Conodonts – the microscopic phosphatic tooth-like remains of an extinct eel-like organism – see the front cover picture taken by Phil Donoghue of four conodonts dancing on the head of a pin- were first described by Christian Pander in 1856 and interpreted as a group of enigmatic fish – thus initiating one of the great and long lasting mysteries in paleontology – what sort of animal – if indeed an animal at all – was the source of these fascinating little whatsits? Conodonts are arguably the most useful of fossils, valuable for biostratigraphy, facies interpretation, paleothermometry, as well as geochemical studies, yet specialists have not reached consensus as to the taxonomic affinity, although there is compelling evidence that fish, indeed, they are. This is the tale that Simon J. Knell has compiled, through literature and interviews of several giants in the field, from the beginnings of conodontology and the interrelation of these studies with the great advancements in geology. The book is organized chronologically – befitting a history – into fourteen chapters that highlight the players and development of the science. This is the vehicle for revelation of how science works and the interesting interplay of specialists, personality, strength of possession, drama of discovery, interpretation of data, and the astute observation that all books are histories based on the very nature of literature – a science book has incredible lasting power in strange contrast to it being immediately obsolete.
The story starts in the early 1800s when modern science and geological investigations were in their infancy. Pander, an ethnic German from Riga, and noted for his embryological work on chicken eggs relevant to the development of evolutionary theory, moved into geological studies in the 1820s. Publication in 1856 of the first volume of the Monograph of the Fossil Fishes of the Silurian System of the Russian Baltic Provinces introduced conodonts and awakened other naturalists and geologists to the wealth of microscopic fossils in Paleozoic strata. This immediately caused controversy, as the conodonts, although small, were complex and impossibly old for the strata they came from– what is now referred to as Ordovician; such were the scientific issues in the mid 1800s.
In subsequent chapters it is notable that several of the pioneer discoveries of conodonts, on either side of the start of the 20th century, in light of later studies, clearly demonstrate conodont biology, but the field was not mature enough to make conclusive interpretations in the mass of other work. That conodonts demonstrated a primitive to advanced development in stratigraphic succession, noted early in their study, as well as their utility in correlation, soon became evident. This led to a split in how they were studied – clues to the deep history of the earth and its organisms versus utility in the exploration for oil. Here is where some of the “Pommie Bastard” bias of the writer emerges – an implied higher calling from European, and notably British, workers compared to the utilitarian approach from the Americans.
An artistic reconstruction of a conodont.
The expansion of American universities, as well as the reemergence of European science following World War II, led to the growth and internationalization of conodont studies. That there was no modern analogue or whole body fossil organism, and the three score different interpretations of conodont affinities, fueled the intrigue – conodonts were like hieroglyphics before discovery of the Rosetta Stone – clearly meaning something, but mysterious. The field grew, major players developed research groups at several major US universities and conodonts intertwine with the great developments in modern sedimentary geology – plate tectonics, paleoecology, mass extinctions, and sequence stratigraphy. And yet the animal remained unknowable – discovery of the conodont-bearing animal became the Holy Grail of paleontology. During the 1900s, several “eureka” discoveries were presented as resolving the biologic home for the conodont organism – and it was at least twice championed as a plant. It is in this search that the drama builds – pretenders are proposed and eventually brought down when the sword is drawn from rocks in Scotland. Or, at least that might have been the conclusion had the book been completed two years earlier. At the end of the last chapter, before the afterward, the reader learns that new challenges to fish affinities have been raised, leaving this particular history unfinished. If this were a movie, this ‘ending’ would be the set-up for the sequel. For non-conodontists, this final tease should stimulate further interest in the debate.
As a conodont worker I enjoyed the added details to a story already well known. As a scientist I am delighted as to how the history of conodont study highlights the methodology of scientific inquiry and the development of a body of knowledge through controversy and evolving tools of investigation, the importance of individuals, general civility, and that we do eventually get it right. I was impressed at the drama – the details a history can give that are missing from scientific journals. The book is readable, sparsely but helpfully illustrated, has very few objective errors –Jefferson Formation for Jefferson City Formation – and is a valuable contribution to the history of science.
Dr. Jeffrey Over is a Professor at SUNY-Geneseo’s Department of Geological Sciences in Geneseo, New York. He was assisted in writing this review by John E. Repetski from the US Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia.
The Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York, is pleased to sponsor Paleontology content for This View of Life. Founded in 1932, PRI has outstanding programs in research, collections, and publications, and is a national leader in development of informal Earth science education resources for educators and the general public.