Puijila and Tiktaalik are pre-historic species discovered in the past decade, and notable as “missing links,” filling gaps in our understanding of evolution. To make a long story short, one learned to swim and the other forgot how to.
And though you can’t go back in time and kill your own grandfather, I’d like nothing more than to send Puijila back to the Devonian age to knock some sense into our common ancestor. To hold Tiktaalik’s flat head underwater til his lungs shrivel up and he remembers to breathe with his elegant gills. To smack down his jointed fins and throttle his evolutionary-ladder-climbing neck. The thing is, Tiktaalik is the link to our water-dwelling ancestors. And, in giving up the life aquatic in favour of terra firma, he sealed the fate of his descendants. If, like me, you spend your days sitting at a desk instead of swimming, it’s because Tiktaalik couldn’t leave well enough alone.
But every family has its black sheep, and the Tetrapods (that’s us, and every other four-limbed creature for the last 380-ish million years) are no exception. Though in this case, the troublemakers weren’t actually sheep, but rather, small carnivorous mammals. Around 55 million years ago, Pakicetids and Indohyus left their home on dry land to become whales. And about 30 million years after that, impressionable Puijila developed webbed feet, began hunting in the water, and showed signs of terrestrial unrest.
When researchers from the Canadian Museum of Nature discovered Puijila in 2007, it was clear that he had been well on his way to life as a marine mammal, with a skull more closely resembling those of modern pinnipeds than those of his otter-like lineage. If Puijila could come back and see the beautifully adapted flippers of his walrus and seal progeny, I know he would be proud. Unless he saw them at Marineland. And if he did, he’d see how we big-brained humans and our precious curiosity can really mess things up. Which brings me back to to ambitious Tiktaalik.
Despite my disdain for my ancestor’s choices, I suppose it must be said (and I’m sure it has) that Tiktaalik was a stand-up guy. A brave pioneer whose first clumsy flounderings on dry land paved the way for generations of feet. He was successful and his children thrived, embodying the American Dream before America even existed. But I prefer Puijila, our cool mammal cousin who dropped out of school to go scuba-diving, and never came back.