Most scientific research starts out as a mystery. This can happen in any number of ways, with scientists attempting to figure something out, trying to prove something that they suspect, or even disproving something. What most scientific works have in common is research, which can be a mystery in and of itself.
But when multiple teams of researchers fail for decades on end to figure out a single thing, it means that we either don’t have enough data, or that the mystery is indeed challenging. In one of the most significant discoveries of the century, a team of researchers solved sixty year old Tully monster mystery.
The whole affair started back in 1958, when amateur fossil collector Ajax Francis Tully discovered the fossilized remains of a very strange creature. Lacking any name or pretty much any details related to it, and since the creature looked extremely strange, it was named the Tully Monster.
Living in what today is known as Illinois some 307 million years ago, the Tully monsters looked nothing short of a science fiction, or even horror (Lovecraftian, maybe) creature. They were aquatic animals, with tube shaped bodies that went up to a foot in length, eyes at the ends of some short stalks, and a skinny snout ending in a toothed jaw.
Scientists have been trying to figure what the creature actually was for decades. Theories ranged from it being a soft-bodied invertebrate, like a sort of slug or maybe a large worm, to them being crustaceans. Finally, after nearly sixty years since the discovery, researchers figured out that it was in fact a vertebrate – a jawless fish similar to today’s lampreys.
But some are certain that the mystery still wouldn’t have been solved if it wasn’t for the recent digitization of the Field Museum’s collections. About 2,000 Tully specimens were present at the museum, but without digital data to investigate and compare, the task still wouldn’t have been done.
According to Paul Mayer, the Fossil Invertebrates Collections Manager at the Field Museum, the place where most of the fossils were kept,
The Tully monster is a wonderful fossil that captures the imagination of every school kid. When I talk to school groups, I used to use the Tully monster as an example of a mystery that paleontologists have been trying to solve ever since it was discovered.
Now I’ll have to change my talk and use it as an example that highlights the importance of how amateur paleontologists and researchers from different backgrounds can work together using new technologies and museum collections to solve a mystery.
Image source: Wikimedia