It Came From The Wastebasket #18: Lots And Lots of Lepidotes

Lepidotes was a ray-finned fish that lived during the Mesozoic, found in both freshwater and shallow marine environments. It was a member of the ginglymodian fish lineage, related to modern gars, and along with distinctive thick enamelled scales on its body it was also one of the earliest types of fish able to protrude its jaws for suction feeding.

First discovered in Jurassic-aged fossil deposits in Europe in the 1830s, this genus was quickly turned into a notorious wastebasket taxon for any similar-looking fossil fish. Over time dozens of different Lepidotes species were named, many of them rather dubious, from locations all around the world and spanning a time period of over 100 million years.

An illustration of Lepidotes gigas, an extinct fish related to modern gars. It has a somewhat carp-like shape, with a body profile resembling an elongated oval, a relatively large head region, small fins, and a forked tail. Its scales are rhombus-shaped and are arranged in tightly-packed rows along its body.
Lepidotes gigas

But despite Lepidotes being a wastebasket for almost two centuries, it wasn’t until surprisingly recently that any real progress began to be made on cleaning it all up.

In the early 2010s a large-scale review of ginglymodian relationships found that many “Lepidotes” species were either invalid or polyphyletic, belonging in completely different genera or families. True Lepidotes were restricted down to just the original type species Lepidotes gigas and a few of its closest relatives, all from the early Jurassic of Europe, while some other forms were moved into the newer genera Scheenstia and Callipurbeckia. Since then some other “Lepidotes” have also been reclassified, creating new names like Macrosemimimus, Occitanichthys, and Quasimodichthys.

There’s still work needing to be done on untangling all these Lepidotes-like fish – Scheenstia might actually now represent several different lineages, for example – but at least Lepidotes itself is now in a much better situation than it was just a couple of decades ago.

Ornithoprion

The eugeneodonts were a group of cartilaginous fish that convergently resembled sharks but were actually much closer related to modern chimaeras. They had unique “tooth whorls” in their jaws, and the most famous member of the group is probably Helicoprion, whose bizarre buzzsaw-like tooth arrangement was only properly understood within the last decade.

Ornithoprion hertwigi here was one of the first eugeneodonts found with fossilized skull material, and helped with the early understanding of just how their weird jaw anatomy actually worked.

It lived during the Late Carboniferous, about 315-307 million years ago, in a shallow tropical sea that covered what is now southwestern Indiana, USA.

At only around 50cm long (~1’8″) it was one of the smaller eugeneodonts, and along with a small Helicoprion-like tooth whorl it also had a distinctive highly elongated chin. Similar to modern halfbeak fish this structure may have served a sensory function, helping Ornithoprion to detect prey in dark or murky waters.

Calamostoma

Ghost pipefishes are close relatives of pipefish and seahorses, and today are represented by six different species found in shallow tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific. But while this lineage is estimated to have originated around 70 million years ago in the Late Cretaceous, their fossil record is very sparse – only three fossil representatives are currently known from the entire Cenozoic.

Calamostoma lesiniforme is one of the oldest of these, dating to the early Eocene around 50-48 million years ago. Known from the Monte Bolca fossil beds in northern Italy, it lived in a warm shallow reef environment during a time when that region of Europe was covered by the western Tethys Ocean.

Up to about 9cm long (3.5″), it was already very similar in appearance to modern ghost pipefishes, with a long tubular snout, star-shaped bony plates in its skin, two dorsal fins, and fairly large pelvic fins that formed an egg-brooding pouch in females. It probably had the same sort of lifestyle as its modern relatives, floating pointing downwards and camouflaging itself among seagrasses, algae, and corals.

One specimen preserves a small amount of color patterning, showing hints of dark banding on the pelvic and tail fins. But since modern ghost pipefish can change their coloration to better mimic their surroundings, it’s unclear whether these markings were common to all Calamostoma or were just part of this particular individual’s camouflage.

Retro vs Modern #08: Helicoprion davisii

First discovered in Western Australia in the mid-1880s, the bizarre-toothed eugeneodont cartilaginous fish Helicoprion davisii was initially mistaken for a species of the equally weird Edestus. It was eventually recognized as part of a separate genus over a decade later, when similar fossils of its close relative Helicoprion bessonowi were found in the Ural Mountains.


1890s-2000s

With Helicoprion only known from strange buzzsaw-like spiral whorls, the function and location of this structure in the fish’s body was a huge source of confusion for over a century.

The earliest interpretation was a defensive structure curling upwards from the snout, then as part of the tail or dorsal fins. It was soon realized to probably be part of the lower jaw instead, but the exact arrangement was still a mystery.

A downward-curling position was popular in reconstructions for much of the 20th century. From the 1960s onwards, however, discoveries of preserved skull cartilage and soft-tissue body outlines of other eugeneodont species began to give a better idea of what these fish were and what they looked like. They were identified as being related to modern chimaeras, but with a very different appearance – they had streamlined shark-like bodies with large triangular pectoral fins, a single dorsal fin, no pelvic or anal fins at all, and broad keels along the sides of their tails.

A single tooth whorl sat in the middle of the lower jaw, with its sides covered by skin, and the largest and youngest teeth formed at the back before spiralling forwards, downwards, and inwards.

In the 1990s a “pizza-cutter” reconstruction gave Helicoprion long narrow jaws with the whorl positioned very far forwards, sawing and crushing prey against the underside of the snout. A version with the whorl very deep inside the throat was also proposed in 2008, but only a year later a new variant of the pizza-cutter saw-jaw model suggested the presence of a specialized “pocket” in the upper jaw lined with teeth.


2020s

Finally, in 2013, CT scanning of a Helicoprion specimen originally discovered in the 1960s revealed something incredibly special – an almost complete three-dimensionally preserved and articulated set of jaws. It showed narrow jaws that were shorter than the previous reconstructions, with the whorl occupying the entire lower jaw and braced by cartilage on each side.

We now know Helicoprion davisii was found worldwide during the early-to-mid Permian, about 272-268 million years ago, and based on some of the biggest known tooth whorls it may have reached sizes of up to 8m long (~26′), similar in size to modern basking sharks. It continuously added new and larger teeth to its whorl throughout its life, with the smaller older teeth being retained instead of shed, slowly pushed into a tight spiral deep inside the lower jaw.

The upper jaw formed a sheath-like pocket lined with a “pavement” of numerous tiny rounded teeth, and as Helicoprion closed its jaws the various parts of the whorl simultaneously grabbed, sliced, and pulled prey further into its mouth – a mechanism possibly specialized for efficiently de-shelling cephalopods like ammonites and nautiloids.

Echinochimaera

Echinochimaera meltoni here was a cartilaginous fish found in the Bear Gulch Limestone deposits in Montana, USA, dating to the Early Carboniferous about 326-318 million years ago.

It was an early member of the chimaera lineage, but unlike its mostly-scaleless modern relatives its body was covered in small shark-like placoid scales.

It also showed a large degree of sexual dimorphism, with males and females almost looking like different species entirely. Males are identified by the presence of claspers and were up to 15cm long (6″), with four pairs of spiny “horns” on their heads, larger more pointed dorsal fins, and rows of spines along their tails. Females were less than half the size of males at just 7cm long (2.75″), with only one pair of smaller “horns” and none of the additional spines.

The rounded bodies and relatively small paddle-like tail fins of both sexes suggest they weren’t very strong swimmers, probably relying on their large dorsal fin spines to defend themselves – which may have been venomous much like those of modern chimaeras.

Squaloraja

Discovered in the late 1820s by pioneering paleontologist Mary Anning, the odd-looking fossil of the cartilaginous fish Squaloraja polyspondyla seemed to have characteristics of both sharks and rays.

It was initially thought to be a “missing link” transitional form between those two groups, but later it was identified as being something else entirely – it was actually part of the chimaera lineage, much closer related to modern ratfish, and its ray-like features were due to convergent evolution for a bottom-feeding lifestyle.

Living during the early Jurassic period, about 200-195 million years ago, Squaloraja fossils are now known from the south coast of England, southern Belguim, and northern Italy. Around 30cm long (1’), this weird fish had a massive wide flat snout that looked like an even more extreme version of the long noses seen in some of its modern relatives, and this enormous snoot would have been absolutely packed with sensory receptors to help it locate small aquatic prey hidden in the muddy seafloor.

Some specimens also have a distinctive long horn-like spine on their foreheads, and since these individuals also have claspers it seems like this was a sexually dimorphic feature. Much like the smaller head claspers on modern chimaeras, male Squaloraja probably used this “horn” to hang onto females’ pectoral fins during mating – and with it being such a large elaborate structure it may also have been used for visual display purposes, too.

Cambrian Explosion Month #16: Phylum Chordata – Vertebrata

Vertebrates are by far the most numerous and diverse group of chordates today, with over 65,000 known species including fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Genetic studies show that they’re closely related to the weird bag-like tunicates, and their shared common ancestor was probably something lancelet-like.

And the earliest true vertebrates would have looked something like Haikouichthys ercaicunensis.

Continue reading “Cambrian Explosion Month #16: Phylum Chordata – Vertebrata”

Doryaspis

While Doryaspis nathorsti here looked a bit like a weird prehistoric sawfish, it was actually an ancient jawless fish more closely related to modern lampreys and hagfish.

Measuring just 15cm long (6″), this odd little fish lived in the shallow seas of what is now the Arctic Svalbard archipelago, around 407 million years ago during the early Devonian period when the region was located in much more tropical latitudes.

It was part of a group called the heterostracans, a lineage of jawless fish with heavy armor covering the fronts of their bodies. They had no paired fins and relied solely on their powerful tails for propulsion, and some like Doryaspis also developed large stiff wing-like projections from the sides of their armor that acted like hydrofoils to provide extra lift while swimming.

But the strangest feature of Doryaspis is that pointy serrated saw-like “snout” – which wasn’t actually a snout at all, but instead formed from a part of its jawless mouth roughly equivalent to the lower lip and chin.

It’s unclear what the purpose of this appendage was, but it might have been used for prey detection, probing around the muddy seafloor in a similar manner to sawfish or the big-chinned porpoise Semirostrum.

Harpagofututor

Sometimes sexual dimorphism in the fossil record is hard to identify for certain – and sometimes it’s incredibly obvious.

Harpagofututor volsellorhinus here is a wonderful example of the second category. This 17cm long (~7″) cartilaginous fish was a distant relative of modern chimaeras, and lived during the Early Carboniferous about 326-318 million years ago in the shallow tropical sea that formed the Bear Gulch Limestone deposits in Montana, USA.

While all specimens show an elongated eel-like body, they come in two different forms: one with a fairly normal skull, and one with a pair of huge jointed cartilaginous appendages in front of its eyes that resemble antennae or antlers.

The presence of large claspers on the “antlered” forms indicated they were males, with the weird appendages probably being used either for display or as “grappling hooks” to hang onto females during mating.

(Modern male chimaeras also have clasping structures on their heads!)

Meanwhile a couple of non-antlered specimens preserved with unborn offspring still inside their bodies confirmed that these unadorned forms of Harpagofututor were indeed females. Some of their young were quite large and well-developed, suggesting live birth, and with multiple different fetal growth stages found within a single mother it’s also a rare example of fossilized superfetation.

Tridenaspis

Although the only surviving agnathans in modern times are the lampreys and hagfish, back in the early-to-mid-Paleozoic these “jawless fish” were much more diverse. Many of them were heavily armored with large bony head shields – a feature eventually inherited by early jawed fish like the placoderms – which protected their heads, gills, and some of their internal organs.

And some of the oddest-looking of these armored agnathans was a lineage known as the galeaspids.

Known from southern China, Tibet, and Vietnam, these small fish were bottom-dwellers living in the shallow waters of lagoons and river deltas. Their most distinctive feature was a single large opening on the upper side of their head shields – and despite looking like a particularly goofy mouth this hole was actually a nostril, used for both a sense of smell and as a water intake for their gills. The actual mouth and the gill openings were on the underside of the head.

While early galeaspids had rounded head shields, later forms developed some more unusual shapes, with long spines sticking out to each side and pointed or spatula-shaped snouts.

Tridenaspis magnoculus here lived during the early Devonian in Southwest China, about 407-393 million years ago, and was only about 5cm long (2″). It wasn’t the most extremely pointy of its kind, but still had a weird kite-shaped head shield, a long vertical slit-shaped nostril opening, and rather large upwards-facing eyes.