E&H Professor of Biology Chris Fielitz Investigates the Mystery of The Prehistoric Eel

by Billy Chandler
Dr. Chris Fielitz, Professor of Biology at Emory & Henry College, has refuted a previous 1981 study on a fossil eel from late Cretaceous rocks of western Kansas, finding it to be related, instead, to a different group of fossil eels.

“My research opens up more questions, of course,” Fielitz says of his spring 2022 sabbatical research on the only two fossil eels in North America. The earlier study misnamed and left out some of the bones, so Fielitiz’s work builds upon that earlier study to better tell the eel’s story.

“Unlike today where scientists use DNA to determine the relationships of living fish species, fish paleontologists must rely on similarities of bones,” he says of his work at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum where he analyzed the eel’s tiny skeleton—“about the size of your fingernail”—under a microscope.

Fielitiz says he approaches his work like a detective, looking for meaningful connections between the things he finds–using the rigorous process of phylogenetics to figure out relationships.

“The clues are sometimes right there,” he says, “but, sometimes, they are very difficult to understand. In my sabbatical project, the original authors misidentified some bones, so I asked: Why did that happen? What were they thinking? What were they comparing things to?”

Fielitz, a scientific illustrator, draws sketches of the tiny eel skeletons he studies with a spe... Fielitz, a scientific illustrator, draws sketches of the tiny eel skeletons he studies with a special microscope. “My mother was an art teacher,” he says, noting he has taken professional drawing classes to improve his research.A skilled scientific illustrator, Fielitz says he is very visually oriented. “There is an interesting aesthetic about the bones and how they fit together, as well as the variation of the shapes from species to species,” he says.

While Fielitz studies the fossils, he shoots lots of photos and makes notes about every bone and its placement. Additionally, he sketches each skeleton utilizing a drawing tube attached to the microscope–a camera lucida–that projects images through a prism and allows him to make tracings of the tiny skeletons.

After 22 years at E&H, Fielitz, who specializes in evolutionary biology and comparative anatomy, trains his students to be detectives, too, using small groups and case studies in his courses. He gives each group a scenario, and the students must work together to solve an issue. “The students work to find the story behind the problem, and then they explain what the story tells us,” Fielitz says.

“There is an interesting aesthetic about the bones and how they fit together, as well as the variation of the shapes from species to species.”

Dr. Christoper Fielitz

Location:

McGlothlin-Street Hall

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