The Tully Monster and the Backbone of Biologic Science

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Tullimonstrum gregarium with its new look

For over a half century, Tullimonstrum gregarium, or the “Tully monster”, was an enigma.  Discovered by amateur fossil collector Francis Tully in the Carboniferous Mazon Creek beds of Illinois, the creature was originally described by Richardson in 1966.  However, it was very difficult to determine what, precisely, the Tully monster was.  It has been compared to ribbon worms, bristle worms, snails, conodonts, and even the early arthropod Opabinia.  Researchers found it challenging to classify this organism with its elongate body, cuttlefish-like posterior fins and bizarre proboscis.

That is, until this Wednesday, when researchers from Yale published their findings in Nature Letters.  They have convincingly shown that Tullimonstrum is, indeed, a vertebrate.  Specifically, it is on the stem lineage to Petromyzodontida, or lampreys.  The authors describe several vertebrate features, including a notochord, gill pouches, stalked eyes, and multiple rows of teeth at the end of the elongate proboscis.

The results of this study are fantastically enlightening.  They report segmented muscle masses, or myomeres (unique to chordates) that appeared to be segmented body sections.  Decay had separated these segments, giving the organism an annelid-like appearance.  They detail the presence of numerous, keratinous teeth within the proboscis, quite unlike the chitinous “teeth” on the radula of gastropods.  The placement of Tullimonstrum within Petromyzodontida also reveals lampreys to be a much more morphologically disparate group than previously suspected.  It appears as if early jawless vertebrates employed a number of differing feeding structures.

These findings were possible only through examination of over 1,200 specimens within the collections at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.  The research employed a number of novel imaging and digital manipulation techniques to highlight and interpret much of the internal and external anatomy of Tullimonstrum.  This was accomplished by compilation of hundreds of partial specimens to produce a complete picture of the animal’s anatomy.  Much of this fossil material had been in the Field Museum collections for at least fifty years.

The Tully monster illustrates the absolutely imperative need for research collections in the biological sciences.  Acquiring and maintaining these collections constitutes the foundation, or “backbone” if you will, of rigorous biological research.  Scientists and museum specialists in the mid-twentieth century had the foresight to collect, document, organize, and preserve specimens of Tullimonstrum, knowing that they were unsure of its affinities at the time, but that future researchers would have tools at their disposal to more accurately interpret the nature of these specimens.  Biologic and geologic science would be impossible without research collections.

Unfortunately, biological research collections are often targeted for budget cuts.  They’re not at the forefront of scientific discovery.  Specific specimens may be highlighted, but most material is never seen.  However, the bulk of our accumulated knowledge is only available because of accumulated specimens.  When these specimens remain behind closed doors, they receive little attention.  When funds get diverted to “squeakier wheels”, silent paleontology, zoology, entomology, malacology, or botany collections suffer, because why devote time and money to dusty specimens in dusty drawers in dark rooms in the depths of museums.

The revelations about the Tully monster this week were marred by the announcement that the National Science Foundation would suspend its Collections in Support of Biological Research (CSBR) Program for 2016.  No new proposals in support of maintaining or enhancing biological research collections will be evaluated this year.  This portion of NSF funding has systematically dwindled in the past decades.  Grants used to be available for all manner of collections (geology, mineralogy).  The focus was recently shifted to collections limited to a biological scope.  Now, the entire program is on hiatus.

This blog has been possible, in part, because of a CSBR grant involving recent and fossil invertebrate specimens in our collections.  Our insight into biodiversity and evolution will be limited, or eliminated, if funds for collection upkeep are not available.  As researchers, and concerned citizens, make your voice heard.  Make it known that we need support to maintain these collections.  The future of biological science depends on it.

Now, I have to go update our collections move Tullimonstrum over with the vertebrates.

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