Collections of the French Community (named Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles)

The Diplocaulus sp. belongs to the collections of the French Community (FW-B). They number some 50,000 pieces split into two sections: the works of art acquired by the Belgian State from 1860 to 1972, and the FW-B works included in the collection since 1972 through purchases, donations, and bequests.

  • The Belgian State’s collection of 12,300 works is made up mainly of fine art objects and covers the acquisition period from 1860 to 1972. It is managed jointly with the Flemish community.
  • The FW-B collection is divided into three separate collections:

The Plastic Arts Collection, created in 1972, includes plastic art, craft, and design works. It is one of the most important public collections in modern and contemporary art in Belgium.  For this reason, it is a vital element of francophone Belgian cultural identity; The Collection at the Grand Hornu (Mac’s) Museum of Contemporary Arts, with 350 works of contemporary art; The Cultural Heritage Collection, created in 1984, which has 27,000 pieces acquired to strengthen or complement the collections of the museums where they are stored. Its considerable diversity reflects the variety of areas covered by the museums: artistic, archaeological, ethnological, historical, military, scientific, and technical pieces. The Diplocaulus sp. has been made available as part of this collection. It is the first instance of a piece acquired by the FW-B for a natural sciences museum. For over ten years, the FW-B has been developing a programme to protect its heritage. The Cultural Heritage Department, which focuses on preserving collections and is made up of art historians and conservator-restorers, dedicates a large part of its time to protecting the FW-B works. In regular contact with museum staff, this department’s agents examine the works, carry out condition reports, and ensure follow-ups when pieces are loaned out for exhibitions and storage. The FW-B is also mindful of highlighting its collections from different perspectives and showcasing their richness and diversity. This increased visibility takes place through exhibition loans (around 50 requests per year), the digitisation of the collections and the availability of a some of them on the ARTémis portal, the publication of books dedicated to sections of the collections, as well as through various one-off events.

Diplocaulus sp.

Edward Drinker Cope, 1877

  • Formation: Whitehorse Group
  • Age: Guadalupian, Middle Permian (272 to 260 million years ago)
  • Origin: North America.

Specimen acquired by the Wallonia-Brussels Federation as part of the 2016 edition of the call for recognised and government-funded museums to acquire works of art and collection objects, and loaned to the Natural History Museum and Vivarium in Tournai. The Diplocaulus (whose name literally means “double cap”) is an extinct genus of amphibian that looked like a salamander and lived during the Permian. Growing up to one metre in length, it lived in fresh water environments and its teeth show that it likely ate insects, fish, and other amphibians. Its most obvious feature is first and foremost its head, whose boomerang-shaped morphology has intrigued scientists since the 19th century, when the first specimens were discovered. The following are some of the most widespread hypotheses in the scientific literature:

  • Hydrofoil function: in an environment with flowing water, this cranial morphology could have helped the animal to quickly dive or ascend in the water column using the water’s flow.
  • Defensive function: the significant width of the skull could have hindered or even stopped its predators (such as the Eryops) from swallowing it.
  • Camouflage function: Rare fossil remains tend to show that the tips of its head were attached to its body by skin flaps, which could very easily have hidden the animal while it lay in wait at the bottom of a body of water.

Diplocaulus sp. fossils are rare and generally only the skulls are preserved. This specimen, which is almost 98% complete, was discovered in 2014 in the Guadalupian deposits in Baylor county, Texas, USA. It comes from the Red Beds of the Whitehorse Group formation, dating from the Middle Permian (272 to 260 million years ago) and made up mainly of banks of feldspathic sandstone, shale, and siltstone. The conditions of the deposit of these rocks bear witness to a fluviatile environment. The fossil was prepared by Mr David Wolf, head preparator at the Houston Museum of Natural Science (USA), and lasted almost a year. It involved painstakingly freeing each bone in the skeleton from its coating then reassembling them in anatomical connection. The rarity of this specimen as well as the exceptional quality of its preservation and preparation make it a unique piece. Collection of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation / French Community of Belgium, APC 27301, on loan to the Natural History Museum in Tournai.

A “major” evolutionary leap in the history of life

Since the appearance of life almost 4 billion years ago, it has undergone several stunning metamorphoses which have led to major “evolutionary leaps”. Among these, the transition from aquatic life to terrestrial life – plant as well as animal – is one of the most remarkable. In the animal world, amphibians were the first vertebrates to take this step. However, they couldn’t completely free themselves of their original environment because most of them still depended on water to reproduce. The precise evolutionary history of the first tetrapods – the first vertebrates with 4 walking legs – as well as the age in which they appeared are still subjects of debate. This is mainly due to the wide diversity of their shapes and the scant data available, inherent to the rarity and often fragmentary nature of the fossils discovered. Tetrapods come from a particular group of bony fish with fleshy fins (Sarcopterygii) that lived between 280 and 410 million years ago (Early Devonian to Early Permian) and whose closest living relatives are lungfish. Eusthenopteron and Panderichthys lived in the Late Devonian, around 380 to 385 million years ago. In addition to gills, these fish had primitive lungs, pectoral fins with a humerus, an ulna, and a radius, and pelvic fins with a femur, a tibia, and a fibula. Intermediate forms appeared several million years later displaying a mosaic of characteristics unique to fish and tetrapods, such as Tiktaalik, which dates from around 375 million years ago and had legs without toes. These were unsuited to terrestrial life, however, as they were more like paddles than actual legs. Tiktaalik, a resounding discoveryIn the fossil record, fish with “limb-like” fins (380 million years ago) and the first real tetrapods (363 million years ago) were known to scientists since 1881 and 1932, respectively. There was a palaeontological gap of almost 20 million years between these fossils, however, which for decades prevented palaeontologists from providing an exact evolutionary scenario between fish and tetrapods. The 2004 discovery of Tiktaalik roseae in the Canadian Arctic helped scientists to bridge this evolutionary gap. 375 million years old and reaching up to 2.7 m long, the animal truly represents a transitional form between fish with “limb-like” fins and real tetrapods.