private collector wanted dinosaur skull but got huge fossilized bony fish lung
Researchers at the University of Portsmouth came across the fossilized remains of an ancient bony fish – the coelacanth – by sheer luck. Or bad luck, depending on who you ask.
Breaking with our traditional story for Fossil Friday, it won’t be much about “unearthing” today. This is because the fossil in question is part of a private collection of a London enthusiast. It was identified as having belonged to a species of coelacanth by Professor David Martill, a paleontologist at the University’s School of Environment, Geography and Geosciences, after he was asked to examine the specimen and determine its origin.
While the find was academically quite exciting, the collector was (apparently) less than thrilled: they wanted a pterosaur skull, but they got a bony fish.
“The collector was extremely disappointed not to have a pterosaur skull, but my colleagues and I were delighted because no coelacanth was ever found in the phosphate deposits of Morocco, and this example was absolutely huge! explains Professor Martill.
“The thin bony plates were laid out like a barrel, but with the staves rotating instead of up and down. Only one animal has such a structure and that is the coelacanth – we had found a bony lung of this remarkable and bizarre-looking fish.
The fossil corresponds to a fish similar in size to today’s great white shark and is the largest such fossil ever discovered by accident. Although they have been swimming since dinosaurs still roamed the Earth, coelacanths are still alive to this day, although they are quite rare and rarely seen. They are also very threatened.
The collector bought this fossil thinking it might be part of a pterodactyl skull. Instead, Professor Martill discovered that the specimen was made up of many thin plates of bone, not a single piece, as you would see in a skull. Professor Martill worked with Dr Paulo Brito of Rio de Janeiro State University, a leading Brazilian paleontologist, to study the fossil. Brito, an expert on coelacanths and their lungs, admitted to being “astonished” at the size of this specimen.
It was encrusted in a block of phosphate with a plaster backing, and everything was then coated with lacquer – this, the two explain, caused the fossils to take on a brown tint. It was found next to a pterodactyl specimen (which is probably why the collector thought it was part of this animal). Although these are completely different species, it helps us give a rough estimate of when fish lived: around 66 million years ago, in the Cretaceous Era.
After an initial investigation of the specimen, its owner offered to donate the remains of the slab’s bony lung to the researchers, which they agreed to. They later removed the lacquer using specialized equipment (mainly dental tools and fine brushes) to allow further research on the fossils.
The very large size of this animal’s lungs suggests that it was a very, very large individual during its day – around five meters long, the team reports. It is much larger than today’s coelacanths, which reach a maximum of two meters in length.
“We only had one lung, although massive, our conclusions therefore required quite complex calculations”, explains Professor Martill. “It was amazing to deduce that this particular fish was huge – a bit longer than the length of a stand-up paddle and possibly the largest coelacanth ever discovered.”
The fossil will be returned to the Moroccan government, explains the owner, and will most likely be added to the collections of the geology department of Hassan II University in Casablanca.
The article “A marine coelacanth from the Upper Cretaceous (Maastrichtian) of North Africa” was published in the review Cretaceous research.