Early Devonian Fish Had Platypus-Like Snout

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Brindabellaspis stensioi, a remarkable placoderm fish that swam about 400 million years ago (Early Devonian period), had a long snout, reminiscent of a platypus bill, according to new research published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Life reconstruction of Brindabellaspis stensioi. Image credit: Jason Art, Shenzhen.

Life reconstruction of Brindabellaspis stensioi. Image credit: Jason Art, Shenzhen.

Brindabellaspis stensioi was first found in 1980 in limestone around Lake Burrinjuck in New South Wales, Australia, an area containing some of the world’s earliest known reef fish fauna.

“This was one strange looking fish,” said lead author Dr. Benedict King, a researcher at the Naturalis Biodiversity Centre and Flinders University, who, with colleagues, reconstructed two new specimens of Brindabellaspis stensioi.

“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.”

Brindabellaspis stensioi had another surprise: a unique sensory system on the snout which turned out to be a modified form of the pressure sensor system found in other fish.

“We suspect that this animal was a bottom-dweller. We imagine it used the bill to search for prey, somewhat like a platypus, while the eyes on top of the head looked out for danger from above,” said Flinders University’s Professor John Long, co-author of the study.

“When we saw the dense sensory tubes on another broken snout, we immediately thought of the local platypus. I am very gratified there is finally an accurate reconstruction of this strange skull,” said co-author Dr. Gavin Young, from the Research School of Physics and Engineering at Australian National University.

Brindabellaspis stensioi. Image credit: King et al, doi: 10.1098/rsos.180094.

Brindabellaspis stensioi. Image credit: King et al, doi: 10.1098/rsos.180094.

“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,” he added.

“Clearly this ancient reef was a thriving hotspot for evolution, as are the coral reefs of more recent times.”

“The fossil re-examination filled in the gaps, but not in a way anyone expected. Despite this being one of the earliest well-known ecosystems including many species of fish, the inhabitants of this ancient reef were clearly not in any way primitive,” Professor Long said.

“The new findings show that they were highly adapted and specialized in their own right.”

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Benedict King et al. 2018. New information on Brindabellaspis stensioi Young, 1980, highlights morphological disparity in Early Devonian placoderms. R. Soc. open sci 5: 180094; doi: 10.1098/rsos.180094