How it started, how it’s going: A fish story at Drexel’s Academy of Natural Sciences

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It’s been almost two decades since paleontologist Ted Daeschler and his team of researchers made the breakthrough discovery of an evolutionary missing link that shows how fish started to crawl out of the water 375 million years ago.

But aside from researchers, few have had a chance to see it.

For the first time, the Tiktaalik roseae fossil is being publicly displayed, shown within its paleontological context, in “Life Onto Land: The Devonian” at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

The now-extinct Tiktaalik lived during the Devonian period (aka the Age of Fishes) of the Paleozoic geological era. It may not be as sexy as the age of dinosaurs’ Mesozoic era, which came much later, but the Devonian saw an explosion of plant diversity and complex development of fish.

The partial skeleton of a Tiktaalik roseae, discovered on Ellesmere Island in Canada, provides a missing link between fish and land vertebrates. It is the centerpiece of a new exhibit at the Academy of Natural Sciences, ”Life Onto Land.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

As curator, Daeschler has plenty to show off.

“It really hasn’t been done before, here or anywhere,” he said. “It’s not a household name, the Devonian period, but it should be.”

”Life Onto Land,” a new exhibit at the Academy of Natural Sciences, explores the Devonian period, when vertebrates began adapting to life on land. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Daeschler’s retirement from the Academy of Natural Sciences comes at the same time his final exhibition, “Life Onto Land,” is opening. His Devonian journey started 30 years ago, nearly in his backyard. He began driving the backroads in rural central Pennsylvania where the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation was cutting into hillsides to build new roads. PennDOT was inadvertently exposing Devonian-era rock.

“What has been terrific for us are these recent construction projects since 1990. Not only are the road cuts fresher, but they’re bigger. They really open up the sides of a hill,” he said. “PennDOT has created these good exposures. We started to find a lot of great stuff.”

  • November 11, 2023
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