Brindabellaspis: Remarkable Fossil of Strange Platypus-Like Armored Fish Discovered

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

An artist’s impression of Brindabellaspis, a prehistoric Australian platypus-like fish. Photograph: Flinders University/AAP

Paleontologists have discovered the remarkable fossil of a bizarre armored fish with a long, paddle-like beak resembling that of a platypus.

The strange creature, named Brindabellaspis, belonged to an extinct group of animals called placoderms—primitive-jawed fishes who  existed throughout the Devonian Period (around 416 to 359 million years ago).

The first Brindabellaspis specimen was found in 1980 in limestone near Lake Burrinjuck, southeastern Australia—a region that was once home to an ancient reef and contains some of the earliest known examples of reef fish. However, the fossil was missing its snout area.

But newly discovered specimens have shown that the fish had a long bill extending out in front of its eyes, according to researchers from Flinders University and the Australia National University (ANU). Their findings have been reported in a study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

“This was one strange-looking fish,” Benedict King, lead author of the study and a Flinders University graduate now based at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, Netherlands, said in a statement.

“The eyes were on top of the head, and the nostrils came out of the eye sockets. There was this long snout at the front, and the jaws were positioned very far forward.”

The researchers found that the fish had a unique sensory system on its snout, which would have helped it to search for prey on the sea floor, while the eyes at the top of its head kept watch for predators.

The site at Lake Burrinjuck is particularly rich in fossils, many of which are shining a light on animal evolution. Recent discoveries here have helped researchers to better understand electroreception (a specialized sense that allows aquatic animals to detect electrical currents) and the evolution of jaws, among other insights.

“This is a fossil site that just keeps giving,” Gavin Young from ANU, who found the first Brindabellaspis specimen, said in the statement. “There are over 70 species of fish known from this ancient coral reef ecosystem, and this finding shows they came in all shapes and sizes. Clearly this ancient reef was a thriving hotspot for evolution, as are the coral reefs of more recent times”.

According to the researchers, the fish that lived in this ancient ecosystem were by no means primitive and were highly specialized to their environment.