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Bizarre, winged shark provides new clues about underwater flight

In a new study from CNRS, experts describe winged sharks that lived in the Gulf of Mexico 93 million years ago. The newly discovered fossil species, Aquilolamna milarcae, had long and thin pectoral fins like manta rays.

“This previously unknown body plan represents an unexpected evolutionary experimentation with underwater flight among sharks, more than 30 million years before the rise of manta and devil rays, and shows that winglike pectoral fins have evolved independently in two distantly related clades of filter-feeding elasmobranchs,” wrote the study authors.

The winged shark, nicknamed “eagle shark,” was 1.65 meters long and had a span of 1.90 meters. It had a caudal fin with a well-developed superior lobe similar to a whale shark or a tiger shark. 

The anatomical features of A. milarcae give it a mythical appearance that combines both sharks and rays.

According to a team of researchers led by Romain Vullo, A. milarcae had a large mouth with very small teeth that were missing from the skeleton, which suggests that it fed on plankton. This is only the second group of large plankton feeders that are known to have lived during the Cretaceous Period. 

The study authors noted that the “bizarre” creature probably swam very slowly and was unlikely to have been able to hunt for food. “You could make the analogy of a glider… it wasn’t at all adapted to swimming fast and following prey,” said Vullo. 

The complete specimen of a winged shark was found in 2012 in Vallecillo, Mexico – a region that is known for remarkably preserved fossils. The site is famous for its many fossils of ammonites, bony fish and other marine reptiles. Vallecillo is very useful for documenting the evolution of oceanic animals.

The study is published in the journal Science.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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