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The Tully Monster -- Imagine the Gradual Evolutionary Path to This Guy

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Because I didn't own a TV back in the 1990s, I missed The X-Files when it first aired. Lately in a nightly ritual my wife and daughter and I have been catching up via Netflix. It's charming -- both a romance and a monster mystery/conspiracy theory mash-up. That explains why when I saw the headlines this morning about the Tully Monster, I misread its name as the Scully Monster, a reference to skeptical FBI investigator Dana Scully.

In fact this bizarre 300-million-year-old creature from the seas that became Illinois is named for its discoverer, Francis Tully. But it looks like something Scully and Mulder would investigate, and its precise biological classification has been a mystery worthy of a File, until now. Yale researchers report:

The Tully Monster, an oddly configured sea creature with teeth at the end of a narrow, trunk-like extension of its head and eyes that perch on either side of a long, rigid bar, has finally been identified.

A Yale-led team of paleontologists has determined that the 300-million-year-old animal -- which grew to only a foot long -- was a vertebrate, with gills and a stiffened rod (or notochord) that supported its body. It is part of the same lineage as the modern lamprey.

"I was first intrigued by the mystery of the Tully Monster. With all of the exceptional fossils, we had a very clear picture of what it looked like, but no clear picture of what it was," said Victoria McCoy, lead author of a new study in the journal Nature. McCoy conducted her research as a Yale graduate student and is now at the University of Leicester.

For decades, the Tully Monster has been one of the great fossil enigmas: It was discovered in 1958, first described scientifically in 1966, yet never definitively identified even to the level of phylum (that is, to one of the major groups of animals). Officially known as Tullimonstrum gregarium, it is named after Francis Tully, the amateur fossil hunter who came across it in coal mining pits in northeastern Illinois.

Thousands of Tully Monsters eventually were found at the site, embedded in concretions -- masses of hard rock that formed around the Tully Monsters as they fossilized....

The Tully Monster has taken on celebrity status in Illinois. It became the state fossil in 1989, and more recently, U-Haul trucks and trailers in Illinois began featuring an image of a Tully Monster.


Using the Field Museum's collection of 2,000 Tully Monster specimens, the team analyzed the morphology and preservation of various features of the animal. Powerful, new analytical techniques also were brought to bear, such as synchrotron elemental mapping, which illuminates an animal's physical features by mapping the chemistry within a fossil.

The researchers concluded that the Tully Monster had gills and a notochord, which functioned as a rudimentary spinal cord.

So it's a vertebrate, kind of like a lamprey. That's all fine, but here's the problem. One thing I take away from Michael Denton's new book Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis, is that given the premise of Darwinian gradualism, we should expect the history of life to be a blur or smear of diverse of organisms. Instead you have these countless novelties, seemingly products of saltation or jumps, spread like stars across the night sky.

The closer you look, the more evident it is that those stars are isolated points of light, not a smear. Things like Tullimonstrum gregarium are devilishly hard to imagine being lead up to by the classic Darwinian path, and in fact the isolation of the Tully Monster from other animals is the reason we're reading about it in the news today in the first place. If it were just a lamprey with a twist, it wouldn't be a monster.

Editor's note: Get your copy of Dr. Denton's Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis now. For a limited time, you'll enjoy a 30 percent discount at CreateSpace by using the discount code QBDHMYJH.

Image credit: Sean McMahon / Yale University.