Behind the Research: Identifying a New Species of Fossil Fish

How does a paleontologist identify a new species?

This is an old post I am archiving here on my website. It was originally posted on the KU Biodiversity Institute blog in October 2014.

A fundamental part of being a scientist is publishing your research. Scientists ask questions, formulate hypotheses, rigorously test these hypotheses, and publish their research and their results. Other people can then read these results and build off of these studies, either to question or refute the findings, or to use the findings to ask other questions. It is how science grows and evolves.

What almost all scientific publications lack, however, is the flair, the backstory, and general behind-the-scenes action that is part of everyday research. Scientific publications are whittled down to the most concentrated version, filled with the jargon of the discipline, and stripped of any extraneous behind-the-scenes anecdotes. So while any given scientific paper can be exciting to a scientist who wants to learn more about the organism or the methods addressed, they can be a bit unfriendly to a general reader.

So for fun, I have decided to tell some behind-the-scenes stories of the research I do, in the context of my published papers. Hopefully I give you a sense of what it is really like to be a paleontologist, and the work that is involved.

I’ll begin with my two solo-authored papers that I published in 2013. The papers can be found here and here, and if you cannot access those journals, please contact me and I will send you a PDF.

These two papers establish a new genus and two new species of fishes within a group called semionotiforms. Semionotiforms are an extinct group of fishes, but are closely related to living gar, and like gar, their bodies were covered with thick enamel scales (ganoid scales). Semionotiforms are found in geologic deposits worldwide, and range in age from Middle Triassic (~237 million years ago) to Early Cretaceous (~145 million years ago). A lot of variety occurs in semionotiforms in the shape of the body, the characteristics of the skull, the teeth, etc., and part of my research is to figure out what makes these particular fishes different from other species that have been described in the literature by other scientists. So you could say that my hypothesis for these studies is that these fishes represent new species, and I am testing that hypothesis by comparing the anatomy and morphology of these fishes to other semionotiform fishes to see if my hypothesis is correct or incorrect.

Some of the fossil specimens I work on are from museum collections, such as the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and the Smithsonian and were collected in the 1950s and 1960s, yet remained in these collections unstudied and undescribed for decades. I began working on these fishes in 2006, when I worked at the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site (SGDS) as an undergraduate student intern and later as the prep lab and collections manager. The crew of staff and volunteers from SGDS had just gone out to a site in southeastern Utah and collected hundreds of fossils (outlined in Milner et al., 2006), but most of these fishes were not identified. So as I started cleaning the fossils (fossil prep—to be discussed in a later blog!), I started looking for characteristics that defined them as either new or belonging to a described species of semionotiform fish. While I worked on the new specimens, I looked at older literature, in particular a (1967) paper by an AMNH paleontologist Bobb Schaeffer, who mentioned collecting many semionotiforms from the same area but didn’t describe them or give them names. So, in 2008, I went to the collections of the AMNH to look at those old specimens collected decades before and reexamined them, seeing which of them could be the same species as the new specimens the SGDS crew had just collected. I identified at least two different species, though there are likely more than that.

Now, identifying a new species is more than just a “Eureka!” moment. A scientist cannot know what is new unless he/she knows what already exists, and so scientists have to be very familiar with other scientists’ work in the field. An inordinate amount of any scientist’s time is spent reading books and papers, and I spent months pouring over scientific literature, some as old as 1820, to find the characteristics of other semionotiforms. As I looked at each bone on the fossil fishes from the AMNH and those newly collected from SGDS, I compared it to the same bones in other semionotiform fishes, and I had to look for similarities and differences. Eventually, I found a suite of anatomical and morphological characters that distinguished these fishes from all other semionotiform fishes, and I had enough to publish two papers on two distinct species. In these papers, I had to give an exhaustively detailed description of every single bone, and I mean EVERY bone (these fishes have hundreds of bones, dozens in their skull alone!) that I could see on the specimens, because other scientists, when trying to identify new species of their own, may turn to my work for comparison, and so my papers have to be provide as much anatomical detail as possible!

Next time….naming a new species!!


Gibson, S.Z. 2013a. A new hump-backed ginglymodian fish (Neopterygii, Semionotiformes) from the Upper Triassic Chinle Formation of southeastern Utah. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 33: 1037–1050. 

Gibson, S.Z. 2013b. Biodiversity and evolutionary history of †Lophionotus (Neopterygii: †Semionotiformes) from the western United States. Copeia 2013: 582–603.

Milner, A.R.C., Mickelson, D.L., Kirkland, J.I., and Harris, J.D. 2006. Reinvestigation of Late Triassic fish sites in the Chinle Group, San Juan County, Utah: new discoveries. In: A Century of Research at Petrified Forest National Park: Geology and Paleontology (Eds. Parker, W.G., Ash, S.R., and Irmis, R.B.). Museum of Northern Arizona Bulletin 62: 163–165.

Schaeffer, B. 1967. Late Triassic fishes from the western United States. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 135: 289–342.

Author: Sarah

Dr. Sarah Z. Gibson is a paleontologist and science communicator based in Minnesota. Her research focuses on the evolutionary history of ray-finned fishes from the Early Mesozoic.

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