When Tiktaalik slithered out of the seas, it set in motion a chain of events that would ultimately result in a world of rent, jobs, and responsibility. As such, it’s a decision some weary modern humans regret. It seems that sentiment was once shared by another fishapod like Tiktaalik, who instead apparently took one look at terrestrial life and said, “no thanks”.
The discovery of Qikiqtania, as the hesitant fishapod would later come to be known, arrives from the lab of Dr Neil Shubin – who also happened to co-discover Tiktaalik back in 2004.
The fossil that would reveal Qikiqtania was found around the same time on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, in northern Arctic Canada. However, it wasn’t until lockdown that they finally identified the specimen. The results were published in Nature.
"We were trying to collect as much CT-data of the material as we could before the lockdown, and the very last piece we scanned was a large, unassuming block with only a few flecks of scales visible from the surface,” said Dr Justin Lemberg in a statement, who was using CT scanning to analyze the fossil 15 years after it was found.
“We could hardly believe it when the first, grainy images of a pectoral fin came into view. We knew we could collect a better scan of the block if we had the time, but that was March 13th, 2020, and the University shut down all non-essential operations the following week."
Forced to close alongside the rest of the planet, research was resumed in the summer – this time armed with a saw that could trim away at the fossil to better show what was inside. The approach enabled them to image a near-complete pectoral fin and upper limb, including the humerus.
At first, it was thought that the specimen might be a young Tiktaalik, being comparatively small in size at just 76 centimeters (30 inches) long – Tiktaalik grew up to 2.3 meters (9 feet). However, its arm morphology revealed it was more suited to aquatic paddling, suggesting it was a separate species that decided terrestrial life wasn’t the one so just slithered back into the water. Relatable.
“At first we thought it could be a juvenile Tiktaalik, because it was smaller and maybe some of those processes hadn’t developed yet,” said Shubin in a statement. “But the humerus is smooth and boomerang shaped, and it doesn’t have the elements that would support it pushing up on land. It’s remarkably different and suggests something new.”
And so, our “Ight, Imma head out” fish earned itself the name Qikiqtania from “Qikiqtaaluk” or “Qikiqtani,” the traditional Inuktitut names for the region where the fossil was retrieved. It’s also named in honor of University of California at Berkeley evolutionary biologist David Wake, who is remembered in its species designation, “wakei”.
The evidence points to Qikiqtania being slightly older than Tiktaalik, existing alongside critters who were developing the earliest examples of fingers. The fact it inched so close to life on land before making a U-turn demonstrates that evolution isn’t always a linear process – just look at whales who made the move back to marine life after having already developed hooves.
“Tiktaalik is often treated as a transitional animal because it’s easy to see the stepwise pattern of changes from life in the water to life on land. But we know that in evolution things aren’t always so simple,” said Dr Tom Stewart, who also worked on the fossil.
“We don’t often get glimpses into this part of vertebrate history. Now we’re starting to uncover that diversity and to get a sense of the ecology and unique adaptations of these animals. It’s more than simple transformation with just a limited number of species.”