Researchers have identified a new species of piranha-like fish that lived in the sea about 150 million years ago during the time of the dinosaurs.
The bony fish, described in the journal Current Biology, had teeth like a piranha, which the researchers suggest they used to bite off chunks of flesh from other fish.
The victims were other fish that had apparently been nibbled on in the same limestone deposits in South Germany where the fish was found, researchers said.
“We have other fish from the same locality with chunks missing from their fins,” said David Bellwood of James Cook University in Australia.
“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,” Bellwood said.
The newly described fish is part of the world famous collections in the Jura-Museum in Germany. It comes from the same limestone deposits that contained Archaeopteryx.
Careful study of the fossilized specimen’s well-preserved jaws revealed long, pointed teeth on the exterior of the vomer, a bone forming the roof of the mouth, and at the front of both upper and lower jaws, researchers said.
There are triangular teeth with serrated cutting edges on the prearticular bones that lie along the side of the lower jaw.
The tooth pattern and shape, jaw morphology, and mechanics suggest a mouth equipped to slice flesh or fins, the researchers said.
The evidence points to the possibility that the early piranha-like fish may have exploited aggressive mimicry in a striking parallel to the feeding patterns of modern piranha.
“We were stunned that this fish had piranha-like teeth. It comes from a group of fishes that are famous for their crushing teeth,” said Martina Kolbl-Ebert of Jura Museum.
“It is remarkable that the fish is from the Jurassic. Fish as we know them, bony fishes, just did not bite flesh of other fishes at that time, researchers said.
“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,” Kolbl-Ebert said.
“The new finding represents the earliest record of a bony fish that bit bits off other fishes, and what’s more it was doing it in the sea,” Bellwood said, noting that today’s piranhas all live in freshwater.
“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,” he said.