A young boy with a passion for paleontology has helped researchers at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Canada, discover a new species of ancient fish never before seen in South America. The boy was visiting a Colombian monastery when he stumbled upon “a nearly perfect, intact” fish fossil embedded in the flagstones outside the establishment.
The surprising discovery occurred in 2015 at the Monastery of La Candelaria, near the Colombian town of Raquira Boyaca, shows a news release issued by the university.
According to a Facebook post by the Centro de Investigaciones Paleontologicas (CIP) Villa de Leyva, the boy credited for this unexpected find is Rio Santiago Dolmetsch — who was only 10-years-old when he came across the rare fish fossil.
At the time, Dolmetsch was taking part in a tour of the monastery, “when he noticed the shape of a fish in a flagstone on the ground,” notes Javier Luque, a Ph.D. candidate at the university and co-author of a study detailing the finding.
“It was a fossil fish, perfectly preserved in two dimensions, just laying down, weathering as people were walking on top of it for so many years,” he said in a statement.
Luque also commented on the fortuitous nature of the find, which he described as “a once-in-a-lifetime discovery.”
“This fossil was one of those serendipitous, unexpected findings.”
The fish fossil recovered in Colombia dates back roughly 90 million years to the Cretaceous period and belongs to an ancient species of “lizard fish,” with a slender, needle-like face.
The study, published last year in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, describes the long-jawed fossil as “a new dercetid fish from the Turonian of Colombia,” revealing that the specimen found by Dolmetsch looks nothing like other dercetid species (a genus of prehistoric ray-finned fish).
The newly discovered species has been dubbed Candelarhynchus padillai, a moniker which combines the name of the monastery where the fossil was found (“Candelaria”) with the Greek word for nose (“rhynchos”), CBC News reports. The latter was included in the species’ official designation due to the fossil’s peculiarly long face.
The researchers believe Candelarhynchus padillai was a deepwater fish, which most likely thrived in fast-flowing waters. Yet, unlike other species of dercetid fish, the Colombian “lizard fish” boasts a series of unique physical traits that set it apart in the fossil record.
Perhaps the most striking one of all is the absence of dermal bony plates on either side of the body, which would have been a common occurrence in ray-finned fish.
Among the unusual features of the newfound “lizard fish,” the study authors also list the “relatively large pectoral fins positioned high on the body,” as well as the fossil’s “single row of small conical teeth.”
The peculiar Candelarhynchus padillai has no modern relatives, the news release notes, and was identified after Dolmetsch sent a photo of the perfectly preserved fish fossil to the CIP, which later shared the discovery with the university.
The most significant aspect of this find is that the “lizard fish” recovered in Colombia is the first Cretaceous fossil to ever emerge from this region.
“It is rare to find such a complete fossil of a fish from this moment in the Cretaceous period. Deepwater fish are difficult to recover, as well as those from environments with fast flowing waters,” said study lead author Oksana Vernygora, a Ph.D. student at the university’s Department of Biological Sciences.
“But what surprises me the most is that, after 15 years of being on a walkway, it was still intact. It’s amazing,” she added.