No, there is no boy

The person(s) who this post is directed at know themselves.

Since I returned to university, I get asked this annoying question too frequently, “Who is the boy?”, often prefixed by, “Nawa o, where have you been?” or “Why aren’t you answering you phone?” and “Answer your WhatsApp messages!”. Somehow my elusiveness could only be down to one thing: “She finally has a boyfriend”.

First of all, I feel offended that you think the only possible reason that I, a woman, could be preoccupied is some male individual of our species.  As a matter of fact, I am busy doing the thing I said I was coming here to do. I am immersed in dead, fossilised fish. I see and smell them everywhere I go. They are consuming my life and I haven’t even started doing any real work on them yet. I have just been trying to figure out what exactly fish are.

Clearly, I underestimated them. How hard can studying fish be? They swim, some fly. They taste nice when put on a grill with garlic, pepper and a squeeze of lemon. That was painfully naïve thinking. These things are swallowing me whole.

I am discovering that fish are probably the most complex animals ever to have existed. Their skull anatomy alone supersedes that of humans. The myriad of tiny bones and structures (oh my goodness, their dentition!) in their heads is driving me to constant migraines and stress eating. Not to talk of their diversity. When I think of how many different types of fish there are, I want to bury myself under a blanket and never come out. They make up half of all vertebrates today; but how many and what sort of fish there were is my interest as a palaeontologist in training.

I have spent the last four months staring at fish teeth, particularly that of pycnodonts which originated about 228 million years ago and went extinct between 56 to 33.9 million years ago. Although there are a number of full skeletons, most of the fossils we have are of their robust grinding teeth. So I’ve been attempting to learn how to identify different pycnodont species just by looking at their dentition. It’s been hard but certainly not boring. And I’m not just saying that because my supervisor reads this blog sometimes. I am really enjoying my work.

Examples of pycnodont fossils showing a near-complete skeleton and different types of teeth .  All images from Kriwet (2005). Scale bars = 10 mm.

So, there is no boy. For now, pycnodonts with their freaky teeth and pachycormids – giant fish that went extinct about 66 million years ago –  have my heart. And if I don’t pick your calls or answer your messages, I sincerely apologise. I am probably nursing a headache or so engrossed in work that I didn’t hear the phone ring.

Image|Leedsichthys, a giant pachycormid that reached up to 9 metres in length.

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