damage is minimal. “Fossils and DNA can tell us something about ourselves,” said Shubin. His team’s discovery has provided valuable information to the scientific world of evolution. The research shows that fish and humans have a shared
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history, but in no way implies direct ancestry to them. “Other creatures become other vehicles to understanding our own bodies,” he said.
Shubin has received recognition as a recipient of both the Miller Research Fellowship and Guggenheim Fellowship awards. Yet he continues to research new and fundamental problems in evolutionary biology, specifically “how bodies evolve in the first place… from cells to an actual human head,” he said. © Wikipedia
“We share so much with the rest of life on our planet,” said the fish paleontologist. Shubin’s lecture was followed by a short questionand-answer session with the audience, as well as a book signing from his 2008 book “Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body.” This research is another step in the building blocks of scientific discovery.
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Tiktaalik roseae: Quick Facts Age: 375 million years old Found: Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada Number of Individuals uncovered to date: Over 10 Size range: Smallest- 3 feet Largest- 9 feet Nickname: “Fishapod”