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Giant prehistoric salmon had tusk-like teeth for defence, building nests: study

A spike-tooth salmon fossil is shown on display at the University of Oregon in this handout image. About five million years ago, the largest salmon known to have lived migrated through the coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest, and a new paper uses revelations from fossil discoveries to reimagine and rename the great fish.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-University of Oregon *MANDATORY CREDIT

The artwork and publicity materials showcasing a giant salmon that lived five million years ago were ready to go to promote a new exhibit, when the discovery of two fossilized skulls immediately changed what researchers knew about the fish.

Initial fossil discoveries of the 2.7-metre-long salmon in Oregon in the 1970s were incomplete and had led researchers to mistakenly suggest the fish had fang-like teeth.

It was dubbed the "sabre-toothed salmon" and became a kind of mascot for the Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon, says researcher Edward Davis.

But then came discovery of two skulls in 2014.

Davis, a member of the team that found the skulls, says it wasn't until they got back to the lab that he realized the significance of the discovery that has led to the renaming of the fish in a new, peer-reviewed study.

"There were these two skulls staring at me with sideways teeth," says Davis, an associate professor in the department of earth sciences at the university.

In that position, the tusk-like teeth could not have been used for biting, he says.

"That was definitely a surprising moment," says Davis, who serves as director of the Condon Fossil Collection at the university's Museum of Natural and Cultural History.

"I realized that all of the artwork and all of the publicity materials and bumper stickers and buttons and T-shirts we had just made two months prior, for the new exhibit, were all out of date," he says with a laugh.

Davis is co-author of the new study in the journal PLOS One, which renames the giant fish the "spike-toothed salmon."

It says the salmon used the tusk-like spikes for building nests to spawn, and as defence mechanisms against predators and other salmon.

The salmon lived about five million years ago at a time when Earth was transitioning from warmer to relatively cooler conditions, Davis says.

It's hard to know exactly why the relatives of today's sockeye went extinct, but Davis says the cooler conditions would have affected the productivity of the Pacific Ocean and the amount of rain feeding rivers that served as their spawning areas.

Another co-author, Brian Sidlauskas, says a fish the size of the spike-toothed salmon must have been targeted by predators such as killer whales or sharks.

"I like to think … it's almost like a sledgehammer, these salmon swinging their head back and forth in order to fend off things that might want to feast on them," he says.

Sidlauskas says analysis by the lead author of the paper, Kerin Claeson, found both male and female salmon had the "multi-functional" spike-tooth feature.

"That's part of our reason for hypothesizing that this tooth is multi-functional … It could easily be for digging out nests," he says.

"Think about how big the (nest) would have to be for an animal of this size, and then carving it out in what's probably pretty shallow water; and so having an extra digging tool attached to your head could be really useful."

Sidlauskas says the giant salmon help researchers understand the boundaries of what's possible with the evolution of salmon, but they also capture the human imagination and a sense of wonder about what's possible on Earth.

"I think it helps us value a little more what we do still have, or I hope that it does. That animal is no longer with us, but it is a product of the same biosphere that sustains us."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 24, 2024.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2024
The Canadian Press

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