From science to pop culture and back again, Tiktaalik is a fish made truly famous.
Back in 2004, its discovery was hailed as one of the best-known examples of the evolutionary transition from limbed animals that swam to those that walked on land. Now, we all know this semi-smiling fishapod as the friendly fellow optimistically crawling up the riverbank, seen in many headlines, memes and cartoons that have spawned across the internet.
Who Really is that Inner Fish?
Tiktaalik roseae is a 375-million-year-old species discovered in the Nunavut Territory of the Canadian Arctic by a team co-led by Ted Daeschler, PhD, now retired curator for vertebrate paleontology at the Academy and previous Drexel University BEES professor. Along with co-discoverer and co-researcher Neil Shubin, PhD, of the University of Chicago, their work in scientifically discovering and publishing about this type-species fossil shed light on a pivotal point in the history of Earth: when life ventured onto land.
With scales, fins and its very familiar wide flat head and neck, Tiktaalik is the first creature in the fossil record to show some of the specialized features that we see in amphibians. According to Daeschler, Tiktaalik used their fins similarly to the way other modern creatures we now know use their limbs, but mostly in ancient Devonian-age aquatic settings — shallow streams, ponds and mudflats.
Its body would have undulated in a fish-like, side-to-side motion, but over time, it developed limbs to carry this movement onto safer lands away from potential predators. Eventually, this motion would be passed on to lizards, snakes, crocodiles and other tetrapods.
The Famous Fossil Has Arrived
A textbook example of a transitional fossil, one that demonstrates a mix of features that helps connect the major branches in the tree of life, the real Tiktaalik fossil has since been curated at the Canadian Museum of Nature, available to researchers for further study.
Now, however, our newest exhibition Life Onto Land: The Devonian will offer the rare opportunity to get up close and personal not only with this phenomenal specimen, but also with the amazing people behind the story.
This new exhibition features the original holotype specimen of Tiktaalik roseae and a newly commissioned Tiktaalik model by Tyler Keillor. Enchanting drawings by Spanish artist Aina Bestard, breathtaking footage of Arctic and Antarctic research sites and the vivid scientific illustrations of Scott Rawlins will be on display next to countless Devonian fossils from our world-class collections.
Life Onto Land reveals the diverse marine, freshwater swamp and terrestrial ecosystems of this period, as well as the amazing scientific discoveries of the Academy’s team of paleontologists, including Daeschler, who have contributed to our global understanding of this transformational time in our planet’s long history.