University reveals fossilized fish skull at Paleontology Museum

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A fossil from the oceans of the Paleozoic era has been unveiled at the University of Alberta's Paleontology Museum, shedding light on an ancient fossil fang found in southern Alberta nearly a century ago.
The new addition is a cast of the skull of the Dunkleosteus — a six-metre-long armoured fish that lived 360 million years ago, originally found in Exshaw, an hour west of Calgary. Dunkleosteus ruled the seas as a beast of the class Placodermi, a group of armoured fish that died out at the end of the Devonian period. They were the largest fish that ever lived, at an estimated 10 metres long, and they may have even grown beyond that size by eating relatives of squids and octopi.

"The Dunkleosteus is really the iconic bad predator of the Paleozoic. Lots of kids know what it is, so to have it in our museum is kind of nice because it is extremely well known, and makes a big impression on the visitors. They may come initially to see dinosaurs and find out there's some other big things," said Mark Wilson, a University of Alberta paleontologist.

Wilson also said that the skull cast helps to illustrate the scale of the ancient fang already housed at the U of A's museum, which he believes came from an even larger fish — possibly the largest predator that existed before the time of the dinosaurs.

The ancient fang, from the genus Gorgonichthys, was collected by the university's first professor of geology, John A. Allan, and described in an article by another iconic local geologist, P.S. Warren.

Although other, more complete examples of the fish have been found in Ohio, none are as large as the specimen recovered in Alberta.

The Dunkleosteus skull allowed researchers in Cleveland to determine that it had the strongest bite force of any fish, ancient or modern. While the U of A's fang is larger, Wilson is unsure whether it would have had a more powerful bite.

"We have done some research with the fang, trying to estimate the size of the fish, and trying to decide what we would need to know in order to estimate its bite force. The preliminary results were that it didn't necessarily have a bigger bite force than the Dunkleosteus."

The Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science's Paleontology Museum is located in the basement of EAS, and is open Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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