Farish Jenkins, a paleontologist who discovered fossils of animals evolving into something new — most notably a 375 million-year-old fossilized fish with skull, neck, ribs and part of the fins that resembled the earliest mammals — died Nov. 11 in Boston. He was 72.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, said his daughter-in-law, Susan Jenkins. She said he had multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells.
Darwin said proof of his evolutionary theories would be found in fossils, and Jenkins used them to show life-forms changing into other forms, so-called missing links. His fish, for example, had body parts that were clearly morphing into those of land animals. Similarly, he built on existing knowledge that a group of reptiles were ancestors of mammals with fossil evidence to show how this happened: The reptilian jaw morphed into part of a mammalian inner ear.
He worked in the laboratory as well as on field digs from Arizona to Africa to the Arctic. As part of his vast exploration of how animals walk, trot, gallop and otherwise get about, he studied X-ray movies of starlings in flight. He learned that a bird’s wishbone functions as a spring.
“This is well known to everybody in the world," he said after his finding appeared in the journal Science. “It’s only scientists who discover the obvious."
Dry wit was only part of his personality. He delighted his Harvard students with his “Moby-Dick" lecture, in which he impersonated Captain Ahab stomping around on a peg leg to demonstrate human locomotion. He used sharpened colored chalk to draw intricate anatomical illustrations. When digging for fossils near the North Pole, he wore his trademark Czechoslovak rabbit-fur hat, and carried a flask of vodka for warmth and a rifle for warding off polar bears. Back home, he favored suits with vests, tiepins and a pocket watch.
“He cut a seriously dashing figure," said Neil Shubin, a University of Chicago paleontologist who worked closely with Jenkins.
Jenkins’ most heralded find was the fossil fish that he and two other paleontologists, Shubin and Edward Daeschler of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, announced in 2006 in the journal Nature. It was the product of extreme paleontology: The team made four trips over six years to a site on Ellesmere Island, 887 miles from the North Pole, subsisting mainly on chocolate bars. Fiendish weather limited excavation to only one month a year, July. Even though the nature and age of the exposed rocks seemed propitious for finding fossils, they had almost given up when they made their big find.
The trove of fossils they unearthed enabled them to recreate a crocodile-like animal. What it showed was an organism, guided by genes, rearranging itself.
“This really is what our ancestors looked like when they began to leave the water," the zoologist Jennifer Clack of the University of Cambridge and the biologist Per Erik Ahlberg of the University of Uppsala in Sweden wrote in an accompanying editorial in Nature.