© 2024 WVIK
Listen at 90.3 FM and 98.3 FM in the Quad Cities, 95.9 FM in Dubuque, or on the WVIK app!
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Living Fossils

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The Mississippi River would get a lot more respect if it could boast a Loch Ness Monster lurking on its muddy bottom fueling our imaginations and bringing in tourist dollars. Somehow, snapping turtles and giant catfish just don't to the job.

Not to worry. What those of us who are privy to the river's secrets know, but can't tell anyone, is that the Mississippi River has Loch Ness beat hollow. Our river contains not one, but twelve living fossils, more than any other river in the world. Twelve living fish whose close relatives can be found only as fossils elsewhere—among the dinosaur bones in the fossil beds in Montana, for example.

In the Mississippi, they are still alive, three species of lampreys, gar fish, sturgeons, paddlefish, and eelpouts, giving us a glimpse of what the Earth must have looked like some three hundred million years ago, long before the age of dinosaurs.

These ancient fish have continued to live here in our valley because of a fluke of nature. In Europe and Asia, the Alps and the Himalayan ranges run east and west, permitting great climate changes that brought about many extinctions. Our Rocky Mountains are as old as the Alps, but they rose up north and south, protecting the basin that is now the Mississippi from prevailing winds and climate changes. Even before the ancient Mississippi formed, water has flowed past here down to the Gulf of Mexico for 120 million years—a continuity that allowed our fossils to remain alive.

And grow. Fish don't stop growing; they grow larger and larger each year. Think of it: a giant paddlefish waiting inches away from the bottom of your boat: a paddlefish that was already six feet long when Columbus discovered the New World, twelve feet long when Paul Revere made his midnight ride, and who knows how long on your last birthday.

You realize that we can't let any of this leak out to the general public. Mum's the word. Or, the next thing you know, Spielberg will show up in Rock Island, ready to make an aquatic version of Jurassic Park, and scare everyone off the Mississippi.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.