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Review of Animals: the Tully monster



This column is part of a series where Verge staffers post highly subjective reviews of animals. Up until now, we’ve written about animals without telling you whether they suck or rule. We are now rectifying this oversight.
Don’t let the word "monster" in its name fool you: the Tully monster is just plain adorable. It’s a monster in the same way the Cookie Monster is one: the kind you want to squeeze with love.
Some background on Tully: It was a soft-bodied fish-like creature that was only about a foot in length. The animal was long and thin, with an even thinner trunk sprouting from the front of its face. On the end of that trunk? Teeth and a mouth. So the Tully monster had to play a biological version of the arcade claw crane game whenever it needed to eat. Adding to the fish's freakish charm are the Tully monster's cute little eyes. Researchers think they were perched on opposite sides of the creature's body, connected together by a stiff "eye bar." It's the ancient equivalent of a unibrow — and it's fabulous.
The Tully monster's unique physique has even helped it reach minor celebrity status. The creature, scientifically named Tullimonstrum gregarium, is the official state fossil of Illinois. Only about four dozen fossils have been honored with that distinction, according to the National Park Service. The Tully's visage has also started to appear on the sides of U-Haul trucks and trailers in Illinois. I mean, wow!
As beloved as it is, the Tully monster has also been something of an enigma for the past 50 years. The only records of the fish's existence are a bunch of fossils that were dug up from a coal mining scrap heap in Illinois in the 1950s and '60s. Researchers have been studying these fossils for years to try to figure out where this ancient creature fits in the evolutionary tree. They weren't sure if it was a vertebrate fish or a invertebrate swimming slug related to modern-day snails and claims. The Tully monster defied classification — until now.
Yale scientists have sussed out new details about this precious, misshapen fish; they published their findings this week in the journal Nature. After poring over 1,200 fossil samples of the Tully monster, researchers have determined that this swimmer was indeed a vertebrate. Where other fish have a backbone, Tully had a cartilage rod running the length of its body. They used scans to figure out the creature's teeth were made of keratin, and that it had crescent-shaped nostrils on the sides of its body, National Geographic reported.
So the Tully's closest relative is probably the modern lamprey, a jawless fish that hangs onto the sides of other bigger fish and rasps away at their skin. Yes, that's kind of rude, but let's not look down on the Tully monster for the mistakes of its children. If we were all judged but the actions of our relatives, no one would ever talk to each other.
Despite this discovery, there's still a lot we don't know about the Tully monster. It's not clear when this little buddy first appeared on Earth or when it officially went extinct. And researchers still aren't sure about what the fish ate or how it moved around its environment.
But what we do know is that the Tully monster is a beautiful little snowflake, with its delightful side eyes and tubular nose. But of course, I may be biased. The name Tully only has positive associations in my life. It’s the name of one of my favorite houses in A Song of Ice and Fire — a literary obsession of mine. I also had a roommate named Tully once. He used to walk my dog for me when I worked late, which was really thoughtful of him. Clearly, things named Tully are great, and this fish is no exception.
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