Science

Jurassic-Era Piranha Was Among The First To Feast On Meat

Jurassic-Era Piranha
Image Credit: The Jura-Museum, Eischstatt, Germany

Scientists have discovered a 150-million-year old piranha-like fish. The Jurassic-era piranha was easily capable of ripping the flesh off the bones of its prey, according to a new study.

The Jurassic-era piranha is also known as Piranhamesdon pinnatomus. During the late Jurassic period when this piranha was alive, sharks and turtles were feasting on undersea creatures while dinosaurs lived on the land. Scientists believed fish during that period only ate plankton in the water and crushed shells to swallow their prey whole. However, the presence of teeth on fish stunned researchers.

“The dentition pattern, tooth shape, jaw morphology, and mechanics are all indicative of a feeding apparatus suitable for slicing flesh or fins, thus pioneering a new ecological niche,” the group of researchers wrote in their study, which was published in the journal Cell Biology. “Evidence suggests that it may have exploited aggressive mimicry in a striking parallel to the feeding patterns of modern piranha. Remarkably, fossil fishes recovered from the same deposits as the new pycnodontiform show injuries to fins and fin bases. As a marine piranha-like fish contemporary with dinosaurs, it is the oldest known flesh-eating actinopterygian, revealing remarkable convergent evolution with modern piranhas.”

The Jurassic-era piranha was discovered in limestone in the quarry of Ettling in Germany’s Solnhofen region.

The authors of the study, Dr. Martina Kölbl-Ebert and James Cook University professor David Bellwood, were “stunned” with the findings of their study, which they compared to finding a “sheep with a snarl like a wolf.” The team used CT scans to see details of the fossilized fish and learn some of its characteristics, like bite force. They then compared their discoveries to the characteristics of a modern piranha.

“But what was even more remarkable is that it was from the Jurassic,” Dr. Kölbl-Ebert said in a statement. “Fish as we know them, bony fishes, just did not bite flesh of other fishes at that time. Sharks have been able to bite out chunks of flesh but throughout history bony fishes have either fed on invertebrates or largely swallowed their prey whole. Biting chunks of flesh or fins was something that came much later.”

What amazed Bellwood is that the Jurassic-era piranha shares a lot of similarities with modern-day piranhas, which don’t eat living flesh, as people commonly think and represent in movies. Instead, they eat the fins of other fish.

“This is an amazing parallel with modern piranhas, which feed predominantly not on flesh but the fins of other fishes,” Bellwood added in the statement. “It’s a remarkably smart move as fins regrow, a neat renewable resource. Feed on a fish and it is dead; nibble its fins and you have food for the future.”

Occasionally, piranhas will eat smaller mammals, but never while they are still alive. P. pinnatomus is not related to the modern-day freshwater piranha, but similarities like the long, pointed teeth and strong jaws suggest the “staggering example of evolutionary versatility and opportunism” that was active in the seas millions of years ago.

“The new finding represents the earliest record of a bony fish that bit bits off other fishes, and what’s more it was doing it in the sea,” Bellwood said. “So when dinosaurs were walking the earth and small dinosaurs were trying to fly with the pterosaurs, fish were swimming around their feet tearing the fins or flesh off each other.”