New Genus Discovered – Paleontologists Unearth 18-Million-Year-Old Goby Fossil

Simpsonigobius Fossil Fish

LMU paleontologists discovered a new genus of fossil goby shedding light on the early evolutionary stages and habitat adaptability of gobies, one of Europe’s most diverse fish groups. Fossil fish of the new genus †Simpsonigobius. Credit: Moritz Dirnberger

LMU paleontologists have discovered a new genus of fossil goby, unveiling the evolutionary mysteries of a lineage dating back millions of years.

Gobies, or Gobioidei, represent one of Europe’s most diverse groups of marine and freshwater fish. Typically found at the bottoms of shallow waters, they play a crucial role in the health and operation of numerous ecosystems.

With the identification of a new genus of a fossil freshwater goby, students of the international master program ‘Geobiology and Paleobiology’ at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and paleontologist Bettina Reichenbacher, professor at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at LMU, have made a discovery that provides critical insights into the evolutionary history of these fish.

Measuring up to 34 mm, the small fish of the new genus †Simpsonigobius were discovered in 18-million-year-old rocks in Turkey and are marked by a distinct combination of morphological features, including otoliths (hearing stones) with a unique shape.

Modern Research Techniques Elucidate the Position in the Family Tree

To determine the relationships of †Simpsonigobius within the gobioid phylogenetic tree, the researchers utilized a “total-evidence” phylogenetic dataset, which they enhanced in order to combine a total of 48 morphological characters and genetic data from five genes for 48 living and 10 fossil species. In addition, the team employed “tip-dating” for fossil gobioid species for the first time. This is a phylogenetic method in which the age of the fossils (= tips) included in the phylogenetic tree is used to infer the timing of the evolutionary history of the entire group.

The results show that the new genus is the oldest skeleton-based member of the family Oxudercidae – which is classified among the “modern” gobies (families Gobiidae and Oxudercidae) – and the oldest freshwater goby within this modern group. The tip-dating analysis estimated the emergence of the Gobiidae at 34.1 million years ago and that of the Oxudercidae at 34.8 million years ago, which is consistent with previous dating studies using other methods. Moreover, stochastic habitat mapping, in which the researchers incorporated fossil gobies for the first time, revealed that the gobies probably possessed broad salinity tolerance at the beginning of their evolutionary history, which challenges previous assumptions.

“The discovery of †Simpsonigobius not only adds a new genus to the Gobioidei, but also provides vital clues about the evolutionary timeline and habitat adaptations of these diverse fishes. Our research highlights the importance of analyzing fossil records using modern methods to achieve a more accurate picture of evolutionary processes,” says Reichenbacher. First author Moritz Dirnberger, currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Montpellier, adds: “The findings are expected to pave the way for further studies on gobioid evolution and the role of environmental factors in shaping their diversity.”

Reference: “A new freshwater gobioid from the Lower Miocene of Turkey in a significantly amended total evidence phylogenetic framework” by Moritz Dirnberger, Elena Bauer and Bettina Reichenbacher, 30 May 2024, Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.
DOI: 10.1080/14772019.2024.2340498

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