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New tunneling prehistoric fish found at Calvert Cliffs

Fossil skull (16 million years old from Calvert Cliffs) of a new species of tilefish (Malacanthidae); Lopholatilus ereborensis in left lateral view.

A new species of extinct tilefish was recently discovered at Calvert Cliffs along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. This new tilefish is named “ereborensis” after “Erebor”: the elvish name for the Lonely Mountain in J.R.R. Tolkien’s legend The Hobbit. Calvert Cliffs like the Lonely Mountain, holds a treasure trove of fossils into which the extinct fish tunneled – like the Dwarves in the Kingdom under Erebor. 

Like some of their living relatives, these prehistoric tilefish tunneled into the sea floor where they made homes in which to take refuge. As the cliffs erode, these once ocean-bottom sediments are exposed and the fossil burrows become visible exposing fossilized skeletons of some of these extinct fish.

The fossilized remains of fish along Calvert Cliffs are very rare, so when fish bones are found, they are usually alone, and not as part of a skull or skeleton. However, because these extinct tilefish were tunneling into the Miocene sea floor, and sometimes died in their burrows, their home became a coffin greatly improving the odds that their intact skeleton would become fossilized.

During the Miocene epoch, global climate was warmer on average than it is today and polar ice caps were smaller to non-existent. That extra water in the oceans flooded low-lying continental areas. At that time, much of the coastal plain was covered by the Atlantic Ocean. For millions of years, sediments eroded from the Appalachian Mountains were carried by rivers flowing into the Atlantic Ocean and laid down over the coastal plain (then the Miocene sea floor) entombing trillions of fossils in the process.

More than 600 species (most of which are extinct) have been identified as fossils from along Calvert Cliffs. These include the fossilized remains of microorganisms like diatoms, dinoflagellates, and foraminiferans, and of larger organisms like corals, mollusks, crustaceans, barnacles, echinoderms, sharks and rays, bony fishes, turtles, crocodiles, birds, seals, sea cows, dolphins and whales, and fragmentary remains of large terrestrial mammals (peccaries, rhinos, antelope, camels, horses, and gomphotheres - an extinct group of elephants).

For more information about the prehistoric tilefish, please contact Stephen Godfrey, Curator of Paleontology at 410-326-2042, ext. 28 or godfresj@co.cal.md.us. The description of this new fish was published online September 9, 2014 in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 34:5, 1018-1032 and can be found at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02724634.2014.845202.

Additional Information about the new fossil tilefish:


Scientific name of newly discovered fossil tilefish: Lopholatilus ereborensis.


Name of living family to which it belongs: Malacanthidae.


When did they live? 16 million years ago during the Miocene epoch (Calvert Formation).


Where did these fish live? Western North Atlantic Ocean.


How big were these fish? About 18 inches long.

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