Campus & Community

Finding a fossilized needle in an Arctic haystack

2 min read

Jenkins describes expedition to net fish-land animal link

The first season searching Arctic Canada for a fossil that would illuminate how our ancestors first crawled onto land proved Harvard Professor Farish Jenkins’ explorer’s maxim: Never go any place for the first time.

A crew of six trudged through a barren landscape during the summer of 1999, finding the wrong sort of rocks scattered across the wrong sort of terrain. In addition to dealing with the frustration and isolation, researchers had to keep a wary eye peeled for predators, since the islands of Arctic Canada are the stomping grounds for polar bears. So along with their scientific gear, the researchers carried rifles in case of an encounter.

They eventually found a large fossil that first season, but not the one they were looking for. So when winter returned from its brief hiatus, the researchers went home defeated, but not discouraged.

It would take several more seasons, and a move east to Ellesmere Island, before the researchers would find their prize: a link between fish and land animals that they would name Tiktaalik roseae.

Tiktaalik would prove worth the wait. When announced in April 2006, the discovery was hailed as the long-sought “missing link,” filling an evolutionary gap in the history of how fishlike creatures first crawled out of the shallow rivers to take their place on land.

Jenkins, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and curator of vertebrate paleontology, described the seven-year journey of discovery that led to Tiktaalik’s unveiling during a talk before a packed Science Center lecture hall on May 25, 2006. Called “From Fins to Limbs,” the hour-long talk gave the audience a taste of what it was like searching for the fossil and the science behind it.