Recently, the interwebs became all agog at the suggestion that the hitherto-mysterious Carboniferous fossil Tullimonstrum gregarium could possibly represent a vertebrate, distantly related to modern lampreys. But there are other fossil animals whose relationships remain inexplicable and one of these is another child of the Carboniferous, the so-called 'alien goldfish' Typhloesus wellsi.
When I announced my plan to write this post, I referred to Typhloesus as coming from Mazon Creek, the fossil deposit from whence comes Tullimonstrum. This, as it turns out, was a mistake on my part: Typhloesus actually comes from a different deposit, Bear Gulch in Montana. Bear Gulch is perhaps most famous for its fossils of early fish, such as symmoriiform sharks (the ones with the weird shoebrush headgear) and heavily armoured palaeoniscoids. Indeed, compared to other Carboniferous deposits, Bear Gulch is unusual for its preponderance of swimming rather than benthic animals. Typhloesus is represented in the deposit by a number of individuals in varying states of preservation.
In some ways, Typhloesus is more famous for what it is not than for what it is. It was one of the first body fossils found in association with conodonts, minute teeth-like fossils that had been subject to much speculation as to what sort of animal they might have come from. Initially, there was much excitement that the conodont animal may have finally been found, but it did not take very long for questions to be raised about the nature of this association. By the time Typhloesus was reviewed in detail by Conway Morris (1990), it was clear that the conodont fossils had been preserved within its gut, not its mouth, and Typhloesus was a conodont-eater rather than a conodont-bearer (it has since been found that conodont animals were eel-like chordates).
Externally, Typhloesus was a fairly simple, cigar-shaped animal, with its body laterally compressed and higher than wide. It grew to a decent size, with the largest specimens being a little under ten centimetres in length. There is no sign of eyes or any other prominent sensory structure, and so far as is known the external skin or cuticle was smooth and unornamented. The most distinctive external feature is a large 'tail-fin' at the rear. This fin was supported by an arrangement of criss-crossing rods or fibres, and would have been fairly stiff in life. Another pair of folds or fins ran along most of the underside of the body with a noticeable gap towards the rear. Typhloesus probably swam in a not dissimilar manner to an active modern fish, using sweeps of the tail-fin to provide thrust; the ventral fins may have provided stability and steerage. The visible line of the foregut comes to a halt slightly before reaching the front of the body, and it seems that the mouth would have been slightly ventral and contained within a 'hood'. Though its overall conformation and known gut-contents (most commonly conodonts, but sometimes worm jaws or fish scales) suggest an active predator, I am at a loss to understand how it located its prey without eyes. Perhaps the hood contained some sort of chemical sensors in life.
When it was first found, it was thought that its overall appearance suggested a relationship of Typhloesus to the chordates. However, Conway Morris (1990) saw its internal anatomy as incompatible with this view. Fossils of this animal show a narrow foregut leading into a voluminous, sack-like midgut. Below the midgut is a pair of dark, disc-shaped organs showing a concentration of iron deposits called the ferrodiscus; though a striking element of all Typhloesus fossils, the function of this structure is completely unknown. What Conway Morris found conspicuous by its absence, however, was an anus: there appeared to be no sign of any gut structures in the rear of the animal. The gut was a blind sack, with the only way out being the same as the way in. The absence of a through-gut would be unprecedented in a chordate, or indeed in many animals except jellyfish or flatworms. Conway Morris was also unable to identify other chordate-specific structures such as muscle-blocks, gill openings or a notochord; though he confessed that the first two might be obscured by the vagaries of decay, he felt that the third at least should have left more of a sign. It was this combination of an overall fish-like appearance with a very un-fish-like anatomy that led Conway Morris to later dub Typhloesus the 'alien goldfish'.
With the exclusion of a chordate connection as a possibility, Conway Morris found himself at a loss as to just where Typhloesus fitted into animal evolutionary history. Finned swimmers are also known among molluscs, nemerteans and chaetognaths, but Typhloesus is no more like any of these than it is like a chordate. Conway Morris felt himself compelled to declare the affinities of Typhloesus completely unknown. Personally, though, I can't help wondering if the 'alien goldfish' might not be so alien after all: maybe it is a chordate. The overall similarities of Typhloesus to a chordate are remarkable; in particular, the hooded mouth is very similar to that of a lancelet. But what about that missing anus, you say? Where is that all-important butthole? To which I respond, is it really missing? Looking at the figures of Typhloesus fossils in Conway Morris (1990) (which is of course a poor competitor to Conway Morris' ability to look directly at the fossils themselves), I see that directly below the midgut is the ferrodiscus. And directly below that is a streak running between the ferrodiscus and the animal's venter. Conway Morris saw this structure (which he called the 'midventral strand') as some sort of connection between the ferrodiscus and the exterior, but could it in fact be the tail-end of the reargut? It is certainly not unknown for the anus in chordates to not be right at the very rear of the animal; in some fish (such as the scorpionfish-like Aploactinidae) it is even moved so far forward as to be almost underneath the head. And the missing notochord? Considering that despite the presence of specimens numbering in the thousands, a notochord was only announced in Tullimonstrum within the past year, maybe on that front Typhloesus could reward a second look.
Conway Morris, S. 1990. Typhloesus wellsi (Melton and Scott, 1973), a bizarre metazoan from the Carboniferous of Montana, U.S.A. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B 327: 595–624.