Fossil fish are the most common fossil finds from the Fossil Butte Member (FBM). So far, 27 species of fish have been discovered in the FBM. The diversity of species and the abundance of fossils, together allow scientists to understand the ecosystem of Fossil Lake.
Stingrays - 2 Species Identified: Heliobatis radians & Asterotrygon maloneyi
There are almost 200 modern stingray species. Most are bottom-dwellers and feed on bottom-dwelling invertebrates, such as shrimp and crayfish. Stingray fossils are found in association with these invertebrates, indicating their ancient diet was similar to their modern relatives'. Modern freshwater stingrays are found in tropical river systems of South America and Asia.
Paddlefish - Crossopholis magnicaudatusOrder Acipenseriformes, Family Polydontidae
C. magnicaudatus is often preserved with fish in the stomach, indicating this species was a predator. This fossil species is most commonly found in shallow-water deposits, but very few juveniles have been discovered. This could indicate that C. magnicaudatus matured and spawned in connecting rivers before migrating to Fossil Lake as an adult.
This species' name comes from the thousands of tiny, fringed scales covering its body, crossopholis meaning 'fringed scale.' This species reaches a maximum of four feet in length.
Gars - 4 Species Identified: Lepisosteus bemisi, Atractosteus simplex, Atractosteus atrox & Masillosteus janeiOrder Lepisosteiformes, Family Lepisosteidae
Seven living gar species are found in freshwaters of North America, Central America, and Cuba. Of the 4 Fossil Lake gar species, all but one are very similar to modern gars. M. janei lacked the long jaw and sharp teeth characteristic of modern gars. M. janei teeth were instead rounded and flat, ideal for crushing small invertebrates like snails and crayfish. This gar species is primarily found in association with these fossil invertebrates.
Outside of the FBM, gar scales are much more common fossils than complete skeletons. The gars' characteristic, diamond-shaped scales have historically been used by humans as arrowheads and on protective breastplates. There tough scales offer significant protection from would be predators.
Modern gar species often migrate up rivers to spawn. This is a possible explanation for the lack of juvenile gar fossils found in the FBM.
Bowfins - 2 Species Identified: Cyclurus gurleyi & Amia pattersoniOrder Amiiformes, Family Amiidae
The genus Cyclurus is not known to have survived past the Eocene Epoch, possibly dying out about 35 million years ago. The closely related Amia genus survives today with the North American A. calva species.
The long jaw and pointed teeth found on A. pattersoni specimens are indicators of a possible apex predator. The crushing jaws found on C. gurleyi specimens suggest an invertebrate diet.
Ray-finned Fish - Diplomystus dentatusOrder Ellimmichthyiformes, Family Paraclupeidae
D. dentatus is a primitive relative of the modern day herring. The genus Diplomystus is also known from fossil deposits in China. The last known species of the Ellimmichthyiformes order went extinct sometime in the middle Eocene.
D. dentatus is the 2nd most common fossil fish found from Fossil Lake. Specimens ranging from embryonic size (about 0.7 inches) to full-grown adults (about 26 inches) are common. Smaller-sized specimens are more commonly found in mid-lake than near-shore deposits. This suggests that D. dentatus spawned in open water. This species' upturned mouth indicates it fed at the surface of Fossil Lake. D. dentatus specimens are commonly found with other fish stuck in their mouths, including other D. dentatus specimens.
Herrings - 2 Species Identified: Knightia eocaena & Knightia altaOrder Clupeiformes, Family Clupeidae
The Clupeidae family has an estimated 50 modern freshwater species. Clupeidae species can lay as many as 200,000 eggs at once, allowing species to multiply quickly. Modern species are also prone to mass die offs.
K. eocaena is:
K. eocaena specimens of all sizes are found in mass mortality plates, indicating this species schooled as both a juvenile and adult. The average adult size of K. eocaena specimens is about 6 inches, though specimens as large as 10 inches have been found.
Beaked Sandfish - Notogoneus osculusOrder Gonorynchiformes, Family Gonorynchidae
N. osculus was the last survivor of the Gonorynchiformes order in North America. There are 5 modern species in the Gonorynchidae family that inhabit tropical marine regions of the Indo-Pacific Oceans.
Very young juveniles and large adults are the only N. osculus specimens found from Fossil Lake. This could indicate that N. osculus was a migratory species. Their lifecycle may have consisted of: hatching in Fossil Lake, migrating to connecting streams to mature, and returning to Fossil Lake as an adult to spawn and die.
N. osculus had a down-turned, sucker-like mouth. Its toothless mouth suggests that this was a bottom-feeding species. The highly salty water conditions at the bottom of Fossil Lake should have excluded most scavengers and bottom-feeders. Yet, N. osculus is found exclusively in deep-water deposits. This suggests that N. osculus spent most of its life outside of Fossil Lake in connecting rivers and streams.
Perches - 7 Species Identified: Mioplosus labracoides, Cockerellites liops, Priscacara serrata, Priscacara sp. a, Priscacara sp. b, Hypsiprisca hypsacantha & Hypsiprisca sp.
C. liops specimens are known to reach a maximum size of 6 inches. C. liops are found as isolated specimens and in mass mortalities, indicating that it traveled in schools throughout its life. Its body shape is similar to members of the modern Centrarchidae family (the sunfish family). When you visit Fossil Butte National Monument, look for an enlarged bronze sculpture of C. liops on our entrance sign!
Mystery Fish - 2 species Identified: Asineops squamifrons & Asineops sp.Order Unknown, Family Asineopidae
A.squamifrons is known as the "mystery fish" as it lacks identifiable traits to place it in an order. It was assigned its own family and has since been joined by Asineops sp. Asineops appears to have gone extinct in the middle Eocene.
A.squamifrons is characterized by short dorsal spines, rounded tail margin, tiny sharp teeth, and large mouth. It is known from isolated specimens and mass mortalities. It may be a primitive, spiny-rayed fish.
Bony-Tongue Fish - 2 Species Identified: Phareodus encaustus & Phareodus testisOrder Osteoglossiformes, Family Osteoglossidae
Living members of the Osteoglossidae family include 10 species that live exclusively in tropical freshwaters in South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia. Modern Osteoglossidae are mouth-brooders (parents hold eggs and hatchlings in their mouths)
Phareodus adult fossils are usually found alone, but juveniles are known from mass mortalities. This indicates that Phareodus schooled as a juvenile and became solitary as an adult. Fossils are often preserved with smaller fish in their jaws and stomach, this as well as their large, sharp teeth indicates they were predators. Their rearward oriented fins on back and underside were an adaptation for speed. The maximum known size of P. encaustus is 30 inches and the maximum known size of P. testis is 20 inches.
Trout-Perch - Amphiplaga brachypteraOrder Percopsiformes, Family Percopsidae
The Percopsidae family has one modern genus with 2 species. They are restricted to freshwater rivers and lakes of North America.
A. brachyptera is the earliest known member of the Percopsidae family, and is known exclusively from Fossil Lake deposits. Larval-size A. brachyptera specimens are almost completely absent from the FBM. This suggests that A. brachyptera spawned in rivers. A. brachyptera is also never found in mass mortality plates, indicating this species was solitary and not a schooling fish.
Mooneye - Hiodon falcatusOrder Hiodontiformes, Family Hiodontidae
There are 2 living species of the Hiodon genus that are found in freshwater in North America. They reach about 20 inches in length and feed primarily on insects.
Fossil specimens of the Hiodon genus are known from both North America and Asia. H. falcatus is almost exclusively found in near-shore sediment from Fossil Lake. Most specimens are between 4 and 6 inches long, though some are as large as 10 inches.
Last updated: May 10, 2023