Conodont animals from Granton, Edinburgh

conodont animal
Image courtesy Neil Clark, © The Hunterian

The now extinct, eel-like conodont animal was something of a mystery until fossils found in Edinburgh helped scientists uncover its biology. Conodont animals were wiped out around 200 million years ago during an extinction event between the Triassic and Jurassic periods. For many years, all scientists could find of the mysterious and unique creature was fragments of microfossils; later confirmed as being the first teeth to appear in the fossil record. These were the hard parts of an otherwise soft-bodied animal, meaning that complete fossils would be extremely rare and difficult to find.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the discovery of 11 near-complete fossil conodont animals in Granton, Edinburgh, transformed current understanding of these eel-like creatures. Found with their soft body parts preserved in Lower Carboniferous shrimp beds along the shore at Granton, the specimens were between 21 and 55mm in length, with short heads and a tail fin. The heads indicated the creature also had very large eyes, and their mouths held an array of three different types of teeth, quite different from modern-day animal jaws. This breakthrough in Scotland solved a riddle for biologists, completing a gap in the fossil record and furthering understanding of the physiology of the strange conodont animal.