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Fishing through years of fossils reveals extinct 12-foot predator | The Triangle

Fishing through years of fossils reveals extinct 12-foot predator

Photograph courtesy of ABelov2014 at Wikimedia

After 25 years of fossil collecting, vice president for Systematic Biology at the Academy of Natural Sciences and associate professor in Drexel University’s Department of Biodiversity, Earth & Environmental Science, Ted Daeschler and his team of researchers have assembled the clearest picture yet of an ancient 12-foot predator fish, the Hyneria lindae.

First discovered in 1968, there were not enough fossils to understand the anatomy of the fish, but over the years, committed volunteers, paleontologists and students have dug up more and better-quality fossils at the Red Hill site in Northern Pennsylvania, leading to new findings and a more complete picture of what the Hyneria lindae looked like.

The Hyneria lindae, a 365-million-year- old Devonian-age fish belongs to a species of freshwater lobe finned fishes and belongs to the same group in the evolutionary tree as humans. With a blunt wide snout, small eyes and bristling fangs bigger than most great white sharks, the apex predator hunted its prey using a sensory system that allowed it to feel pressure waves around it.

“Hyneria lindae was probably as big as some of the really big freshwater fishes today, probably 8 to 10 feet tall, as an adult. They were the largest predators, with big teeth belonging to predatory fish,” Daeschler said.

However, their traits led them to extinction, according to Daeschler.

“They were a little slow, and old-fashioned and thus couldn’t compete,” he said.

Though the Hyneria lindae is not a direct ancestor of limbed animals, species of limbed animals are closely related to the Hyneria lindae. However, if it were compared to modern fish, one would probably look to some very large freshwater fish  such as a pike, Daeschler said.

Researchers now have a better understanding of the context of where they lived, when they lived and how they diversified, allowing us to learn about the sort of environment the fish lived in.

“It’s been a study about the anatomy of the animal, but also the ecosystem it lived in, how it made a living and how the animals around it made their living,” Daeschler said.

The search for the Hyneria lindae first started 30 years ago when Daeschler was pursuing his doctorate degree and exploring Devonian deposits. During his research he came across the Red Hill site, where paleontologists have been collecting some of the best fossils over the years.

Daeschler explained how the process of finding fossils can be very time-consuming.

The first step is to locate productive layers; not every layer has fossil materials. This step is followed by excavation, and the rock is then brought back to the lab for fossil preparation, during which the rocks are removed and the bones are exposed. It is then curated, labelled and entered into a database so that the information can be accessible to others. Finally, the samples are imaged and compared to other species to understand its anatomy.

“The first step can sometimes be daunting, disappointing, tiring and long but there’s a real tangible reward in the findings,” Daeschler said.

Daeschler and his team will now be focusing on publishing more of their findings from Pennsylvania, North Canada and Antarctica.