Recently, the largest fossil of an ancient deep-sea fish that was once thought to be extinct was found – completely by mistake.
Paleontologists in Great Britain got what they were told was a pterodactyl bone, but after a more detailed examination, the team realized that it was not a single bone.
The specimen was identified as a thin bone plate belonging to the coelacanth, a fish that appeared 200 million years before the first dinosaurs and that still swims today.
One of the strangest aspects of the coelacanth is that it has vestigial lungs, perhaps from the time when its ancestors crawled on land.
Researchers have determined that the fossil is actually the spindle lung of a celacanthus, which lived 66 million years ago.
Scientists have long believed that celacanth became extinct eons ago, until it was observed alive in South African waters in the 1930s.
Scroll down for a video
Paleontologists from the University of Plymouth have identified a lung fossil belonging to the 16-meter coelacanth, the largest recorded. In the picture: Representations of the lungs of the coelacanth, which show overlapping bone plates
David Martill, a paleontologist at the University of Portsmouth, asked to identify a large bone bought by a private collector, who suspected that it may have been part of the skull of a pterodactyl.
Martill quickly determined that the fossil was actually made up of many thin bone plates ‘arranged like a barrel, but with the poles spinning around instead of from top to bottom,’ he explained.
“Only one animal has such a structure, and that is a coelacanth,” he said. “We found the bony lungs of this remarkable bizarre-looking fish.”
The collector was disappointed that he did not have a pterodactyl on his hands, but Martilla and his colleagues were ‘delighted’ by the discovery.
The fossil was originally brought to Martill, embedded in phosphate and gypsum and coated with varnish. Because it was located next to the bones of a pterosaur, its owner believes that it was a pterodactyl skull.
The fossil (pictured) was discovered in phosphate deposits in Morocco, the first coelacanth ever found there
The fossil was discovered in phosphate deposits in Morocco, the first coelacanth ever found there.
It was found next to pterodactyls, which dates back to the Cretaceous era – about 66 million years ago – and explained the misidentification of collectors.
Marine biologists have discovered only the elusive deep-sea fish’s obsolete lungs lurking in their bellies in 2015.
Millions of years ago, the ancestors of the koelakanta probably used it for breath.
This could explain how it survived an extinction event 66 million years ago that wiped out all non-bird dinosaurs and most other lives, as well as those coelacantes inhabiting shallow waters.
Where the bony lungs would probably be located on the body of the fish while it was alive
This lung belonged to an “absolutely massive” coelacanth, Martill said, perhaps 16 feet or longer.
By comparison, the great white shark is about 15 feet long – and today’s coelactants only grow to about six and a half feet.
“This particular fish was huge – quite longer than the length of a standing paddleboard and probably the largest coelacanth ever discovered,” Martill said.
Modern coelactants grow only up to about a meter and a half. Pictured: Taxidermists install a coelactant in a tank at the National Museum of Natural History
Paleontologists believed that the fish became extinct at the end of the Mesozoic era until a living coelacanth was found in South Africa in 1938. In the picture: Complete fossil coelacanta
The fossil is embedded in phosphate and gypsum and coated with varnish, turning it brown.
Martilla’s team had to cut off the remnants of the lungs from the larger plate and remove the varnish using toothpicks and fine brushes.
In 2015, scientists determined that the coelacanth, also called Latimeria chalumnae, contained lungs.
The lungs are no longer functional, but they give indications of how its ancient cousins may have lived 410 million years ago.
Latimeria does not have “calcified lungs” like its ancestors.
However, X-rays show that the species has well-developed, potentially functional lungs in embryos at an early stage.
As the lungs grow they become dysfunctional.
The structure does not benefit living species that, like all other fish, breathe with their gills.
The bone lungs were sent back to Morocco to be added to the collections at Hassan II University in Casablanca.
The coelacanth first appeared 400 million years ago – 200 million years before the first dinosaurs – and survived an extinction case that killed dinosaurs.
It has long been believed to have become extinct near the end of the Mesozoic era, but in 1938 a living coelacanth was found off the coast of South Africa.
Since then, several more individual fish have been found, as well as members of related species off the coast of Indonesia.
But the coelacanth, which is considered endangered, is in many ways a truly unique being.
For example, it has lobe-shaped fins that move alternately, similar to a terrestrial animal with four legs.
The movement led experts to speculate that it may have been a member of a group of fish that first crawled to the ground to evolve into animals with legs.
Gray-brown fish can weigh as much as 200 pounds and live up to 60 years.
It has a hollow spine filled with fluid, teeth covered with enamel and an articulated jaw that allows it to open its mouth wide to swallow large prey.
Little is known about how fish live, what they eat, how they reproduce or how many are left.
Until recently, the coelacanth was known as the ‘living fossil’, which has changed little over hundreds of millions of years. Scientists now believe it has undergone a more significant evolution than previously thought.