Thursday, April 1, 2021

Songs About the Fossil Record

It's annual off-topic day on this blog! What should I talk about? How about... music?

My taste in music is, shall we say... idiosyncratic. I don't tend to consciously gravitate towards specific genres in terms of musical styles, and I can't tell you anything about what songs are popular right now—chances are that I probably haven't even heard of those songs before, unless they've somehow become universal internet memes. However, I do have an affinity for songs about specific subjects, namely songs about science, and especially songs about the branches of science that I'm most interested in, like zoology and paleontology.

If that isn't a niche preference in music, I don't know what is. What's the appeal, anyway? In part, it might be that I often find music to be a very effective tool for learning. Many concepts become more memorable once you can associate them with a catchy tune. More than that, however, I think it's wonderful to see (or, perhaps more accurately in this context, hear) someone take seemingly arcane topics and turn them into an art form that can potentially connect with people who might otherwise have never heard of those subjects.

Well, I suppose the key word there is "potentially", because most people will probably be surprised to hear that songs about paleontology exist at all. Yet exist they do, and there are even some written by bands that would probably be considered mainstream. "History of Everything" (better known as the theme song to The Big Bang Theory*) by the Barenaked Ladies and "Endless Forms Most Beautiful" by Nightwish both take clear inspiration from paleontological concepts.

*I'm not a fan of the show. I still think it's a great song though.

Probably the song that is most famously associated with the field of paleontology, however, is "I am a Paleontologist" by They Might Be Giants (TMBG), which is embedded below. It is a longstanding tradition for attendees of the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) conference to dance along to this song multiple times during the conference afterparty.

Yet even within the paleontology community, it sometimes appears that "I am a Paleontologist" is one of the few songs about paleontology that most people are familiar with, which I'm ever so slightly vexed by. Don't get me wrong, I love TMBG. (They even wrote my favorite song of all time, which ironically isn't a song about science, though I've unabashedly reinterpreted it as one.) However, there are more than enough songs about paleontology out there to make entire SVP afterparty playlists out of, so I find it somewhat disappointing that this is not capitalized on more often during what are some of the most appropriate possible events for these songs to be played at. And that is, in part, the impetus for this post.

This will not be a complete list of paleontology-related songs by any means. Believe it or not, there are too many for me to easily cover in a single post, and I regularly discover examples that I had been previously unaware of. Consider this a selected highlights reel, if you will.

I can start off with the fact that TMBG actually has at least a couple of lesser-known paleontology-adjacent songs, most notably "Mammal", which has a verse describing the phylogenetic relationships among major mammal lineages, and even mentions allotherians! A funny aside that is worth bringing up here is that TMBG's bassist Danny Weinkauf (who was also the lead singer on "I am a Paleontologist") wrote the song "Archaeology" apparently because audiences kept mistaking "I am a Paleontologist" for an "archaeology song".

Paleontology-inspired songs have a surprisingly long history. A song or poem about extinct dinosaurs was written by Edward Forbes for the famous 1853 New Year's Eve banquet that was held inside the clay mold of one of the Crystal Palace Iguanodon models. The original tune of the ditty (if it had one) is unknown, but Barney Brown, head of digital communications at the University of Cambridge, has set the words to music.

I don't know what the oldest paleontology-inspired song with a surviving tune is, but "It's a Long Way From Amphioxus" (sung to the tune of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary") is probably the oldest that I'm personally aware of. According to Joe Felsenstein's extremely informative website about this song, it had its chorus written by an unknown author sometime between 1912 and 1921, with additional verses penned by Philip H. Pope in 1921. Embedded below is a particularly well-known rendition of it performed by Sam Hinton. Although the science is outdated and the final verse is perhaps too blatantly obvious about written by a vertebrate, it's not hard to see why this song is such a classic.

In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, several paleontology-themed albums were released by James Robinson. Though he is no longer active in academia, Robinson was a working paleontologist for some time, notably authoring a key 1975 paper on whether plesiosaurs moved by drag-based swimming (rowing) or lift-based swimming (underwater flight). This subject naturally became the basis for one of his tunes, "Plesiosaurnithology". Listening to Robinson's songs, it is evident that they were written by someone with an insider's perspective on paleontology. "Ambition" is about the dinosaurian origin of birds (this in the 80s!) and "Systematic Classification" has a verse about how paleobotanists often coin different names for each part of the same plant. Although it's not specific to paleontology, I'd also like to mention "Anthem to Bureaucracy", which is still very salient in current times.

Most of Robinson's songs have been uploaded to YouTube as entire albums, so embedding them here probably would not be the most effective way to showcase individual tracks. Have a picture of "flying" plesiosaur instead, photographed by Kim Alaniz, under CC BY 2.0.

Paleontology-inspired music remains alive and well today, and there are even artists who specialize in producing it. Ray Troll is well known in the paleontology community for his surreal paleoart, but he is also a musician who performs as part of the band The Ratfish Wranglers, and many of their songs are appropriately paleontology-based. If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be "Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway" (embedded below), which I think nicely encapsulates the spirit of paleontological discovery. (The song is named after the book of the same name authored by Kirk Johnson and illustrated by Troll.) I also greatly enjoy "Whorl Tooth Sharks of Idaho", about the recent reinterpretation of the bizarre stem-ratfish Helicoprion, and "Snowmastodon", about the Snowmastodon fossil site. An amusing anecdote I have is that "Snowmastodon" was where I first heard the name of paleobotanist Ian Miller, who had a good laugh when I told him this at SVP 2019.

Another paleontology-focused musician is Professor Flint, whose work has at least received some recognition from SVP, as he put on a live performance at SVP 2019. Professor Flint specializes in songs about Australian fossils in particular, and has produced tunes about taxa as obscure as the giant Pleistocene cuckoo Centropus maximus and the Pleistocene stem-koala Invictokoala (the latter co-written by Gilbert Price, one of the describers of Invictokoala). My personal favorite though is probably "Gigantic, Enormous, Ginormous, Genyornis" (embedded below). His tribute to Mary Anning is also quite delightful.

Then there are the The Amoeba People, whose songs celebrate a wide range of geosciences. In fact, my favorite song of theirs is "Girl Talk", which is not about paleontology, but the scientific contributions of oceanographic cartographer Marie Tharp and the struggles she faced as a woman in science. The Amoeba People haven't neglected paleontology in their output, however, with entries like "The Ballad of Barnum Brown" (embedded below) and "The Terrible Lizards". (And yes, every genus mentioned in the latter song, with the possible exception of Saltopus, is actually a dinosaur.)

Some music artists cover a remarkable diversity of scientific topics in their work. John Hinton has written songs about just about every major field of science there is for his Ensonglopedia series of shows. Although he hasn't yet produced an Ensonglopedia of Palaeontology (or Geoscience), he has touched on paleontology more than once with "The Jurassic Jive" from Ensonglopedia of Science, as well as "D is for Dunkleosteus" (embedded below), "I is for Ice Age", and "J is for Jehol Biota" from his ongoing online song challenge series. (Full disclosure: I was a scientific consultant on those last three songs.)

My own favorite of Hinton's works though is Ensonglopedia of Animals, and there's a lot there for paleontologists to appreciate. Although all the songs are about extant animal species (except maybe the Togo red jewel damselfly, which hasn't been recorded since its original description in 1898), phylogeny and evolutionary history are given a lot of focus. For example, "Aye-Aye" starts out with an overview of primate evolution, "Narwhal" highlights the fact that whales are ungulates, and "Verreaux's Eagle" mentions that birds are dinosaurs. In fact, the very structure of the show is based on phylogenetic relationships, starting with a song about humans and ending with one about sponges, our most distant relatives among animals. I was so impressed by Ensonglopedia of Animals that I was inspired to draw fan art of it.

This post is getting long, so I'm going to end this with a lightning round of select songs from various artists. "Dinosaurs" by Biscuithead and the Biscuit Badgers (embedded below) is a perfect summation of why people love dinosaurs. "Tiktaalik (Your Inner Fish)" by The Indoorfins is a great celebration of that stem-tetrapod and, in my experience, is actually fairly well-known in the paleontology community. (The Indoorfins also did "Amphibian Ark", a nice tune about amphibian conservation.) "Cambrian Explosion" and "Silurian" by Brighter Lights, Thicker Glasses are lovely tributes to those early periods in Phanerozoic history. "Quetzalcoatlus" by David Cagle really gets across how spectacular that giant pterosaur must have been. "How We Met, The Long Version" by Jens Lekman cleverly turns the origin of the universe (and eventually humankind) into a love song.

As eccentric as my musical tastes may be, I am not the first in the paleoblogosphere to write at length about paleontology songs. Andrew Stück of Dino Dad Reviews has covered the subject several times, with posts dedicated to The Ratfish Wranglers, Professor Flint, The Amoeba People, and more. Maybe when in-person gatherings are a thing again, some of the songs mentioned in these posts will finally get the attention they deserve at conference afterparties.