Big Brains podcast premieres with what ancient fish reveal about humans

Debut episode features Neil Shubin’s historic discovery of ‘missing link’ fossil

Editor’s note: Big Brains is a new University of Chicago podcast in which some of the pioneering minds on campus discuss their groundbreaking ideas and the stories behind them.

University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin said he’ll never forget the day in 2004 when he unearthed the discovery of a lifetime.

After spending six years in the Arctic searching for a fossil that could be a missing link between sea and land animals, Shubin finally found himself eye-to-eye with the 375-million-year-old creature that would come to be known as Tiktaalik roseae.   

“I had staring at me the skull of a creature that looked part fish, part land-living animal,” Shubin said. “What made it even better is that as we pulled that skeleton out, we started to see other parts of the body. We started to see its fins, and its fin had arm bones and wrist bones inside. We started to see its body, and it looked like it had both lungs and gills.”

Shubin, the Robert R. Bensley Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, has shared his groundbreaking research with a wide audience, from his best-selling 2008 book Your Inner Fish, and as host of an Emmy Award-winning PBS series of the same name.  

On the debut episode of Big Brains, Shubin sat down to discuss his discovery of Tiktaalik, what it meant for the understanding of human evolution and how it has impacted the future of genetic research.

Most recently, Shubin’s research has taken him to Antarctica, where he will return later this year to search for more ancient fossils. The thrill of the hunt continues to excite him, Shubin said.

“Questions are never-ending, and a life of discovery is a life of surprises,” Shubin said.

Subscribe to Big Brains on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and Google Play. New episodes will be available Monday mornings through the Spring Quarter. Big Brains is the newest podcast on the UChicago Podcast Network.