Headbanging, rocking and moonwalking fossils
Mats E Eriksson (Sweden)
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.
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) – 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.
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.
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).
Apparently, I am in good company, as I am not even unique in specifically naming fossil polychaete worms after rock stars. Recently, my friend (and co-author of the Websteroprion paper) Luke Parry, together with colleagues, described a new Cretaceous polychaete species from Lebanon (Fig. 4).
Deriving from a Lagerstätte, this species is unusual as its muscle anatomy is pristinely preserved. During the course of their work, the research team therefore jokingly referred to the worm as “the muscle worm”, which of course could lead to completely different associations. But, just like science blogger Brian Switek so aptly wrote, ‘Muscle worm might sound like a euphemism for, well, I’m sure you can imagine, but get your brain out of the gutter’. There is nothing even remotely indecent about this, but instead, it constitutes the nickname for an amazingly well-preserved and unusual fossil. In view of the state of preservation of the fossil and its ‘muscle worm’ nickname, the team agreed that the species must be baptised after someone who could live up to these physical attributes.
To me, the chosen name, Rollinschaeta myoplena, is therefore excellent, as it literally translates into ‘the plump-muscled Rollins worm’. It fittingly honours Henry Rollins (vocalist, spoken word artist, actor and writer), who indeed has an impressive physique (google his live performances). Moreover, the species belongs to the extant polychaete family, Amphinomidae – a colourful group of polychaetes colloquially referred to as ‘fireworms’, as they really are worms with a sting. As a defence mechanism, they have toxin-coated chaetae that can cause nasty and painful infections if you happen to touch or trample on them.
I also assume that very few people would like to step on Mr. Rollins and I do not want to think about the consequences if that happens.It should also be mentioned that even polychaete biologists have gone down this same path; Garraffoni and Lana (2003) described a now-living, tube-dwelling and deposit feeding polychaete, Terebellides sepultura, named after Brazilian ‘extreme metal’ giants, Sepultura.Other notable examples of ‘sonic fossils’ include a Cretaceous predatory dinosaur from Madagaskar, Masiakasaurus knopfleri (Fig. 5), named after Mark Knopfler (probably best known from Dire Straits).
The trilobite genus, Milesdavis, from the Devonian of North America probably has a very familiar ring to it and might make your mind wonder off to a trumpet-saturated, smoky, jazz club. A personal favourite in this category is the Cretaceous bird, Qiliania graffini, named after Greg Graffin of legendary punk band Bad Religion (Fig. 6). This is neither because I am a palaeo-ornithologist nor because the fossil itself is extraordinary. No, it is because the choice of name is so beautifully appropriate since, in addition to being a famous rock star, Greg actually has a PhD degree and is ‘moonlighting’ as a university lecturer in evolutionary biology (see also Kaplan, 2014). Not bad.
In 2014, another exciting new ‘rock fossil’ was named after Sir Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones; Jaggermeryx naida is a 19 Ma old swamp-dwelling, hippopotamus-like creature found in Egypt (Fig. 7). Jaggermeryx can basically be translated into ‘Jagger’s water nymph’ and the species got its name because the fossil bone material suggested that the animal had enlarged, sensitive lips…
That same year, another fossil was named after a well-known character from the music industry. The name of a 50 Ma old mammal from Wyoming, USA, Gagadon minimonstrum, honours Lady Gaga. The name refers to the animal’s small size, but supposedly ‘terrifying smile’, while simultaneously flirting with Lady Gaga’s fans, who call themselves ‘little monsters’. A special mention goes out also to palaeontologist Ben Thuy, who, in 2013, named some fossil brittle stars (the slimmer, snakier ‘cousins’ of sea stars) after rock musicians (Table 1). He actually erected a new genus, Lapidaster, which literally means rock stars and one of the species, L. mathcore, is also named after an intricate ‘metal’ music subgenre (Fig. 8).
This certainly appeals to me.One of the most recent members of ‘rock fossils’ clan is, just like my worm, named after Lemmy Kilmister. This time, however, it is a 164 Ma old, gigantic and inferably fearsome crocodile from the Middle Jurassic of eastern England (Fig. 9; Table 1). Museum curator and co-author of the study, Lorna Steel, is a life-long Motörhead fan and suggested that the crocodile should be named after her late musical hero. She noted that:“Although Lemmy passed away at the end of 2015, we’d like to think that he would have raised a glass to Lemmysuchus, one of the nastiest sea creatures to have ever inhabited the Earth.”Somewhat reluctantly, even I can admit that in terms of ‘cool factor’, a croc beats a worm any day of the week.
But it does not end here, because there are living and extinct organisms named after athletes, authors, politicians, philosophers, mythological beasts, cartoon and movie characters (Fig 10; Jóźwiak et al., 2015). So, the desire to have fun while at the same time ‘feeding the soul’ is apparent among the most hard-core research scientists. This also means that the typically exceedingly dull and dusty scientific fields of taxonomy and biological nomenclature actually leave wiggle room also for creativity and amusement.
Some people would perhaps dismiss this as whimsical nonsense, not serious enough and has no place in science. Furthermore, some would perhaps argue that such actions violate the very principles of biological nomenclature in zoology, by referring to the ‘law book’, the so-called International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) which governs the naming of extinct and living animals, and specifically Article 15 (Formation and treatment of names) and Recommendation 25C. This deals with the ‘Responsibility of authors forming new names’ and states that:
Authors should exercise reasonable care and consideration in forming new names to ensure that they are chosen with their subsequent users in mind and that, as far as possible, they are appropriate, compact, euphonious, memorable, and do not cause offence.”
Moreover, in Appendix A (Code of Ethics), point 4 states that:
No author should propose a name that, to his or her knowledge or reasonable belief, would be likely to give offence on any grounds.”
Of course, this is in the eye of the beholder, but, when it comes to the ‘sonic fossil’ examples given here, nothing could be farther from the truth. At least speaking for myself, these names are solely constructed with the utmost respect for the musicians, scientific discipline and fossil creatures alike.
However, murky waters are omnipresent (after all, we are dealing with mankind). Very recently, a new species of an extant moth was described from California, USA; Neopalpa donaldtrumpi (see Nazari, 2017). Obviously named after current US president, Donald J Trump, the characteristic traits of the species are small genitalia and golden hair. Regardless of my personal opinion about this (that is, funny), I guess it could be viewed as at least border-line offensive.
If this is still not considered harsh enough, there are truly offensive names out there with an unfortunate permanent record in the scientific literature, constructed with the actual and sole intent of being nasty towards another person (sometimes, this practice is referred to as ‘vengeful taxonomy’). For example, the late 1800s ‘bone-war’ giants Othniel Charles Marsh (1831–1899) and Edward Drinker Cope (1840–1897) did their best in trying to slaughter each other this way. Whereas Marsh’s mosasaur species Mosasaurus copeanus leaves little room for interpretation (even when including the fact that ‘anus’ is a latin word root for ‘ring’), Cope’s Miocene mammal Anisonchus cophater was apparently a strike against ‘all Cope-haters’ surrounding him (surely and primarily including Marsh).
Another classic and slightly more recent example, unflatteringly enough, involves two fellow Swedish palaeontologists: Elsa Warburg and Orvar Isberg. They were on unfriendly terms in the 1920–30s. Whereas Warburg was Jewish and, well, not skinny, Isberg was a national socialist, politically inclined to the extreme right (that is, a Nazi). The name of Warburg’s Ordovician trilobite species, Isbergia planifrons, means ‘with a flat forehead’, which in Sweden basically means stupid. Call it karma or plain revenge, Isberg did not leave this unnoticed and retaliated by naming an Ordovician mussel, Warburgia crassa; in which crassa means ‘fat’ (Lundegårdh and Laufeld, 1984; Nilsson, 2017).
Although these names might perhaps be perceived as amusing (all in accordance with the idiom; tragedy + time = comedy), they do violate the very intent of the ICZN and I really think nomenclatural constructions such as these should be avoided. (I actually have a hard time understanding how they slipped through the net of reviewers and editors of peer-reviewed scientific journals.)
Let us leave this rather unpleasant side-track and return to the all-embracing, good-spirited nature of the ‘sonic fossils’. Regardless of how satisfying and funny I personally thought it was to name fossils after Lemmy, King and their peers, my true favourites in this category probably still are the arthropod researchers, Jonathan M Adrain and Gregory D Edgecombe, who named quite a few fossil taxa after famous musicians in the 1990s. I simply tip my hat to them for their wonderfully quirky idea to name species after all members of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, in two separate scientific papers published in 1997 (Table 1; Fig. 11).
The humorous and sympathetic Edgecombe reasoning behind these choice of names is admirable and worth quoting. He argued that in addition to the logic of naming species in a genus after all members of the same band, it “might mildly annoy my older colleagues” (Parry, 2015).
To be honest, I had actually had that very same idea, that is, if given the opportunity to sometime name new species after all the musicians in one of my favourite bands. But, as with most ideas you get, it turns out that someone already had that very same idea. To make another analogy with the world of music, many musicians within the popular music industry today reason along the lines that all songs are already written and those composed now really are mere variations on the same theme.
Sometimes, I cannot help but think about what Carl von Linné (1707–1778), the father of the nomenclatural system of naming plants and animals, would have thought about my unorthodox Heavy Metal names for fossils. Well, I actually think he would have approved of them. And what is my reasoning behind this, you might ask? Well, for me personally, Heavy Metal represents three things: energy, passion and going your own way. If we translate this into the life of Linné, he was very energetic when it came to work, he was truly passionate about it, and he was certainly pioneering. In conclusion, this means that Linné was Heavy Metal long before the genre was even invented and, had he been alive today, he would most certainly have been a fan of this progressive music genre. I mean, just look at the guy – he dressed like Swedish guitar virtuoso, Yngwie J Malmsteen, and he had long hair (Fig. 12).
About the author
Mats E Eriksson is a professor of palaeontology at the Department of Geology at Lund University in Sweden. He primarily works on Palaeozoic microfossils and tries to reconstruct and understand ancient organisms and ecosystems. Besides research and teaching, Eriksson has a deep interest in scientific outreach and adores it when different disciplines – such as science, arts and music – amalgamate.
I am grateful towards all the kind people helping out with some of the images for this article (see credits given in the figure captions). I would also like to sincerely thank my fellow ‘Rock Fossils’ partners: Achim G Residorf, Jesper Milàn, Esben Horn and Rune Fjord.
Bibliography and further reading
Eriksson, M.E. 2014. Master of Puppets: sculpting ancient worlds. Geology Today, 30: 98–104.
Eriksson, M.E. 2016. Prehistory as sonic inspiration: palaeontological heritage in popular music. Geology Today, 32: 222–227.
Eriksson, 2017a. The tongue-twisting horror – or beauty – of the names of organisms: a Linnaean heritage. Deposits Magazine, 51: 38–40.
Eriksson, M.E. 2017b. Worm monstrosity – a giant extinct worm. Deposits Magazine, 50: 40–41.
Garraffoni, A.R.S. & Lana, P.C. 2003. Species of Terebellides (Polychaeta, Terebellidae, Trichobranchinae) from the Brazilian coast. Iheringia Série Zoologia, Porto Alegre, 93: 355–363.
Jóźwiak, P., Rewicz, T. & Pabis, K. 2015. Taxonomic etymology – in search of inspiration. ZooKeys, 513: 143–160.
Kaplan, K. 2014. Rock and research – Scientists who moonlight as musicians get more from a gig than a fistful of cash. Nature, 510: 177–179.
Lundegårdh, P.H. & Laufeld, S. 1984. Norstedts stora stenbok – mineral, bergarter, fossil. Norstedts. 376 p. (In Swedish)
Nazari, V. 2017: Review of Neopalpa Povolný, 1998 with description of a new species from California and Baja California, Mexico (Lepidoptera, Gelechiidae). ZooKeys, 646: 79–94.
Nilsson, M. 2017. The art av förolämpning – konsten att håna folk med hjälp av artnamn. Allt om Vetenskap, 04: 68–74. (In Swedish)
Parry, L. 2015. Rock fossils. The Palaeontological Association; Palaeontology Newsletter, 90: 45–47.