How an ancient fish skull was filled with fossilized feces

It’s a dubious discrepancy in the fossil record: For the first time, a vertebrate has been found with fecal pellets where its brain used to be.

The fossil animal is Astroscopus countermani, an extinct fish first described as a separate species in 2011 in Maryland. Also known as the stargazer because of its eyes above its head, it is the earliest known member of its family and genus, which still hunts on seafloors around the world. But about 7.5 million to 10.5 million years ago during the Miocene epoch, scientists suspect this morning star specimen, which may have been about the size of today’s salmon, died and its cerebral cortex may have died out. have been infected with polychaetes or another type of worm. The creatures may have scavenged the brains of dead fish, leaving large amounts of feces when they woke up.

“This is either an overeating worm or worms that get into this small fish,” said Stephen J. Godfrey, curator of paleontology at the Calvert Museum of Oceanography in Maryland and the study’s author. !”

Although the stargazer fossil is not a new find, the authors were recently able to use innovative technology to peer inside both the cerebral cortex and the fossil pellets without destruction. In a published article in the January issue of the magazine Rivista Italiana di Paleontologia e StratigrafiaScientists describe using a spectrophotometer to confirm the calcium and phosphate signatures of coprolite – fossilized feces – in the cerebral cortex of fish.

Dr Godfrey said it was remarkable that such a small fish had survived the fossilization process. But it is equally remarkable that the tightly packed coprolites inside its cerebral cortex are also preserved. Meaning there were no other ancient scavengers whose dung pellets would mean the next lunch after those worms.

The Calvert Cliffs where the fossils were found stretch for 35 miles along the coast of Maryland. Famous for its rich and diverse fossil content, the site has so far produced fossils of 650 different ancient creatures. These include evidence of burrowing creatures in fossil remains, shark fossils with shark bites, coprolites bitten by sharks, and whale fossils suggesting they were scavenged. John Nance, co-author and curator of the paleontology collection at the Calvert Oceanographic Museum, has found numerous fossil traces at the beaches next to these cliffs, many of which have been discussed in the past. discussed in a recent paper.

But the microcoprolites described in this paper have proved particularly intriguing to study. Dr. Godfrey and his co-authors noted their uniform shape and size. Similar fecal pellets have been found much further in the fossil record, including three children’s heads more than 450 million years old.

Alberto Collareta, co-author and paleontologist at the University of Pisa, said: “We don’t know the identity of the manufacturer of these tablets, but we do know that their behavior has proved quite successful. labour.” In other words, the same type and shape of microcoprolites have been found in similar tight spaces for hundreds of millions of years.

Aline Ghilardi, a professor of paleontology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil, who was not involved in the study, said: ‘Although large fossils receive considerable attention in paleontology, , but “fossils of tiny creatures often have more to say. .

Smaller organisms and what they leave behind – burrows or body waste – can provide detailed stories of environmental changes over time, she says.

“Each type of fossil has a different story to tell, and these stories complement each other, helping us to reconstruct a more accurate picture of the past,” she said. “Paeontologists need all of these pieces to reconstruct the history of life.” How an ancient fish skull was filled with fossilized feces

Fry Electronics Team

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