Sunday, April 1, 2012

LIVING FOSSILS: Tullimonstrum gregarium and The Dancing Worm of Turkana

The tully monster is a truly weird fossil, so much so that I want to make it clear up front that I have not concocted this animal as part of an April Fool’s joke. Specimens range in size from 3 to 15 inches (8-35 cm).  It is soft bodied, with no external hard parts. The elongate shape can be divided into three regions.  The blunt tail end bears fins on each side.  The head region has an elongate proboscis that terminates in a pair of jaws with eight small sharp “teeth”.  The trunk is segmented and bears a bar shaped structure that projects sideways.  Each end of the bar is expanded and pigmented.  These expansions are apparently eyes. Although this animal looks most like something from a cheap 1960s Japanese scifi flick, the anatomy is well understood, as literally thousands of its fossils have been found. 

Above and blow: A scientist's view of the Tullimonstrum.

A model of Tullimonstrum, showing the creature's peculiar shape and details of the toothed proboscis.

The first specimens were discovered in 1958 by amateur fossil collector Francis Tully of Lockport Illinois who brought them to the Field Museum of Natural History where they came to the attention of the famous Curator of Fossil Invertebrates Eugene Richardson. Richardson wrote or co-authored the first scientific publications on it. Tully’s role in the discovery of this strange antiquarian beast was recognized in its name Tullimonstrum (Tully’s monster).  The species name gregarium means “common” and refers to the abundance of specimens of it. Ironically, “tull” means “nonsense” in Norwegian --- also an apt description. Eventually it became the state fossil of Illinois.

Amateur fossil collector Francis Tully and and a fine complete specimen of his monster.
Tullimonstrum was a free-swimming predator of the open ocean. In spite of its abundant fossil record its evolutionary relationships are poorly understood. Although similarities to a variety of marine invertebrate groups has been suggested, none of these ideas are very well supported and the creature’s evolutionary position remains a mystery.  

So far this was an interesting scientific story --- an enigmatic but abundant fossil species with very, very peculiar morphology and unknown evolutionary relationships --- just the kind of fossil that intrigues and puzzles paleontologists.  However Tullimonstrum would soon move beyond the pages of dry, scientific journals.

In July 1966 Richardson wrote a popular account of the Tully monster and his research on it.  This included a cover illustration of restored Tullimonstrum swimming and feeding in the ancient Pennsylvanian sea of Illinois.  The story was picked up by the press and got wide circulation in newspapers, including the East African Standard of the former British Colonies of East Africa.

In September of 1966 Richardson received a letter from R.G.I. Cloudesley (a retired Lieutenant–Colonel of the Kings African Rifles) then living in Nairobi, Kenya. Cloudesley recounted that 40 years previously he had had been told by a Mr. A.M.A Champion (then District Commander of Turkana and a skilled naturalist) about an unusual giant worm that lived in the lakes of the area. Champion had heard about this creature from local Africans but had never been able to actually obtain a specimen. Cloudesley remembered the worm as having “paddles and a long snout” so that when he read the news stories about the Tullimonstrum he thought it wise to pass this information on to Richardson in case there was call to follow up on it.

As Richardson was preparing a reply to Cloudesley a letter arrived from a Mr. Purshottan S. Patel of Kenya reporting that something like the Tullimonstrum might be living in Turkana, at least based on stories he had been told by  relatives of a dancing worm in the lakes. Excited, Richardson began researching what was known about the animal life in these areas.  Turns out they were poorly explored and documented areas of the Earth and such an animal might yet well dwell there undiscovered by scientists.

Next Richardson get a letter from an intermediate school teacher from Nakuru, a Mr. Joseph A. Ngomo, who said that his class had read the Sunday Standard that carried the Tullimonstrum story and several students told him they had heard of such a worm from their fathers.  Ngomo included a note from Akai (son of Ekechalon) who recounted, in child’s writing that the worms, swim and “wave hands” during the full moon, and have a bite fatal to humans.

By this point discussions started up at the Field Museum amongst Richardson and other staff that, given the anecdotal but intriguing reports, an expedition might be warranted.  Finding a living relative of the Tullimonstrum would be a really important scientific discovery. The museum published a note in the Newsletter of the East African Natural History Association, hoping more information might be obtained, but there were no responses.  That was not too surprising given how little biological scientific work had been done in those remote areas. Local myths and folklore sometimes prove to be true.    

Early the following year the museum was visited by Dr. Bryan Patterson, a famous paleontologist who studied fossil mammals.  Patterson had been the Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Field Museum but was now a professor at Harvard University. Patterson had just returned from field work in Kenya and happened to know Patel’s uncle. He considered him a bit of a rascal.  Richardson told Patterson of the Tullimonstrum and showed the various letters to him.  Patterson read them with amusement and confessed he had never heard of the dancing worms.   

Later it came to light that Patterson had many reasons to be amused because Cloudesley, Ngomo, Patel, and Akai turned out to be all the same person ---- none other than the illustrious Bryan Patterson.  Of the ten people in the Field Museum who had been hoodwinked only one was in on Patterson’ little prank. That prevented it from going too far and causing professional or institutional embarrassment, after all Patterson was running this from the other side of the globe and couldn’t keep track of how the prank was progressing. It was a clever joke that played on the desires, hopes, and scientific passions of all involved.  He was giving the Field Museum what they wanted --- living relatives of the Tullimonstrum.   If the fossil wasn’t so perplexing and problematic it wouldn’t have been so alluring.

The illustrious Bryan Patterson and the illusive Dancing Worm of Turkana.
One last bit to the story.  Richardson received a Christmas letter in 1968  that on the front carried a photo of Bryan Patterson in full African field regalia holding a rifle in his right and  and hanging from his left hand a recently shot good sized Tullimonstrum, with the proboscis and horizontal bar clearly visible.  Inside was a poem and under the phrase "The End of the Hunt" were the signatures of Cloudsley, Ngomo, Patel, and Akai!

The staff took the leg pulling in good humor and admitted they had been had by a professional. Several years later Richardson even wrote a short book, under another name, about the Dancing Worms of Turkana.  Edward Nash, the editor of the Bulletin of the Field Museum of Natural History wrote an account of the whole story and admitted being taken in by it.  He included a copy of the hunting photo as well as the inside of the card with the Kenyan signatures.  He also reproduces in full, all the letters from Kenya concerning the discovery, only some of which I have mentioned here.

Over the years there have been several notrious incidents of intentional deception in paleontology, the 18th century “lying stones” of  Johann Bartholomeus Adam Beringer and the early 20th century Piltdown Man fake immediately come to mind.  However, those were done maliciously in an attempt to destroy the professional career of a scientific rival.  The Dancing Worms of Turkana is a totally different beast, one done in good humor and with precautions taken to not do any real damage.  Like many movies in the 1930s. the closing scene has everyone laughing together side by side.

Artwork of Tullimonstrum, the state fossil of Illinois, can be seen emblazoned on the sides of U-Haul trucks and trailers.


Scientist's views: Johnson  and Richardson 1969 (below)

Patterson and the Worm: Nash 1968 (below)

Johnson, R.G, and Richardson, E.G. 1969. Pennsylvanian invertebrates of the Mazon Creek area, Illinois: The morphology and affinities of Tullimonstrum. Fieldiana: Geology  12 (8): 119–149.

Nash E.G. 1968.  The quest for the dancing worm. Bulletin of the Field Museum of Natural History 39(4): cover + 4-6

Kloss, G. June 18, 1968. The Great Dancing Worm Hoax. The Milwaukee Journal.  

Richardson, E.G. 1966. Wormlike Fossil from the Pennsylvanian of Illinois. Science 151(3706): 75-76 

Richardson, E.S. The tully monster. Bulletin of the Field Museum of Natural History 37(7): cover + 4-6.  July 1966 <>

Rory, E Scumas (Richardson, E.G.)  1969. The Dancing Worm of Turkana. Vanishing Press: 27 pp.

No comments:

Post a Comment