Stephanie Leco Discovery: Rare Fossil Found Of 220 Million-Year-Old Long-Snouted Fish By Amateur Paleontologist

Twenty-six-year-old Stephanie Leco is a professional photographer by trade, but ever since she was a child, she’s had a fascination with digging, and has daydreamed about finding the bones of a tyrannosaurus rex in her backyard. This August, Leco was a part of the First Dig For Everyday People held in the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, and while the discovery she made while digging there may not have been a T. rex, the rare fossil she found was enough to make Stephanie Leco a celebrity among even seasoned paleontologists.

What Stephanie Leco discovered was a rare fossil from the Late Triassic period belonging to a long-snouted fish. The fossil, about the size of a pinky fingernail, is part of a jawbone from what experts believe is a fish closely related to a Saurichthys, Leco said.

“It is the jaw bone of a saurichthys, which is a beaked fish that is normally found in the early to mid-Triassic period, where as we were digging in the late Triassic period.”

The rare fossil discovered by Stephanie is thought to be roughly 220 million-years-old, and while that’s not unique in itself in terms of paleontological discoveries, what is remarkable about Leco’s discovery is that the fish the fossil belonged to was thought to have already been extinct in North America at that time, Stephanie explained.

“The only other evidence of it being in this time period was previously found in China, so this is the first time that it’s being seen in the North America for this time period.”

The area where Stephanie Leco made the rare fossil discovery is believed to have been a lake or pond in the Late Triassic Period, says Ben Kligman, a senior at the University of California, Berkley, who had been studying the area where Leco found the fossil. Though Kligman believes Leco’s fossil may be a new species of fish, he says that can’t be confirmed without without the full fossil. Kligman plans to return to the Petrified Forest next summer to search for that full fossil and hopefully determine if Leco’s discovery is, in fact, a new species.

“Although it’s probably a new species, we can’t say that it is yet because we don’t have enough specimens.”

Stephanie Leco’s rare fossil discovery has made her even more fascinated by paleontology, she says, and she has since bought books on the Triassic period so that she will be capable of properly addressing her discovery when she needs to.

[Image Credit: Associated Press]