Sand and Stars

NGC 94 and a Fossil Fish

My fish fossil

1 Nov 2018

Never was the universe so grand as when I held in my hand and my eyepiece two completely divergent objects that had one thing in common – time.

260 million years of time, to be exact.

As we all know, the time-traveling nature of the universe allows astronomers to peer back in time and see galaxies as they appeared hundreds, thousands, millions, hundreds of millions and billions of years ago. And the time-traveling nature of the fossil records that litter our planet allow paleontologists to peer millions, hundreds of millions and billions of years back in Earth’s history.

The difference is that paleontologists can hold their time travel samples in their hand, while astronomers can only hold theirs in their eyepieces. How often can one do both at the same time?

Well, some little time ago, I did! I held 260 million years of time in my hand and in my eyepiece!!

This galaxy is NGC 94 and it lies in Andromeda. It took 260 million years for the light from the galaxy to zoom through the universe and collide with my telescope…

NGC 294
NGC 94, far far away. DSS image annotated

When the light left NGC 94, our Milky Way Galaxy was roughly one entire rotation back… all our planet’s lands had joined into a single supercontinent, Pangea; all the world’s sea water had formed a global ocean, Panthalassaour, and Earth probably looked like this…

The Permian Period Earth

Mammals weren’t around; it would be another 12 million years or so before the dinosaurs even began to appear; and great primitive creatures such as this giant carnivorous anteosaur lumbered across Earth…


Anteosaurs (Greek for “early lizard”) lived in the swamps of what is now South Africa. And it was at this time that a little fish swimming in the great southern swamps died, sank to the bottom and was quickly covered in silt…
A Permian Period bony fish

The fish underwent the process of permineralization and ended up as a fossil on a vast Karoo plain just outside Sutherland within sight of SALT…

SALT standing on its flat-topped kopje overlooking the vast rock and fossil strewn Karoo

And I found part of its body lying among literally millions of rocks, while out on a fossil hunt across the veld with my paleontologist friend when I was visiting Sutherland last April.

My fish fossil
Beautiful rock scales on my fish fossil

The little fish’s body is a very rare find because, although its head and tail are missing, it is a perfect 3D fossil which apparently are extremely rare finds. The incredibly fragile bones and scales of fish preserve very poorly; most fish fossils are two-dimensional, mineralised impressions in rock. To find one whose scales are perfectly preserved, not only on its back but also on its belly, is supernova-discovery rare!

My fish’s little body is exquisite. It was quite a fat little chap, its belly beautifully rounded and preserved (its body measures 10.5 cm in length and 3½ cm “thick” at its fattest point). And as for its scales! They are absolutely stupendously preserved, magnificently three-dimensional and the minerals make the scales glitter and gleam in the sunlight as if the fish were alive. (Alas, my photographic skills don’t extend to glittering scales!) But to examine them in the sunshine with my loupe I find it not only almost inconceivably incredible that one can see the most delicate detail in some of the scales, but also very poignant the way they flash as they must surely have flashed as the little fish plunged through the water so long ago.

Its neck region shows a tiny bit of an incredibly delicate backbone, but it will forever be hidden within its rock body, and there are a few tiny bones scattered along the side of its body, including a near perfect rib bone. And as an extra special touch, my little rock fish has a couple of gorgeous scraps of lichen (which in itself is a bizarre life form) growing on it; but on the advice of the paleontologist I am allowing it to die so that it will fall off.

It is impossible to hold the small body in my hand and not ponder the cosmic mysteries of time, space, evolution and the unfathomable trajectory of life and death… we are only here because fish, the first vertebrates on the planet, provided the basic “body plan” subsequently elaborated on by hundreds of millions of years of evolution.

What an experience to hold in my eyepiece a galaxy as far away in time as we are in evolution from the little fish I can hold in my hand.

Copyright © 2018 Susan Young