Wildlife & Biodiversity

Palaeontologist discovers ancient, enormous Caelocanth species by accident

It grew to be as big as a great white shark

By DTE Staff
Published: Tuesday 16 February 2021
An ancient, enormous Caelocanth has been discovered by accident

Palaeontologists from University of Portsmouth claimed they have discovered fossils of coelacanth, a giant fish that have been even around before the dinosaurs.
They pegged the fossil to be 66 million years old — putting it in the Cretaceous era. Coelacanths, which can grow as big as white sharks, were thought to be extinct. 
David Martill, a palaeontologist from the University’s School of the Environment, Geography and Geosciences, was invited by a private collector in London to identify a large bone.

But there was something unique about the bone. It was composed of many thin bone plates rather than being a single structure.

He said:

“The thin bony plates were arranged like a barrel, but with the staves going round instead of from top to bottom. Only one animal has such a structure and that is the coelacanth. We had found a bony lung of this remarkable and bizarre looking fish.”

The collector, who had bought the specimen thinking it belonged to the skull of a pterodactyl, was disappointed. “But my colleagues and I were thrilled as no coelacanth has ever been found in the phosphate deposits of Morocco, and this example was absolutely massive!”

Brazillian palaeontologist Paulo Brito, who has studied coelacanths for more than 20 years and is an expert on their lungs, was also astonished at the size of the new specimen. The size of its lungs indicated that the fish could have been five metres long, much larger than the 2m-long coelacanths that still swim the seas.

The fossil had been embedded in a block of phosphate, backed with plaster and covered in a coating of lacquer, which had caused the bones to turn brown. It was found next to a pterodactyl, which helped in determining the fossil's age.

He said:

“We only had a single, albeit massive lung. So our conclusions required some quite complex calculations. It was astonishing to deduce that this particular fish was enormous — quite a bit longer than the length of a stand-up paddleboard and likely the largest coelacanth ever discovered.”

Coelacanths first evolved 400 million years ago — 200 million years before the first dinosaurs. It had long been believed to be extinct, but in 1938, a living coelacanth was found off South Africa.

The fossil is now being returned to Morocco where it will be added to the collections in the Department of Geology at Hassan II University of Casablanca.

The research was published in Cretaceous Research.

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