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Science & Technology

Scientists Discover Ancient, Huge, Saber-Toothed Anchovy

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Next time you're whipping up dressing for a Caesar salad, imagine this. Those salty little fish, the ones you're mixing in with the mayo and the Parm (ph) - those fish had some big, scary ancestors. We're talking about saber-toothed anchovies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROAR)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, maybe they didn't sound like that, but they looked pretty fearsome. Almost 3 feet long, the creature brandished a bottom row of jagged teeth, swimming in the water some 45 to 50 million years ago. We have learned about saber-toothed anchovies from a study co-authored by Alessio Capobianco, a PhD student at the University of Michigan. He and his adviser found a fossil in a cabinet at the university's museum. It came from an archaeological dig in Pakistan.

ALESSIO CAPOBIANCO: And it has been lying down there for 40 years. So what happened is that me and my adviser Matt Friedman, who is one of the co-authors in the paper - we just take a look at this cabinet. It was full of, like, different kind of specimens of fishes from that expedition. And among those, we found, like, this quite unassuming specimen from outside. But we could kind of notice some large teeth.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So they did a CT scan of the fossil to get a better look.

CAPOBIANCO: And to our great surprise, not only this fish had a row of large fangs on the lower jaw, but it also had a giant saber tooth.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just one giant saber tooth on the top jaw, slightly-off center. Nature can be pretty weird. Their research led to discoveries of a similar fossil from Belgium and determined the fish were related to modern-day anchovies. But what's the benefit of that single saber tooth?

CAPOBIANCO: We do not know. It could have been used to, like, stab or impale the prey. It could have served together with the lower jaw teeth as sort of a cage or a trap in the mouth. It could even have had some roles outside feeding and hunting. It might have been a structure for display - I don't know - like, for fending off males that were facing each other - competition, like who had the biggest teeth.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I do. No, I do. Back off, bucko. The mind boggles. I mean, ancient anchovies - were they tasty? And does doing this kind of research make Alessio Capobianco hungry?

CAPOBIANCO: I love anchovies. I mean, they're really good. I don't particularly like Caesar salad, I have to say. I don't know. I come from Italy. Caesar salad is not a thing there. But anchovies on pizza, definitely yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Definitely yes. But maybe hold the saber teeth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROAR) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.