Tiktaalik on Camera

By Mary Alice Hartsock

Photos by Ted Daeschler

Nunavut Territory, Arctic Canada. Paleontologists.

Tiktaalik roseae fossils.

Jackhammers, shovels, a campsite.

Video cameras.

A prudent sound-recording technician with a suitcase full of survival gear—just in case his travel mates weren’t prepared for the elements.

A storyboard.

Did we lose you?

If we did, you’ll have the chance to catch up this month, when PBS airs a documentary on evolution featuring the discoverers of Tiktaalik roseae—that famous 375-million-year-old fossil lobe-finned fish with many features only seen in tetrapods (limbed animals).

Tiktaalik field site
Tiktaalik field site

Academy Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology and Drexel Associate Professor Ted Daeschler, along with Neil Shubin of the University of Chicago, the late Farish Jenkins of Harvard University, and other colleagues, discovered this incredible example of the evolutionary transition between finned and limbed animals in 2004, after two promising expeditions to the Nunavut site. Their discovery has attracted attention not only from the paleontology community, but also from documentary filmmakers, textbook publishers, teachers, and even medical professionals who believe Tiktaalik reveals important information about the history of life, including human evolution.

Supported by a Howard Hughes Medical Institute initiative to fund educational programs on evolution, the documentary is based on Shubin’s acclaimed book, Your Inner Fish. The first of three episodes will feature Shubin, Daeschler, and their colleagues Marcus Davis (Kennesaw State University) and Josh Miller (University of Cincinnati), as well as other evolutionary biologists. The film will be publicized widely before its premiere on PBS and then will find its way into classrooms. Daeschler’s participation in this much anticipated documentary is yet another example of Academy scientists’ involvement in groundbreaking evolutionary research and their ability to communicate their discoveries to broad audiences.

In July 2013, a crew of four filmmakers joined Daeschler and his colleagues for their trip to the southern Ellesmere Island site where they discovered Tiktaalik roseae. Upon arrival, they set up camp, where on the first day they were hit by a minor snowstorm (page 8). Over the next 12 days, the team collected geological and fossil samples from the Tiktaalik site and the surrounding area. The film crew documented these activities and conducted interviews. The scientists jackhammered, shoveled rock, excavated fossils, and traversed the rocky landscape—mostly to fill in the blanks on the film crew’s storyboard.

Camp in snow.3
Nunavut in summer 2013

Daeschler and his colleagues had explored the site thoroughly in the past, but they were eager to travel there again to search for missing pieces. They uncovered a rare piece of a Tiktaalik pelvis and some other Tiktaalikfragments, in addition to other Devonian fossils that help put the evolutionary events of that time into an ecological context.

After all, as Daeschler explains, paleontologists simply don’t turn down a fully funded opportunity to roam across fossil-rich Devonian strata—and trips like this one can easily stretch into the six figures. Daeschler hopes the documentary will inform people about the interconnectedness of all living things and will improve the scientists’ chances for future funding to support additional fieldwork and research. They are already excited to return to Nunavut, and they’re considering exploring a new location on Ellesmere Island, way north of this year’s field site.

In the northern location, they’ll examine rocks that are 400–500 million years old. These rocks could contain the earliest jawed animals, help scientists trace changes in skull structure, and reveal poorly known events in the early history of vertebrate evolution. A significant discovery could once again place the team on the cutting edge of pre-history.

The three-part documentary aired at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, April 9, 16, and 23. View the trailer here.

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