A group of scientists have identified a new species of invertebrate from a rare fossil found in Miguasha Provincial Park in Gaspé. The species is a ctenophore, or comb jelly, a soft-bodied fish that resembles a jellyfish.
“It’s a very interesting fossil, and it reveals a lot of information about the evolution of life,” said Richard Cloutier, paleontologist and one of the main researchers. “It’s very, very rare that we have this kind of fossil,” he added.
This discovery is important because it confirms that comb jellies were among the first multicellular animals, giving clues to the origin of complex life forms on the planet, explained the paleontologist who works at the University of Quebec at Rimouski.
He said this supported the theory that animals evolved from sponges or comb jellies, as it confirms that the species existed hundreds of millions of years ago, when life forms were at their peak.
The six-centimeter fossil was first discovered in 2017 at Miguasha, a site well known for its abundance of prehistoric fish fossils. But the specimen is 375 million years old, at a time called the Upper Devonian.
A very rare specimen
What makes this specimen unique is that the fish was preserved despite the absence of bones, teeth or cartilage, Cloutier said.
“Normally what we find in the fossil are all the hard parts,” Cloutier explained. “Usually when it’s a soft-bodied animal, there is nothing that can be preserved.”
Hans Larsson, professor of paleontology at McGill University’s Redpath Museum who was not involved in the research, confirmed that the fossil’s discovery was exceptional: “Imagine keeping a jellyfish for hundreds of millions of years in a rock. . It’s almost impossible to even imagine the chances of finding this, ”he said.
In fact, he said, the odds are so slim they can be counted on someone’s fingers.
Miguasha Park Collection Manager Johanne Kerr said she was very intrigued when the fossil appeared on her desk because it looked very different from anything she had seen before.
So, she decided to contact Cloutier, and it started a quest to figure out what it was. A Swiss expert and another Australian finally joined the research team.
Finding out that this was a whole new species of comb jelly was really exciting and a proud moment, Kerr said. “This confirmed that the Miguasha site is truly exceptional,” she said.
The park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is teeming with preserved vertebrates, but finding fossils of soft-bodied fish is new, she said.
“Now that we know we can find these type of fossils here in Miguasha, we’ll be keeping an eye out for more,” she said.
Cloutier will bring the fossil back to Miguasha Park in the coming weeks, where it will be available for other scientists who wish to examine it. It will be available to the public next year.