All that remains of most extinct creatures we know about are a few fossil bones that have been lucky enough to survive oceans vanishing and continents colliding. Rarely some special conditions preserve an organism (animal, plant or bacteria) perfectly revealing the most exquisite fossil. To gaze upon one of these, you can be forgiven for forgetting where you are and being taken back to the time when the animal was alive. You can visualise the original beauty of this long lost beast. It is such a shame when the casts of these extremely rare, beautiful fossils are just awful.
In true bad cast fashion, this specimen does not show off any of it’s real awesomeness. In the slightest. It looks like a birthday cake, a pretty cool birthday cake, but still, a birthday cake. There was no label with this specimen but underneath, scribbled in pencil, was a name ‘Cephalaspis lyelli‘. This is lucky as it gives a lot more detail than I would have otherwise found.
Believe it or not, Cephalaspis lyelli was an ancient fish that lived in what is now Scotland around 400 million years ago. The most striking feature is the head, which has a prominent curved shield. The Genus ‘Cephalaspis’ acknowledges this quirky feature, as it literally means ‘head shield’. These creatures were very different from todays fish; they were armoured and they had no jaws (a few fish today do not have a jaw, such as the lamprey and the hagfish). This bad cast is bad. It is thickly painted taking away any potential fine detail. There has been no shame in adding ‘detail’ at the end; they eyes clearly painted on, and the ribs look like a 6 year old has had a go.
This is what the real fossil should look like. It may not look like much, but this fossil has scales, eyes, and even where soft parts were once attached;
These were a pretty cool group of fish. They were covered in thick skin to protect them from other giants living in the Devonian waters, such as the giant ‘sea scorpions’. The prefect fossils reveal rows of tiny nerve groupings around the rim of the head shield, and along the middle; perhaps these were used to hunt little invertebrates in the mud, or to sense for movement in the water around them so they could escape from predators.
This group of fish obviously impressed someone at the museum 108 years ago. Because they got another. Another bad cast.
Cephalaspis were amazing creatures that swam around in the waters over 400 million years ago. The beautiful fossils reveal the most perfect details, such as evidence of nerve endings around the head shield, bringing these extinct fish back to life.
The fossils are truly remarkable. The bad casts are clearly not. They effortlessly mask any beauty of the original beauty by slopping thick layers of paint over the top. The ‘detail’ in the eyes and ribs are ruined by someone who wants this cast finished quickly. It’s a shame, because these were truly amazing animals and their real beauty, that beauty of the original fossil, is lost.