Headbanging, rocking and moonwalking fossils

One can never be too careful when given the opportunity to name a fossil organism that has proved to be new to science. In addition to a meticulous description and accompanying images showing the characteristic traits of the fossil, a unique and formal, Latinized scientific name must be attached to the creature. Many people, who get the chance honour an older colleague or famous palaeontologist, use the name of the discovery site or region to indicate the provenance of the fossil or, of course, christen the fossil after its characteristic looks (for example, Eriksson, 2017a). But you can also glance towards completely different areas, such as the art and music scenes.

As a lifelong music fan and hobby musician (who, just like many of my peers, had aspiring yet quite ludicrous ‘rock star dreams’ in my teens) and a palaeontologist by profession, I cannot help myself but feeling blissful and delighted about the possibility of joining my two passions – ‘heavy’ music and palaeontology – in ‘unholy matrimony’. This has, among other things, led me to name some extinct polychaete annelid worms (bristle worms – the marine ‘cousins’ of earth worms and leeches) from the Silurian and Devonian periods after some of my favourite ‘metal’ musicians. These largely soft-bodied animals generally have poor preservation potential, although full body fossils are known from the fossil record. However, some representatives are equipped with resistant jaws (when preserved as microfossils they are known as scolecodonts) that, by contrast to the worm body, have great fossilisation potential and can be found in abundance and diversity in ancient sea floor sediments.

Figure 1
Fig. 1. The man, the myth, the legend: Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead at Wacken festival, Germany, 2013. (Photo by Paul Bossenmaier.) Inset top right is the fossil Kalloprion kilmisteri, named after Lemmy. The millimetre-sized specimens were photographed in a scanning electron microscope (SEM). (SEM photo by Mats E Eriksson.)

For example, Kalloprion kilmisteri from the Silurian strata of the island of Gotland, Sweden, was named in honour of Lemmy Kilmister (1945–2015) – legendary founder, bass player and singer of Motörhead (Fig. 1). Kingnites diamondi, also from the Silurian of Gotland and the neighbouring island of Saaremaa in Estonia, was named after Danish Heavy Metal falsetto vocalist extraordinaire, King Diamond, of Mercyful Fate and King Diamond (Fig. 2). Most recently, two colleagues and I named a gargantuan species, Websteroprion armstrongi, from the Devonian of Canada after bass player Alex Webster of Cannibal Corpse fame (see Worm monstrosity – a giant extinct worm, in Issue 50 of Deposits) – a fitting name since Alex can be considered as a true ‘giant’ when it comes to handling his instrument (Fig. 3; Eriksson, 2017b). And, if I may say so myself, they are all darn neat fossils, at least to my perhaps biased ‘metal-fossil, polychaete-adoring’ eyes. So, I obviously hope the musicians were as proud of this as I would have been; after all, they are not only in the music history books but now also have a permanent record in science.

Figure 2
Fig. 2. The millimetre-sized jaws of the Silurian ‘Heavy Metal polychaete’, Kingnites diamondi, and the living inspiration (King Diamond) in full regalia, photographed at the Sweden Rock Festival 2016. (Fossil SEM photo by Mats E Eriksson; photo of King Diamond by Paul Bossenmaier.)

One would perhaps be inclined to think that someone would take offence, as suggested to me by a journalist recently. Granted, that might be the case if you happen to have a specific aversion towards the squiggly animal group. However, I think the musicians fully appreciate the fact that we are merely a bunch of nerdy palaeontologists with a love of heavy music, and take it as the compliment it is intended to be. As a matter of fact, this indeed seems to be the case. Alex Webster instantly tweeted approvingly when he learned about our discovery (Fig. 3). Likewise, King Diamond told both the Danish press and me in person that he viewed this as an honour, while also noting that “it was the last thing I thought would happen, but it is cool that it does”. With regards to our sculptural reconstruction of the creature (see Eriksson, 2014), he pointed out that also that it “looks brutal which is only fitting as there is lots of that going on also in metal music”. I guess the grateful smile will need to be surgically removed from my face.

It is quite obvious that I am by no means unique in finding palaeontological inspiration in music (as will be further evident also below). Rather, the opposite is actually true. There are numerous examples of bands and recording artists with names borrowed from pre-historic organisms and/or those that have used fossils as record cover artwork (Eriksson, 2016). Moreover, I am neither alone in, nor the first person to be, amusing myself by combining an interest in arts and music with an interest in science, and more specifically the act of naming fossils after musicians (see Table 1). This just proves to me that there are lots of like-minded people out there, which I obviously find incredibly heart-warming.

Figure 3
Fig. 3. Mighty Alex Webster, his postdiscovery tweet and the holotype of the Devonian species, Websteroprion armstrongi. (Fossil photo by Luke A Parry; photo of Alex Webster by Alison Webster.)

While vertebrates and invertebrates are both represented among the ‘sonic fossils’, those lacking an ossified back support are heavily overrepresented and, out of those, arthropods (and trilobites in particular) are the most common (Table 1). Rock, punk and ‘metal sensu lato’ are the most prevalent music genres, followed by pop and jazz. The ‘music fossils’ span greater than 400 million years of geological history; ranging from the oldest one described, my approximately 434 Ma old K. kilmisteri species, to the youngest (also one of the most recently described) – a river otter, Lontra weiri – from the approximately two million-years-old Pliocene strata of Idaho, USA. The latter species was partly named after guitarist Bob Wier of the Grateful Dead by Kari A Prassack. I have to say that, like Prassack, being a so-called ‘Deadhead’ (the colloquial term for die-hard fans and followers of cult band the Grateful Dead) and a palaeontologist is a ridiculously good fit (if for nothing else, at least semantically).

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