CU discovers its “Inner Fish”

Crowd pleaser: Dr. Neil Shubin poses for a picture with a fan. The acclaimed fish-paleontologist and author of “Your Inner Fish” gave a keynote address at Cameron to celebrate Darwin Day.

Crowd pleaser: Dr. Neil Shubin poses for a picture with a fan. The acclaimed fish-paleontologist and author of “Your Inner Fish” gave a keynote address at Cameron to celebrate Darwin Day.

Casey Brown

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On Jan. 6, the Biology Department hosted Dr. Neil Shubin, author of “Your Inner Fish,” to meet with Honors students, sign books and give a keynote address as part of the 12th annual Darwin Day Celebration.

Shubin is Professor of Biology and Anatomy at University of Chicago and a fish paleontologist.

Shubin is well known for his discovery of Tiktaalik, a fish with legs that links sea animals with land animals in the evolutionary chain.

“This whole inner fish thing began for me when I moved to the University of Chicago in 2001,” Shubin said.

He began teaching an anatomy course and realized that a fish paleontologist was well suited for his position.

“It seemed very clear that a paleontologist, and not just any paleontologist, but a fish paleontologist is a very good way to teach human anatomy,” he said. “The reason for that is that many of the roadmaps for our own bodies lie in simpler form in other creatures.

“The best roadmaps to understand the complex nerves in our head lie in sharks. The best roadmaps to understand the complex mapping of our brains lies in other creatures from rats to lizards and other things.”

Shubin emphasized that human beings have a shared history with all other creatures on the planet.

“The take home message is that we share connections to the rest of life on our planet, and that is because we have a shared history,” he said. “We share history with everything from fish to flies to mice.

“We share a connection to the rest of life on our planet. Every cell and every tissue in our bodies, we have history inside of us, and that history is shared with other animals,” he said. “That history is discoverable. We can go out and look at fossils from around the world, and we can look at embryos, DNA and genomes from different genome projects.”

Shubin had a particular goal in mind when he set out to look for the Tiktaalik. He said that, based on a slide he saw in graduate school, he wanted to find new places to look for the missing link.“What I set out to do was to find new places to look in the world to look to find how fish evolved to walking,” he said.

Shubin said when he designed his mission, he used what he refers to as a “paleontologist toolbox.”

This tool set includes looking for rocks of the right age, rocks of the right type and rocks that are exposed at the surface.

He searched in Pennsylvania first because of a limited budget and coincidence that rocks of the right age and right type were about three hours from where he was going to school at the time.

Shubin said when he and his team looked for Devonian age rocks from about 365 million years ago, they started to find fossils immediately. However, these fossils were not exactly what Shubin set out to find.

“We were finding lots of fish and lots of tetrapods, but we weren’t finding the exact intermediates that we wanted,” he said. “We wanted something actually deeper in time. We realized, based on findings from elsewhere in the world, we needed rocks that were deeper in the Devonian age.”

The expedition moved to northern Canada to look for the intermediate tetrapod. After six years, Shubin and his crew found what they were looking for.

“When I saw that snout, I knew we had found what we had spent six years looking for,” he said.

Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Mike Husak said he brought Shubin to Cameron because the fish paleontologist has made an important impact in the literature used inside his classroom.

“Neil Shubin and his books are basically standard reading for the Biology Department,” Husak said. “Certain classes are required to read some of his books because he has some of the biggest discoveries in our lifetime.”

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