In the Pacific, Scientists Discover a Living Fossil
Two years ago, in the ocean off the coast of Palau, scientist Jiro Sakaue was scuba diving when he entered a cave. Near the ground, he saw a strange creature that looked unlike any he’d ever seen before. He collected the animal and took it back to the lab, sharing it with Hitoshi Ida, another researcher. The two were confused—it looked like an eel, but it had several features they’d never seen before. After a lengthy analysis, during which they worked with Smithsonian icythologist Dave Johnson and others, the team released their findings yesterday. The eel is the only known member of an entirely new genus and species: Protoanguilla palau, shown in this video.
In the article, the team calls its find a “living fossil” because the eel most closely resembles fossil specimens rather than any living eels. It also displays some ancient characteristics that aren’t present even in eel fossils. “There are features that make it primitive with respect to all living eels, and a couple of things that make it primitive with respect to all eels including the Cretaceous forms, which go back a hundred million years,” says Johnson, who was the lead author of the paper.
P. palau has fewer vertebrae than typical eels and an upper jaw bone that is usually only found in other types of fish, among other features. At first, the team was unsure if the creature was truly an eel, but analysis of both the bodies and the DNA makeup of the ten specimens collected confirmed they were. Because it’s most similar to eels living way back in the early Mesozoic, roughly two hundred million years ago, P. palau has a distinct evolutionary lineage, and thus its own family too, Protoanguillidae.