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Grand Daddy Fish. -

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Narration

This is the land of The Man From Snowy River. It's also home to a very different kind of male.

Dr Paul Willis

Last year Catalyst bought you the story of the world's oldest mum; a fossil fish that still had an
embryo, even an umbilical cord attached. Well the team that found her got to thinking, they'd like
some evidence for the world's oldest dad!

Narration

We're in the middle of the bush not far from Mt Bulla in Central Victoria, and we're hunting for
fish.

Dr John Long

Well, this is the Mount Howard site. One of the most famous fossil fish sites in Australia. It was
excavated back in the early 1970's, by Jim moran and his team from Monash and they found literally
1000s of complete fossil fish here.

Narration

Of course this was a very different place when primitive armoured fish, or placoderms, lived here.

Dr John Long

Three hundred and eighty million years ago this was a big river system and a volcanic eruption
dammed the river and formed a big lake and the fish lived in this huge lake system. And then later
on another volcanic eruption came along and probably destroyed it and ah it's overlain with
volcanic ash and sandstone.

Narration

John Long and Kate Trinajstic have spent years together working on ancient fish from all over the
world. Now they have discovered that these fossils preserve something very special. And it's back
at Museum Victoria to take a look at the most primordial piscine private parts.

Dr John Long

Well Paul this is what the excitement's all about. Right here we've got a pelvic girdle where the
fin came out and this big long element here. Now it's called a basi teridgium. But it's really a
long part of the pelvic fin that supported the clasper in the male.

Dr Paul Willis

Now you actually found this specimen when you were doing your PhD back in the late Pleistocene
isn't it?

Dr John Long

Yeah. Oh well. I worked on it for my PhD back in ah yeah 25 years ago.

Dr Paul Willis

So what got you thinking only recently that this thing you saw 25 years ago is in fact the world's
oldest willy?

Dr John Long

Well we'd found that some of these other specimens had similar long structures in the pelvic
girdle. And then a penny dropped in my brain that I'd seen this before. And I'd studied it and
actually described. But it, I didn't know the significance of it then.

Narration

And the more John and Kate looked, the more sets of ancient fish genitalia they found. This one is
from the Gogo site in Western Australia

Dr Kate Trinajstic

What we're finding with some of these specimens now is that we're getting um a lot of the muscle
preserved. And I had the specimen under the microscope. Looking at the muscle tissue. And I saw
this rather large element. It's yet another basi terigium from an armoured fish, an ancient
intromittent organ. It's rather large being about half the tail length of the fish.

Narration

So why did they go looking for these ancient appendages in the first place? That all stems from
their find last year of one of these fish with an embryo inside - the world's oldest mother.

Dr John Long

So we thought, wow! If they've got internal fertilisation, if they're if they're copulating, how
are they doing it? How? So then we had to go and look at the pelvic girdle and by, by looking at
the pelvic girdle very closely and preparing new specimens and, and re-examining old specimens we
found that they had this structure that was used for copulation.

Narration

And, not that they can confidently determine the sex of these long-dead fish, they have made a
surprising discovery about the way they lived.

Dr Kate Trinajstic

Most of the specimens are female. And we've only got a couple of male specimens. So this is telling
us that like modern sharks there was segregation of the sexes. So the females were living in one
part of the reef environment and the males were living in another part and they weren't really
getting together all that often.

Narration

Now we should add, for the purists out there, that what we are talking about here are not really
the same thing as a penis.

Dr John Long

We're looking at a reproductive or copulatory structure that's made of bone. And this bone is, is
part of the pelvic fin that's been modified.

Narration

And take a closer look at this specimen. That head is covered in lumps, bumps and spikes!

Dr Kate Trinajstic

once this organ was inserted into the vent of the female the male could actually have a long enough
grip that um fertilisation could actually take place. The skin around the vent was probably
thickened and hardened ah so that she wasn't injured ah through the reproduction.

Narration

So, after giving the world the oldest mum and now the oldest dad, it makes you wonder what this
team have in store for their next amazing find.

Dr John Long

I reckon ah if we could actually find the fish in the act of mating we'd give you the world's
oldest sexual position!

Dr Paul Willis

So there you have it, proof that the distinguishing mark of a man is at least 380 million years
old. And while it's not much to look at, it's our way of saying " Happy Father's Day" from everyone
here at Catalyst (Under breath - I did think it was going to be bigger than that.)

Story Contacts

John Long

246 Langridge st, Abborford

Kate Trinajstic

Applied Chemistry, Curtin University, Bentley WA

Related Info

News release from Museum Victoria about the original discovery

Radio National's The Science Show on the subject