Giant ancient fish that likely preyed on humans' ancestors unearthed in South Africa

Researchers in South Africa have discovered fossils dating back 360 million years that belonged to a ferocious fish species that preyed on our ancestors.

A new study reveals that a massive fish with lethal fangs fished river waters on the ancient southern supercontinent Gondwana some 350 million years ago, long before dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Its predatory nature led researchers to name it Hyneria udlezinye, or the "one who consumes others," in IsiXhosa, a widely used Indigenous language in the region of South Africa where the bones were discovered. This fish, measuring up to 9 feet (2.7 meters) long, is the largest bony fish on record from the Late Devonian (383 million to 359 million years ago).

Imagine a large predatory fish with a face similar to the front end of a torpedo, but easily exceeding 2 meters (6.5 feet) in length, according to research co-author Per Ahlberg, a professor in the Department of Organismal Biology at Uppsala University in Sweden. In addition to a row of little teeth, the mouth also included a pair of massive fangs that may likely measure up to 5 centimeters (2 inches) in length in the biggest individuals.

In an excavation site named Waterloo Farm near Makhanda (formerly known as Grahamstown), South Africa, researchers found the first hints of the ancient fish's existence in 1995. They found a collection of solitary fossilized scales. Finally, the researchers have assembled the skeleton of the newly discovered species of enormous tristichopterid, a kind of ancient bony fish, in a report that was published Wednesday (Feb. 22) in the journal PLOS One.

According to study co-author Robert Gess, a paleontologist and research associate at the Albany Museum and Rhodes University in South Africa, "it's been a lengthy process ever since then, assembling the answer to where these scales originated from."

H. udlezinye was an avid predator, as shown by the skeleton. "The body's rear is where the fins are mostly located. An ecological trait of a predator that lies in wait is its ability to suddenly spring into activity. Hyneria would have waited for passing objects while hiding in the shadows "says Gess. It's the one who ate the others.

The colossal fish apparently preyed on tetrapods, the ancestors of humans and other four-legged animals. According to Ahlberg, "the tristichopterids developed into monsters that most likely devoured [our ancestors]".

An excavation site in Pennsylvania, which at the time of the Late Devonian was a component of the supercontinent Euramerica, was where previous study discovered another species of the same genus, H. lindae.

The first proof that Hyneria existed in Gondwana comes from the fossils found at Waterloo Farm. The latest research also shows that huge tristichopterids existed across Gondwana, even in the polar circle and not simply in its tropical parts.

The majority of tristichopterid fossils discovered to date have been discovered in Australia, which distorts our understanding of where these creatures were located. Little study has been done on other Gondwanan areas, such as Africa and South America.

There was a belief that these enormous tristichopterids evolved in what is now Australia — along the tropical coast of Gondwana — since Australia was in the tropics and because all the well-sampled sites from this time period and from Gondwana happen to be in Australia, according to Gess.

The remnants of a massive tristichopterid have now been discovered for the first time in what would have been a polar zone at the time. The only example we have from the arctic areas is this guild of enormous predatory fish, according to Ahlberg.

About 359 million years ago, near the conclusion of the Devonian, a major extinction of tristichopterids occurred. Researchers believe that a shared ancestor with our ancestral lineage occurred earlier in the Devonian, although they have no direct offspring now. Late Devonian tristichopterids, according to Ahlberg, are more closely related to us than our immediate predecessors.