Scientists identified a new species of prehistoric fish from a fossil found in Nevada. Wochit
If fishing reports existed 250 million years ago they probably would have warned anglers to bring extra sturdy line to northern Nevada.
That’s because newly described fossil evidence shows the warm waters of the time were home to a toothy apex predator that chomped its prey like a modern shark.
“The surprising find from Elko County in northeastern Nevada is one of the most completely preserved vertebrate remains from this time-period ever discovered in the United States,” said Carlo Romano of the University of Zurich, lead author of a Journal of Paleontology article about the find.
The fossil is what remains of a bony, sharp-toothed fish that would have been about six-feet-long with long jaws and layers of sharp teeth.
“The whole head would have been on the order of a foot long,” said Matt Friedman, a fossil fish expert at University of Michigan who wasn’t involved with the research but read the results. “It gives you some sense of the complexity of the ecosystem that was present.”
The type of jaw and teeth on the fish suggest it would have chomped down on its prey before swallowing it whole, like a shark.
The fish, which researchers called Birgeria americana, predates Nevada’s most famous fossil, the Ichthyosaur, by more than 30 million years. The Ichthyosaur was a 55-foot-long reptile. One of the largest concentrations of Ichthyosaur fossils was found near Berlin, Nev. The find led to the Ichthyosaur becoming Nevada’s state fossil, protection in the form of a state park and even inspired one of the state’s most prominent craft beers.
The Birgeria americana fossil finding is important because it sheds new light on how quickly large, predator species evolved following the Earth’s third mass extinction that preceded the Triassic period.
"The survivors that bounced back set the stage for our modern marine fauna," said Joshua Bonde, an assistant professor and paleontology research associate at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Bonde wasn't involved in the recent find.
The evidence shows the fish was alive and well about 1 million years after mass extinction wiped out an estimated 90 percent of marine species.
At the time the region would have been a shallow, marine reef conducive to life that followed the Permian mass extinction.
"Some group of predatory fish that survived the worse thing that ever happened to life is swimming around Nevada," Bonde said. "It was a pretty barren world."
According to the researchers it shows apex predators roared into prominence several million years sooner than previously thought following the ecological catastrophe.
“They were confronted with basically a clean slate,” Friedman said. “Extinction had disrupted all kinds of ecosystems, there were all kinds of new opportunities available.”
It also shows a large fish was surviving in water previously thought to be too warm to support such life.
At the time water near the equator, which is where land that became Nevada was positioned roughly 250 million years ago, could have been warmer than 96 degrees. Researchers say, “the eggs of today’s bony fish can no longer develop normally” at such a high temperature.
Also surprising is the location of the find, Friedman said. Although the Zurich researchers referred to the fish as, “a previously unknown species,” Friedman said similar fish have been found in Europe, Madagascar and Greenland.
“We’ve known for some time that there were kind of predatory fishes and things like this including close relatives to this fossil from Nevada,” Friedman said. “What is surprising about this is its geographic location.”
Researchers learned of the fossil about five years ago after fossil collector Jim Jenks of West Jordan, Utah, stumbled upon it near Winecup Ranch north of Wells.
“It was just a very lucky find,” said Jenks, who was credited among the paper’s authors. “I happen to notice the teeth glinting in the sun. That is what caught my attention.”
Jenks, who typically looks for Triassic ammonoid fossils, recognized immediately the fish fossil was different.
“You don’t just stumble over fish in the Triassic,” he said. “You find a fish anywhere and it is significant.”
Jenks turned the fish over to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, which has a large collection of fossils and connections with leading researchers.
Curator Spencer Lucas said the public could eventually get a chance to view the fossil.
“It is here in the collection,” he said. “It potentially could be put on display.”