Pisces and the Tooth Race

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Quotes of the Day

"The rabbit runs faster than the fox,
because the rabbit is running for his life
while the fox is only running for his dinner."
-- Aesop quoted in Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene:30th Anniversary Edition. Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 250.
Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do,
to keep in the same place
--Red Queen in Carroll, Lewis [1871]. "2: The Garden of Live Flowers". Through the Looking-Glass
Cladistically, of course, tetrapods and us are in fact fish,
but I will use quotes to denote
informal use of a familiar, although paraphyletic, group.
Early tetrapods were, like early land plants,
tied to the water by their reproductive mechanisms.
Like most "fish" they had external fertilization in water
and laid eggs in water which developed into aquatic larvae.
The larvae metamorphosed into land-living adults.
Living "amphibians" have inherited this primitive mode of reproduction.
-- Professor Paul Eric Olsen, Dinosaurs And The History Of Life, Lecture 9, The end of the Permian and the Major Groups of Tetrapods, Columbia University

Contemplation for the Day

Let us imagine

You are sitting on your elephant in a dark water-filled room. Near you in the darkness something huge and sleek stirs restlessly. One eye of this huge restless being faces you and it glows blue-green in the dark water and you know that you are trapped in a dark aquarium with a God.

Pisces And You Illustration by Genevieve Townsend

"Who are you?" you blurt out but your voice emerges as a blur in the water.

The god's voice comes back, also blurred. "Imh Pihchesh ghohd ohff fhish."

"Pisces, that is a good name for a fish god." you think.

"What are we doing here?" you ask.

"Whe ahrh ohbhshehrhvhingh theh evohluhthiohn ohf myh clahde, Unusual Ohne" the God replies. Your ears seem to be adapting. You feel you are hearing Pisces more clearly.

"I don't see anything." you observe.

"Iht is theh early Cahmbriahn. It ihs abouht to behgin." Pisces replies and a one-way mirror into another aquarium appears. Worm-like or hagfish-like creatures are taking their seats around a table. On the table is a map of the world as it was in the early Cambrian, but the continents are labelled strangely. Laurentia is marked, 'Heroic Benthic Scavengers', Baltica is marked 'Harmless Sessile Filter Feeders', the small island of Siberia is marked 'Evil Stinging Radiata' and Gondwana is marked, 'Oppressive Predatory Arthropods'. You realize that the labels are actually marking the continental shelves around those land masses not the land masses themselves. The hagfish are wearing medals and the military hats of admirals. Junior hagfish appear and begin placing models of various Cambrian lifeforms on the map and moving them about with long rakes. The admiral hagfish discuss strategy and direct the movements of the hagfish models, which keep giving up territory as the trilobites advance.

One of the hagfish admirals rings a bell and a hagfish in a lab coat appears, "Maybe we can out-reproduce those arthropod devils. Increase our r-value!" the admiral yells and the hagfish scientist swims away to her lab to comply.

The hagfish scientist returns some time later, a few minutes or 10 million years. "We haven't found a way to increase our r-value but we have found a way to increase our survival rate by schooling." She places a new kind of model on the map table, a group of hagfish swimming together. Now the hagfish start increasing their territory their models mixing with the others. More quickly than their models are removed from the table, new ones are added.

"Yehsh, it ish thime for myh clade to ehpand." Pisces says watching happily.

Then ice spreads across the ceiling of the war room, the hagfish all began to shiver and turn blue, and the junior hagfish begin removing models of all kinds from the table. They remove a great number of trilobites and the admirals cheer.

"The Ohrdifishian is beginning. Hour time hash come!" Pisces says smiling.

The ice melts and the admirals cheer again but then the junior hag fish begin to increase the number of nautiloid models on the table; straight, curved and coiled shells with squid like occupants. These increase in number as the hagfish again begin to retreat.

Again, one of the hagfish admirals rings a bell and a hagfish in a lab coat appears, "We need armour! Our troupes are being eaten alive." the admiral yells and the hagfish scientist swims away to her lab to comply.

The hagfish scientist returns some time later, a few minutes or 10 million years. Now she is covered in armour with heavy lobes of it protecting her head. She places a new kind of model on the map, ostracoderms: armoured jawless fish.

"Nohw we whill dominate!" Pisces says enthusiastically.

Still the nautiloids advance but more slowly. The junior hagfish begin placing brachiopod models on the map and only a very few armoured fish models.

Again, one of the hagfish admirals rings a bell and the armoured hagfish in a lab coat appears, "We need weapons! The best defense is a good offense!" the admiral yells and the armoured hagfish scientist swims away to her lab to comply.

The armoured science fish returns some time later, a few minutes or 10 million years. Now she is no longer a hagfish though; she has jaw bones and copious amounts of teeth. She places a placoderm model on the table.

"The thime hash come to crush hour enehmish." Pisces laughs.

The placoderm models multiply as the junior fish deploy them. All of the fish around the table, admirals and junior model movers are all armoured and toothed now.

Again, ice spreads across the ceiling of the war room and the military fish begin to shiver. The junior fish remove 85% of the models from the map including many of the fish.

"The Siluhriahn begins!" Pisces says smugly.

The placoderm admiral rings his bell and the science fish once again appears, "We need diversity. Conditions keep changing and we never have the right adaptations to thrive. Find us many ways to adapt!"

The science fish goes away and returns some time later, a few minutes or 10 million years. But she is no longer armoured. She has rayed fins and looks not unlike a perch. She begins to place models on the table, fish with spines, sharks and ray finned fish like herself.

"Our clahde ish radioactifh." Pisces spins around in the water beside you blowing bubbles happily.

The junior fish, now of all different sorts, swap out models on the map but more and more fish appear mixed with other creatures.

Then all of the fish in the war room begin to choke, grabbing at their throats. The junior fish begin removing models, mostly the old hagfish models of various sorts. But the water quality in the war room appears to return to normal quite quickly and the choking subsides. The junior fish place many of the models back onto the map but the hagfish never return to the numbers they had before.

"Now weh har henthuringh the Devohnian; the hage of fishes." Pisces says with awe.

The science fish reappears multiple times without being called and unloads more and more models onto the table. Variations on the sharks and ray finned fish mostly but others too. The table becomes more and more crowded. The admirals are confused and unable to come to a consensus on a coordinated strategy. Some of the admirals begin to accuse each other of siding with invertebrates.

Pisces seems quite happy despite or perhaps because of the chaos, "Myh clade noh longer ish in dangehr of failihng." But just as he says this concern returns to his face. There is a shudder that shakes the aquarium. Cracks appear in the glass. The admirals grab hold of the table to steady themselves. One of the junior fish places a model of a mushroom cloud and crater in Baltica. The rest of the junior fish remove large numbers of models. Most of the remaining trilobites are removed along with large numbers of brachiopods and ammonites.

"The cahrbohnihfehrush; what gohd will ahll those lahnd plants doh ush?" Pisces asks in a mysterious tone.

A junior fish removes the mushroom cloud, leaving the crater behind and the science fish keeps reappearing with more and more varied models, rapidly dumping them on the table and then swimming out again. The junior fish scramble to move models around and remove and add them to the table. The admirals have morphed into many different forms. One of the admirals, a shark, eats a helpless perch-like admiral.

A senior fish dressed in a marine general's uniform pulls an amphibian from one of the piles of models left on the table by the science fish and places it on Baltica. Soon the junior fish are placing amphibian models on all of the continents.

"My clahde ish invading the lahnd!" Pisces laughs happily.

"But wait a minute!" you cry, "Amphibians aren't fish!"

"Ahll land vehrtehbahtes form ah single suhbgruhp of clahde Pisces!" Pisces replies. "Ohthehwish Pisces wuhld not beh ah clade."

"The clade is Vertebrata!" you cry, "Pisces is paraphyletic because it excludes the tetrapods."

Pisces laughs, "I ham proud ohf my tehtrahpohd members, buht do noht plahce soh much importance ohn thehm. To ah first ahprohishmathiohn, ahll vetebrates are fish. So behttehr to cahll the clahde, Pisces ahnd include the fehw tehtrahpohds as uhnuhsuhahl fish."

As the junior fish begin placing dinosaurs on the table, you return to your normal life thinking about the fact that you are really just an unusual fish.

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I would also like to than Genevieve Townsend who provided the amazing illustration for this story. Genevieve is an artist in Eganville, ON. You can find her work on her website. Please support her work; The world is a more beautiful place because of it.

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