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First known flesh-eating fish lived alongside the dinosaurs

The remains of a 150-million-year-old fish recovered from limestone deposits in South Germany have been identified as the earliest known species of flesh-eating fish, according to a new study. The previously unknown species was a bony fish that lived in the time of dinosaurs and had teeth like a piranha.

Embedded in the limestone quarry where the new species was found, other fish remains were recovered that had been the apparent victims of the piranha-like predator.

“We have other fish from the same locality with chunks missing from their fins,” said study co-author Professor David Bellwood of James Cook University. “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.”

Image Credit: M. Ebert and T. Nohl

A detailed analysis of the specimen’s well-preserved jaws revealed that long, pointed teeth had extended from the roof of the fish’s mouth and also from the front of the upper and lower jaws. Along the side of the lower jaw, the fish also had sharp, serrated teeth in a triangular shape.

According to the researchers, the tooth pattern and shape, jaw morphology, and mechanics suggest a mouth equipped to slice flesh or fins.

“We were stunned that this fish had piranha-like teeth,” said study co-author Martina Kölbl-Ebert. “It comes from a group of fishes (the pycnodontids) that are famous for their crushing teeth. It is like finding a sheep with a snarl like a wolf.”

“But what was even more remarkable is that it was from the Jurassic. Fish as we know them, bony fishes, just did not bite flesh of other fishes at that time. Sharks have been able to bite out chunks of flesh but throughout history bony fishes have either fed on invertebrates or largely swallowed their prey whole. Biting chunks of flesh or fins was something that came much later.”

Professor Bellwood said that the study represents the earliest record of a bony fish that bit chunks off of other fishes, and he pointed out the significance of finding this behavior in the ocean, considering that piranhas live in freshwater today.

“So 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 Professor Bellwood.

The researchers referred to their discovery as a “staggering example of evolutionary versatility and opportunism.” The experts will continue to search for more fascinating details contained in fossils from the limestone deposits of South Germany.

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: The Jura-Museum, Eischstatt, Germany

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