200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 193: “Prehistoric Predators ”

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Jason Downs and Ted Daeschler pose behind the fossil Laccagnathus
Jason Downs (left) and Ted Daeschler pose behind the fossil specimen of Laccagnathus.

Prehistoric Predators

Aquatic animals cruising the waterways of prehistoric North America would not have wanted to encounter the latest ancient fish find published by Academy Research Associate Dr. Jason Downs, Academy Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology Dr. Ted Daeschler, and their colleagues. Named Laccognathus embryi after Canadian geologist Dr. Ashton Embry, the 375-million-year-old fish likely grew to about 5 or 6 feet long and sported robust jaws lined with large piercing teeth. When Laccognathus’ large jaws and small eyes are coupled with a head that is wider than it is long, the creature’s face appears to be virtually all mouth!

Laccognathus was a large, bottom-dwelling, sit-and-wait predator,” explains Daeschler. It lived in the Late Devonian ecosystem where the first limbed animals were evolving, and its fossils were found at the same site as those of the famous Tiktaalik roseae on Canada’s remote Ellesmere Island. In fact, Laccognathus is the most common animal fossil at the site and was what first sparked the researchers’ interest in the location. Like Tiktaalik, Laccognathus (whose name means “pitted jaw”) was a lobe-finned fish, but it filled a different ecological niche and is not as closely related to four-limbed land vertebrates as Tiktaalik is.

The Ellesmere Laccognathus find also reveals important information about ancient geography. Before the discovery, other species in the Laccognathus genus were only known from Eastern European sites in Latvia and Russia. The discovery of Laccognathus embryi in North America not only extends the geographic range of Laccognathus but also confirms that North America and Europe were part of the same large landmass during the Devonian.

Intrigued by the ancient discoveries from Ellesmere Island and the Academy’s paleontological research? Learn more about the Arctic expeditions behind Tiktaalik and Laccognathus.

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