North-western Pennsylvania Yields Up a Prehistoric Secret

Patience is one thing that geologists and palaeontologists need plenty of and when it comes to excavating and putting together one of the most ferocious marine predators known from the Palaeozoic fossil record, the patience of even the most dedicated scientist can be tried.

In a secret location in Erie County (north-western Pennsylvania, United States), Scott McKenzie, assistant professor of geology at Mercyhurst University (Erie County), is returning to a site where the fossilised dermal armour plating of a giant Placoderm is slowly eroding out of a stream bed gully.  The landowners are reluctant to permit a full excavation in the heavily wooded area so the assistant professor and his team have to wait for nature to do its job and slowly erode the fossilised pieces of dermal head shield from out of the sandy shale matrix.  For Scott, visiting the site at regular intervals to inspect the fossil bearing rock can be quite a depressing business.  Sometimes he finds no new fossil material.  With luck, he might be able to obtain enough material within a decade or so to make a presentable exhibit within the University’s Sincak Natural History Collection, where assistant professor McKenzie is the curator.

Placoderms were primitive jawed fish.  They are named Placoderms “plated skins” after the wide, flat bony plates that covered the head and the anterior portions of the body.  They share a number of anatomical features with sharks and rays, for example, they had a body skeleton made of cartilage.  Most forms were relatively small, growing to less than sixty centimetres in length, but others were giants and the Erie County specimen represents a specimen of one of the most ferocious of all marine animals known to science – Dunkleosteus.

Dunkleosteus was an enormous, prehistoric fish with an armoured head made up of several interlocking bony plates that covered up to thirty percent of this predator’s total length.  The Placoderms (armoured fish); evolved in the Silurian geological period from ancestors that had no true teeth.  Instead this group of fish developed a pair of sharp bony plates that hung from the top jaw, whilst the edges of the lower jaw were also bony and extremely sharp.  The jaws could be closed together like a pair of self-sharpening shears and were powerful enough to cut a two metre long, primitive shark in half.  Most specimens of Dunkleosteus (D. terrelli) come from Ohio, so the discovery of a specimen in Pennsylvania might lead to the establishment of a brand new species of this type of armoured fishy carnivore.

An Illustration of the Fearsome Devonian Predator Dunkleosteus

Fearsome marine predator of the Late Devonian.

Fearsome marine predator of the Late Devonian.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The strata from which the dermal armour of this fossilised fish is being eroded from has been estimated to be around 365 million years old (Late Devonian).   During this period in Earth’s History much of the eastern part of the United States was underwater, this marine environment would have been a dangerous place to visit with the likes of Dunkleosteus in the water, an apex predator of the Late Devonian.

With the spring thaw Scott and his team are hopeful that more pieces of the body armour will have been revealed.  It is very unlikely that elements of the cartilaginous skeleton will have been preserved, but with the jaws and armoured head potentially being the size of a small car, the specimen once prepared and assembled will make a fine addition to the University’s natural history collection.

An Artist’s Impression of the Late Devonian Predator Dunkleosteus

Ferocious Dunkleosteus comes in for a bite.

Ferocious Dunkleosteus comes in for a bite.

Picture Credit: Mercyhurst University

Scott commented that:

“Arguably, Dunkleosteus was the most terrifying creature during the Devonian, its huge jaws opened so fast they created a suction force that pulled prey into its mouth.  We’re restricted to surface collection, as the landowners do not want a significant excavation on their land and digging could actually damage the missing pieces”

Although, the Erie County specimen is not as big as some of the fossils of Dunkleosteus found in Ohio, it is no tiddler.  The geologist calculates that the fossils represent an individual between five and eight metres in length and it probably weighed more than 1,000 kilogrammes.  He remains unsure whether this fossil material represents a specimen of D. terrelli or a new species.   This does represent the largest fish of its kind found in the Erie County area and an animal that could have given the legendary beast of Lake Erie, affectionately known as “Bessie” by locals a run for its money.

A Close up of the Huge Jaws of a Dunkleosteus

Fish with a powerful bite.

Fish with a powerful bite.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture above shows a close up a Dunkleosteus, with its dermal armour and huge jaws.  Safari Ltd have produced a superb model of a Dunkleosteus, it is part of the company’s Wild Safari Dinos and Prehistoric Life model collection.  Measuring a little under 19 centimetres in length the beautifully painted model is in approximately 1:50 scale.

The assistant professor and his team, kindly put on display at the University a number of pieces of the fossil specimen that they had already found, the bony plates although fragmented are an exciting discovery and the team are eager to see what the winter weather has managed to erode out of the matrix so that they can add to their collection.  At the moment the disarticulated and disassociated fossil pieces represent a 365 million year old jigsaw puzzle.

A true inspiration to students and other scientists, the dedication of Scott and his team as they try to piece together the county’s very own prehistoric monster is to be admired.  Fingers crossed for them, let’s hope that the wintry weather and the spring thaw provides them with yet more fossils for them to study as they continue their quest to prepare and mount their very own Dunkleosteus museum exhibit.

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