The Annotated "It's A Long Way From Amphioxus"

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This song dates back to 1920 or so. It has been attributed to Dr. Sewell H. Hopkins of the Zoology Department of Texas A&M, but recent information sent to me suggests that he did not write the song, but gained fame for declaiming it in class as a poem. Hopkins claimed to have learned it in the 1920s at Woods Hole. See for more information.  

The problem is that although this song is hysterically funny to paleontology majors – even allowing for the fact that it is no longer scientifically accurate – it is somewhat inaccessible to the ordinary educated reader. I've annotated the version below, which is an amalgam of several sources of what the song might have been. (What does this mean? It means that when I finally started looking at copies of the lyrics, I found several variations, some of which were clearly the result of erroneous transcriptions of technical terms. I had found no definitive version, although you might consider the one cited above as being such).

(From the Sam Hinton prologue to the song) This song represents a point of view that is no longer completely tenable. It's about a little creature that used to be called "amphioxus" – it's now called "brachiostoma", but that doesn't matter; it scans better if you say "amphioxus" – and it used to be thought that amphioxus was right on the main line of vertebrate evolution. We know of course now, that is no longer true – our ancestors were probably sea squirts instead of cephalopods.

A bit more scientific explanation was provided to me by Walter J. Conley, Professor of Biology, who spotted this page when researching for Darwin Day information.  A Tip of the Flounder Fin to him for this contribution.

Cephalopods are molluscs (squids, octopuses, and others). You should have referenced "Cephalochordates" which is the group of Brachiostoma. It is one of the two invertebrate subphyla of the phylum Chordata, the other being the Urochodata which includes the sea squirts. The reference to mollusca in the song dates to a different split among the protostomes. Because the protostomes display metamerism, it was once thought that they were the origin of metameric vertebrates. That was very long ago.

A tip of the Flounder Fin to Alan Thiesen for pointing me to the MBL Amphioxus page, and to Dr. Joe Felsenstein, who created the page, from which I copied the links to the RealAudio performance and  the Sam Hinton Web page.

The illustration of amphioxus is copyright BIODIDAC,, and is used in accordance with their documented permission policy. This page is a non-profit page.

Sung to the tune of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary". You can hear it performed by folk singer (and marine biologist) Sam Hinton if you have support for RealAudio.

 (Unfortunately, in their quest to "improve" the RealAudio product, it is now a mishmash of garbage features, poorly thought out, and actively user-hostile, including ActiveVirus controls to configure it (useless on a secure site such as mine, where all client-side scripting is permanently disabled), an annoying tendency to pop up notices about topics you probably don't have any interest in, and a pathetic attempt to imitate a Web browser. It no longer does what you really need, which is to simply play media. I've had to remove it from my machine, because it is intolerable. Let this be a lesson to you if you are product developer. Focus, do one job well, and don't do anything that would pop up any notification to your users that they did not explicitly ask for. And above all, you must never assume the existence of client-side scripting of any form. This is a geek toy and is inappropriate in products if you expect to run in a site that has the slightest pretensions of being secure. It turns out in the new RealPlayer you can't turn off the annoying popups! Brain-dead design. It will also not work at all if you exercise the slightest effort to make your site secure. If you have the opportunity to upgrade from their earlier version, DO NOT DO SO! The current version, 6.0, is garbage and completely unusable).

If you are a sensible person who has refused to have anything to do with the new RealAudio garbage, you can buy the Sam Hinton album, Sam Hinton Sings the Song of Men, from the Smithsonian Institution Folkways Records.


It's a long way from amphioxus
It's a long way to us…
It's a long way from amphioxus
To the meanest human cuss.
It's good-bye, fins and gill slits,
Hello, lungs and hair!
It's a long, long way from amphioxus,
But we all came from there!
A fish-like thing appeared among the annelids one day;
It hadn't any parapods or setae to display.
It hadn't any eyes or jaws, or ventral nervous chord,
But it had a lot of gill slits and it had a notochord.
It wasn't much to look at, and it scarce knew how to swim.
And Nereis was very sure it hadn't come from him.
The molluscs wouldn't own it, and the arthropods got sore,
So the poor thing had to burrow in the sand along the shore.
He burrowed in the sand before a crab could nip his tail.
He said "Gill slits and myotomes are all to no avail.
I've grown some metapleural folds, and sport an oral hood.
And all these fine new characters don't do me any good!"
He sulked a while down in the sand without a bit of pep.
Then he stiffened up his notochord and said "I'll beat 'em yet!
Let 'em laugh and show their ignorance; I don't mind their jeers!
Just wait until they see me in a hundred million years!"
"My notochord shall turn into a chain of vertebrae;
As fins, my metapleural folds will agitate the sea.
My tiny dorsal nervous chord shall be a mighty brain
And the vertebrates will dominate the animal domain!"


wb01339_.gif (896 bytes) Annelids: any of a phylum Annelidae of coelomate and usually elongated segmented invertebrates, including earthworms, various marine worms, leeches, and related forms. 
wb01339_.gif (896 bytes) Parapod: one of the jointless lateral processes or rudimentary limbs of annelids which serve as organs of locomotion and sometimes of sensation or respiration.
wb01339_.gif (896 bytes) Setae: slender, usually bristly or springy organs or parts of an animal or plant.
wb01339_.gif (896 bytes) Ventral: being located on the anterior or lower surface of an animal; that is, opposite the back.
wb01339_.gif (896 bytes) Notochord: A longitudinal flexible rod of cells that in the lowest chordates (such as amphioxus and the lampreys) and in the embryos of the higher vertebrates forms the supporting axis of the body.
wb01339_.gif (896 bytes) Nereis: any of a genus Nereis of usually large, often dimorphic and greenish marine polychaete worms.
wb01339_.gif (896 bytes) Molluscs: any of a large phylum Mollusca of invertebrate animals such as snails or clams with a soft unsegmented body, usually enclosed in a calcareous shell; shellfish.
wb01339_.gif (896 bytes) Arthropods: any of a phylum Arthropoda of invertebrate animals with articulate body and limbs, such as insects, arachnids, and crustaceans. We can assume for this song that the latter is what is referenced.
wb01339_.gif (896 bytes) Myotome: The portions of an embryonic somite from which skeletal musculature is produced; the muscles of a metamere, especially in a segmented invertebrate.
wb01339_.gif (896 bytes) Metapleura: The lateral surfaces of the metathorax; the upstanding hollow ridges or latero-ventral folds which, in amphioxus, form the lateral margins of the ventral surface.
wb01339_.gif (896 bytes) Characters: the attributes or features which make up and distinguish the individual; a feature used to separate distinguishable things (such as organisms) into categories
wb01339_.gif (896 bytes) Vertebrae: The body or cartilaginous segments composing the spinal column, consisting in some lower vertebrates of several distinct elements which never become united.
wb01339_.gif (896 bytes) Dorsal: related to or situated near or on the back, especially of an animal or one of its parts.

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Last modified: December 26, 2008