A Fish Catch With Cachet : Buyer Must Donate Fossil to Museum, but Gets to Name Species


There’s an unusual catch to one of the most unusual catches in Santa Monica fishing history.

Whoever buys the four small fish that are for sale these days at a Main Street shop won’t be able to eat them. But the buyer can name them.

The fish belong to a previously unknown species believed to have lived 85 million years ago in waters that covered much of what is now the United States. Their fossilized remains were unearthed in a Kansas cow pasture.


The fossil is for sale for $20,000. But the purchaser must promise to immediately donate it to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, where paleontologists are eager to begin boning up on the one-of-a-kind remains.

In exchange for the gift, museum scientists promise to name the species after the donor.

“The name will be documented in scientific journals worldwide,” said Susan Marie Kucera, owner of Geo Arte, the speciality shop where the 45-pound chunk of chalky Kansas sandstone is on display. “A hundred years from now, the species will still be named for you.”

Without a scientific name, a fossil is just another rock.

According to international scientific protocol, a newly discovered species cannot be officially named until it is made part of a museum collection. There, it can be authenticated by experts and made available to researchers.

But like most public organizations these days, the county’s Natural History Museum lacks money to buy the fossil for its world-famed vertebrate fossil collection, officials say.

So scientists have decided to trade the naming rights for the fossil.

“This is the first time to my knowledge anything like this has been done here,” said J.D. Stewart, a paleontologist and curator at the museum. “Museums everywhere are short of cash. This may be a new trend.”

Stewart was consulted about the identity of the fish shortly after Kansas paleontologist Fred Nuss dug it up two years ago. Stewart said he tentatively concluded that the fish was of the genus Caproberyx , a vertebrate classification previously found only in Europe.

Nuss, who has been a self-taught fossil hunter for 15 years, was digging in a pasture on the outskirts of the tiny Kansas farm town of Palco when he discovered the fossil inside the remains of a prehistoric clam. The fish were preserved so clearly that the crystallized outline of some scales is visible.

But Nuss remembers being underwhelmed at his discovery at first. “Truthfully, when you’re trying to make a living doing this, you’re looking for 18-foot animals,” he said. “Six-inch fish aren’t what people want to buy.”

Nuss said the prehistoric clam, like many of his finds, had been partially exposed to view by erosion. “Mother Nature destroys more fossils than anybody,” he said. “It rains, cows walk up and down on them.”

But Candace Williams, who helped excavate the fossil, recalls that “it was very exciting--just beautiful. . . . I thought it should have been named after me.”

Nuss suggested the you-name-the-fish idea to Kucera, whose shop frequently sells fossils to private collectors. Under the plan, most of the the $20,000 profit will go to the county museum to help defray the cost of research on the fossil. Nuss and Kucera will get smaller shares.

Stewart said the fossil will be carefully cleaned and studied under a microscope. Then it will be photographed so its bone structure can be compared with European fossils stored at the British Museum in London.

By that time, the prehistoric species will have a new name.

“If a benefactor such as Steven Spielberg wanted to donate it, it might be the Spielbergia species,” Kucera said.

“It will be the freshest fish in Santa Monica.”