If Jurassic Park had an aquarium, we know what would be in it. Scientists have just uncovered the remains of a 150-million-year-old flesh-eating fish that swam through the oceans wreaking havoc while dinosaurs walked on land.
The fossil has sharp teeth like those of a piranha, perfect for ripping up the flesh of unfortunate victims. According to the researchers, who describe the find in the journal Current Biology, this is the earliest ever example of a flesh-eating bony fish.
You might be thinking, what about ancient sharks? While sharks have existed for about 450 million years and certainly boast impressive choppers, they are a different type of fish from the new find. The new fossil is that of a bony fish, one that has a bone skeleton, just like we do. Sharks, along with rays and skates, don’t have bones, they have a skeleton made out of cartilage instead. The new discovery is the earliest example of a flesh-eating bony fish.
The fish’s teeth are long, sharp, and protrude from its upper and lower jaws as well as the roof of its mouth. It also has some serrated teeth placed around the sides of its lower jaw.
But it wasn’t just the fossil’s gnashers that led the team to conclude the fish was a savage marine carnivore – they found the remains of some of its victims too. The fossil was discovered in a limestone deposit in a quarry in South Germany, and the fossils of other fish in the same location have clearly been nibbled on. This is the exact same limestone deposit in which the famous Archeopteryx fossil – which marks the transition between dinosaurs and modern birds – was found.
"We have other fish from the same locality with chunks missing from their fins," said David Bellwood of James Cook University, Australia, in a statement. "This is an amazing parallel with modern piranhas, which feed predominantly not on flesh but the fins of other fishes. It's a remarkably smart move as fins regrow, a neat renewable resource. Feed on a fish and it is dead; nibble its fins and you have food for the future.”
While the Jurassic fish certainly fed like a piranha, one striking difference is that it lived in the sea. The piranhas of today all live in freshwater rivers and basins in South America. However, piranhas have popped up elsewhere – not content with a simple goldfish, some people like to keep the creatures as pets, and have released them when they’ve gotten a bit big. This is illegal and can damage the local environment – if you are a piranha mom or dad, please don’t do this.
The fossil is an incredible find. "When dinosaurs were walking the Earth and small dinosaurs were trying to fly with the pterosaurs, fish were swimming around their feet tearing the fins or flesh off each other," said Bellwood.