Paleontologists Name Fossil after German Metal Band The Ocean

Artist: The Ocean
Featured Work: Phanerozoic II
Website: The Ocean Profile at Pelagic Records

8-minute Read

Two paleontologists from the Natural History Museum Luxembourg, Drs. Lea Numberger-Thuy and Ben Thuy, have discovered a new species of brittle star and named it after the German progressive metal band The Ocean, sometimes known as The Ocean Collective. The previously undiscovered species has been dubbed Ophiacantha oceani, owing to the band’s frequent use of scientific themes in their music and lyrics.

The Ocean have been using imagery and nomenclature rooted in science since the release of their third full-length album, 2007’s groundbreaking Precambrian. For example, the songs on Precambrian are divided into three groups, representing the first three geological eons of the Earth.

Geology, oceanography and other Earth sciences are a major part of The Ocean’s work, leaving little room to doubt the sincerity of their devotion to the sciences.

The Streets Submersed in Rising Water

How does a boundary-pushing metal group cross paths with the scientific community and end up with a new species of fossil named after them? The paleontologists explained the surprising naming of their brittle star find in the etymology section of their paper “A new bathyal ophiacanthid brittle star (Ophiuroidea: Ophicanthidae) with Caribbean affinities from the Plio-Pleistocene of the Mediterranean.” The paper was published in a recent issue of the scientific journal Zootaxa, which focuses on animal taxonomy.

“Species named in honour of progressive metal band The Ocean,” the paper said. “Musicians who so skillfully combine arts and science, composing albums like Precambrian (with songs named after the periods of the Precambrian), Pelagial (with songs named after the bathymetric subdivisions of the water column) and Phanerozoic as well as the song ‘Turritopsis dohrnii’ referring to the immortal jellyfish from the Mediterranean, are more than deserving of being immortalized in the fossil record.”

The tracklists of three of The Ocean’s biggest releases—2007’s Precambrian, 2013’s Pelagial and 2018 and 2020’s split double-release Phanerozoic—certainly do read like cheat sheets for science tests. The songs on the first part of Precambrian are titled “Hadean,” “Eoarchean,” “Palaeoarchean,” “Mesoarchean” and “Neoarchean,” for example—each a geological period. However, their commitment to science doesn’t end with track names. For one, it extends to the literal sound of their music. The first part of Precambrian, which covers the Hadean and Archean eons—Earth’s earliest known geological times—are loud and unforgiving metal, likely emulating the Hellish heat and fire of the planet. The Hadean eon is, after all, named for Hades. Likewise, the sonic coverage of the third eon—the Proterozoic, which constitutes nine songs each named for a period in the Proterozoic—often features softer and more orchestrated moments, aligning with Earth’s cooling, oxygen accumulation and glaciation.

Pelagial adds to the concept of sounds symbolizing scientific phenomena. With several songs grouped together as movements that correspond to the divisions of the oceans’ pelagic zone, the album proceeds like a bowling ball dropped overboard from a ship that eventually finds its way to the darkest blacks of the Mariana Trench. Pelagial begins with fast, light drumming; clean guitars; floaty piano; and quick tempos. However, like the ever-building water pressure and the decreasing penetration of light as one sinks to the ocean floor, the album becomes heavier and slower along the way. By the time listeners get to the closing track, aptly named “Benthic: The Origin of Our Wishes,” it’s hard to believe it’s the same album. The airy progressive rock of “Epipelagic” and “Mesopelagic: Into the Uncanny” have given way to pure sludge metal that lurches across the finish line.

The Ocean – Precambrian (bandcamp)

The lyrics often involve scientific concepts as well. In just one example of many, to quote the song “Cambrian II: Eternal Recurrence,” vocalist Loïc Rossetti sings, “Fellow man / Your whole life, like a sandglass / Will always be reversed / And will ever run out again / A long minute will elapse.” Later, he adds, “Once more / And the whole fabric of things / Which make up your life / Will always be reversed.” These lyrics clearly embody Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Eternal Recurrence” theory, even borrowing the title of the song from it. In his work The Gay Science, Nietzsche said “The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, you speck of dust!”

However, they also echo the “Cyclic Universe” theory developed in 2006 by theoretical physicists Paul Steinhardt of Princeton University and Neil Turok of Cambridge University. Steinhardt and Turok theorized that if the universe began with the Big Bang and has been expanding ever since, at some point it will reverse course and end in a “Big Crunch”—in fact, it may have already done so countless times and is currently repeating itself.

The albums even link up geologically. The final track on Precambrian, “Cryogenian,” features a somber classical piano part. Listeners will find that the chronologically subsequent song—”The Cambrian Explosion” from Phanerozoic I, written a decade later—begins with an identical riff played on a synthesizer.

Even putting The Ocean’s love of science aside, Drs. Numberger-Thuy and Thuy are based in Luxembourg, and The Ocean are a German band whose popularity has soared in the last decade, so it’s no wonder that the group made the doctors’ radar. The band has toured with Japanese post-rock stars MONO and metal acts like Mastodon and Opeth as well as The Dillinger Escape Plan and Between the Buried and Me. Additionally, The Ocean created the record label Pelagic Records. According to The Ocean’s bio page on the label’s website, Pelagic Records “has also become one of Europe’s leading labels for post-rock and post-metal, with a catalog of 120 releases since 2009.”

In light of the band’s passion for and devotion to scientific discipline, the etymology of Ophiacantha oceani becomes clear. As the doctors said in their paper, The Ocean truly combine arts and science.

Black Waters Full of Life

The importance of the discovery of Ophiacantha oceani was also described in the doctors’ paper.

“Identifiable remains of large deep-sea invertebrates are exceedingly rare in the fossil record,” the paper’s abstract said. “Thus, every new discovery adds to a better understanding of ancient deep-sea environments based on direct fossil evidence. Here we describe a collection of dissociated skeletal parts of ophiuroids (brittle stars) from the latest Pliocene to the earliest Pleistocene of Sicily, Italy, preserved as microfossils in sediments deposited at shallow bathyal depths. The material belongs to a previously unknown species of ophiacanthid brittle star, Ophiacantha oceani.”

The Ocean in Kazakhstan, 2019 (Facebook)

Dr. Lea Numberger-Thuy received her Ph.D. from Eberhard-Karls-Universität in Tübingen, Germany. Dr. Ben Thuy earned his Ph.D. in the Department of Geobiology from the University of Göttingen in Göttingen, Germany. Currently, they both work at the Natural History Museum Luxembourg’s Department of Paleontology. They made their discovery in a “yellowish marl bed” on the coastline of of Capo Milazzo in northeastern Sicily. Their method of discovering the oceani, outlined in their paper in Zootaxa, sounds similar to panning for gold.

“The material we studied consists of 13 dissociated lateral arm plates picked from dry residues of a screen-washed bulk sediment sample, using a dissecting microscope. Selected lateral arm plates were cleaned in an ultrasonic bath, mounted on stubs using spray adhesive and gold-coated for scanning electron microscopy.”

Drs. Numberger-Thuy and Thuy analyzed the specimens and their skeletal microstructures to compare them morphologically with similar creatures. They found that “[comparing] in particular spine articulations and vertebral articular structures of the lateral arm plates, […] the new species shares closest ties with Ophiacantha stellata, a recent species living in the present-day Caribbean at bathyal depths.”

—Boundless Vasts of Blue

This classification raises more questions than it answers. Specifically, since Ophiacantha oceani‘s closest relative is the stellata, which is located in the Caribbean, how did oceani get to Sicily? The Mediterannean sea—where oceani was discovered—became incredibly salty around six million years ago, to the point that after about half a million years of extreme salinity, the Mediterranean was cut off almost entirely from the Atlantic Ocean. This event is known as the Messinian salinity crisis and it occurred near the end of the Miocene epoch. Following the salinity crisis, the paper said, the only place that sea life could migrate in or out of the Mediterranean was at the Strait of Gibraltar, a relatively narrow and shallow bottleneck separating the south of Spain from northern Morocco, which is made so shallow by an underwater cliff called the Gibraltar Sill.

6,800 kilometers (4,200 miles) separate the Strait of Gibraltar and Haiti. Sicily, where Ophiacantha oceani was found, is another 1,800 km (1,100 miles) to the east.

The Strait of Gibraltar (NASA)

The scientists from Luxembourg said this about its origins.

“Since colonization of the Mediterranean deep-sea following the Messinian crisis was only possible via the Gibraltar Sill, the presence of clades nowadays restricted to the tropical western part of the Atlantic cannot be explained by the mere expulsion of Atlantic guests due to deteriorating conditions in the Mediterranean deep waters. It rather suggests a deep-sea faunal turnover at a much greater scale yet to be explored using more extensive evidence.” “Faunal turnover” refers to the extinction, speciation and migration of a living creature.

In other words, oceani could be the first piece of a major scientific puzzle we never knew existed. As The Ocean asked in a Facebook post announcing the new fossil, “Was [oceani] the victim of a yet undetected deep-sea extinction event?”

Phanerozoic II is out September 25 on Pelagic Records.

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