Fig 13. Life reconstruction of the non-marine component of the Waterloo Farm biota.
Figure 13. Life reconstruction of the non-marine component of the biota at Waterloo Farm.

Hyneria udlezinye is shown together with the tetrapods Umzantsia amazana and Tutusius umlambo [11]the placoderms Groenlandaspis riniensis and Bothriolepis africana [19]the latimer Serenichthys kowiensis [27]the lungfish Isityumzi mlomomde [28]and a cyrtoctenid eurypterid. Image by Maggie Newman, copyright RW Gess.

As life first struggled to set foot on land in the late Devonian period, there was a predator waiting to grab it back into the depths: recently discovered Hyneria udlezinyethe toothy prehistoric fish, believed to have grown up to 9 feet in length.

It is the largest monster fish yet discovered from this period and appears to have been lurking in the salty waters of modern-day Waterloo Farm in South Africa, waiting for its prey. Excavations uncovered a wall of fossils there in 2016, during road construction, and led to a number of something else discoveries, including a fossil of an early tetrapod, the massive fish likely prey. These early the genetic ancestors of modern humans resembled large salamanders or small alligators and walked on all fours (thus a tetrapod).

Finding the Ancient Fish

Thanks to continental drift, the world was a different place about 360 million years ago when H. udlezinye managed lakes and estuaries. Waterloo Farm belonged to a large landmass, Gondwana, which stretched from Antarctica. And the new study claims that Hyneria the genus begins here, not on another Devonian continent, Euramerica. And while researchers have identified several of the H. udlezinyerelatives of, this one remains the largest, with its long jaws and teeth.

To excavate the exposed skeleton, they removed the quill bones of a spiny pig and removed many fragments of the fish’s imposing skull. After cutting out paper copies of each, they put them together like a puzzle and revealed a smoothly contoured face that would slide through the water like the nose of an airplane. The researchers said Live science that the fins of the fish enable it to rush towards the prey and surprise it.

While other members of the species may have reached 9 feet in length, the team appreciated the findings H. udlezinye about 6 feet and said it was covered in “elongated scales” that measured up to 3 inches. The skeleton also revealed a larger-than-expected branchial chamber, the area used to circulate water through the gills, suggesting the fish evolved to linger in oxygen-poor waters while waiting to strike.

This and other giant tristichopterid fishes once terrorized the fresh and salt waters of the world, with evidence found in modern-day East Greenland, central Russia, Pennsylvania, and New South Wales (locations that were arranged differently during the Devonian period). But, like many species, they died out during the mass extinction that ended the period and still invites debate.

An ancient monstrous fish

Monster fish still swim in modern waters: in 2022 Cambodian fishermen dragged into a giant freshwater stingray that weighs 661 pounds and measures 13 feet including the tail, making it the largest freshwater fish ever caught. The fish narrowly beat a 646-pound catfish also caught in the Mekong River. But these fish do not have the same taste as tetrapods H. udlezinye.

When our distant ancestors crawled onto land, they discovered a rapidly developing world, according to PBS, including the appearance of the first woody plants and “complex plant ecosystems”. As the underwater world has evolved and changed, so has the surface world.

And like monsters H. udlezinye (meaning “one who eats others”) was abandoned.

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