News / Edmonton

'Absolutely new species:' PhD candidates discover 90-million-year-old fish

Two University of Alberta students considered themselves lucky to have been able to study the only discovered fossil of an extinct species of fish.

Two PhD students at the U of A, Oksana Vernygora (left) and Javier Luque hold a mold replica of the fossil fish they discovered in Columbia.

Kevin Tuong / For Metro

Two PhD students at the U of A, Oksana Vernygora (left) and Javier Luque hold a mold replica of the fossil fish they discovered in Columbia.

Two Edmonton PhD students have identified a completely unique fish species in Colombia that is more than 90-million years old.

In 2016, Javier Luque, a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, received a call from a Colombian museum about a fish fossil they did not seem to recognize.

He recruited Oksana Vernygora, another U of A PhD candidate, and last year they made the trek to Colombia to see which family the fish belonged to.

“(It) appeared to be an absolutely new species and genus,” said Vernygora, whose background is in fish palaeontology.

“It's very rare that we find those kind of fish and that whole lineage of this is now extinct, so we have no close relatives of this fish," Vernygora said.

The original discovery was made by a 10-year-old Colombian boy who mistook the fish bones for a lizard and took a picture to show the local museum, which also happens to be a centre for palaeontological research.

When Luque and Vernygora first arrived it took some effort to actually describe and recognize exactly what it was.

From that fossil, they found that the fish had outlived the dinosaurs but died approximately 50 million years ago.

An illustration of the specimen identified by two University of Alberta students as a unique fish more than 90-million years old. There are no recent relatives of the fish on Earth.

Supplied / Oksana Vernygora

An illustration of the specimen identified by two University of Alberta students as a unique fish more than 90-million years old. There are no recent relatives of the fish on Earth.

Vernygora said barracuda and lizardfish were the only distantly-related fish they could find for this 30 to 40 cm long species. Although, unlike the two, it had a completely unique elongated facial feature that resembled a needlefish despite having no connection to it whatsoever.

Vernygora says they consider themselves fortunate to have discovered that particular fossil.

“To find fish that is still articulated, that still has bones that are still together, so that we can see the shape of the fish, that’s very rare,” she said.

“Particularly from that part of the world, that country and that time period because those fish as I mentioned, they live in open water and it’s very rare that we find articulated deepwater species of fish.”

Luque agrees saying since they only have that one specimen, a preserved fossil was important to be able to study the species.

“We don’t have two or three more individuals specimens of the same species,” he said. “It’s very important that it was compared with many other relatives at the time to be able to say, 'Hey this is completely different and unique and is telling us a nice story of what was going in the mid-crustaceans, more than 90 million years ago'.”

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