While walking down a flagstone path in Colombia’s Monastery of La Candelaria on holiday, one boy’s curious eyes saw something unusual: a fossilized fish embedded in stone.
The boy snapped a photo of the fossil and sent it to the nearby Center for Paleontological Research, who forwarded it to researchers at the University of Alberta. Nearly three years later, his discovery is helping scientists piece together Earth’s past.
While it has no modern relatives, the 90-million-year-old “lizard fish” (Candelarhynchus padillai) resembles today’s barracuda. The paper was published in the Journal of Systematic Paleontology.
The Cretaceous Period was a time of crucial changes and tectonic, oceanographic, and biological reconfigurations.
It’s the first time this species has been found in the Americas and provides insight into ancient migration patterns and adaptations to changing climates.
“This newly-described fish appears to be closely related to the extinct species from the Mediterranean,” lead-author Oksana Vernygora told IFLScience. “This indicates that this group of fish was most likely capable of long migrations over significant distances, which facilitated their successful dispersal across the Atlantic Ocean.”
Researchers aren’t sure how diverse or numerous this group was.
“A single find like Candelarhyncus is a very lucky discovery and, in a way, serves as a 'teaser' for us. We know that these fish are there as well as many other extinct never-seen before creatures, we just need to be patient, persistent, and somewhat lucky to uncover them!” said Vernygora.
It might seem odd to find a fossil in manmade structures, but researchers say this is common in places that are rich in fossils.
During the 'mid'-Cretaceous (between 120 and 90 million years ago) the northern Andes weren't yet formed and the area was instead an interior seaway.
Flash forward a few million years to the 17th century. Stones from a nearby quarry were transported to build the monastery, one of which perfectly housed the fossil intact for millennia.
It could help scientists better understand how modern species adapt to changing climates.
“The tropics today are bursting in diversity, yet we know very little about tropical biodiversity in the past,” said study co-author Javier Luque to IFLScience. “Colombia is a good example. It is one of the most mega-diverse countries in the world, and yet only a few decades ago we have started to understand the importance of its fossil record.”
Vernygora says understanding why this group of fish went extinct, whether because of climatic conditions or competition, will come from more fossil discoveries from that region.
“Every new discovery fills an important part of the puzzle," said Luque.
The team lost contact with the boy, but said they are hoping to thank him.