Living Fossil Eel Found in Palau

Scientists at the Smithsonian and partnering organizations have discovered a remarkably primitive eel in a fringing reef off the coast of the Republic of Palau. This fish exhibits many primitive anatomical features unknown in the other 19 families and more than 800 species of living eels, resulting in its classification as a new species belonging to a new genus and family.

An eel described as a "living fossil" was found in a cave in Palau, an island nation in the South Pacific. The eel appears to have last evolved over 200 million years ago--during the Age of Dinosaurs.

Last year, a researcher with the Southern Marine Laboratory of Palau was diving in a deep cave when he found a strange 7-inch long female eel. He brought the find to work, and researchers began analyzing the physical characteristics of the eel.

They found that the new species, Protoanguilla palau, had traits that matched those of the earliest eels. Things such as a large head, fused skull bones, and a small number of vertebrae made it a closer match to eels from 100 million years ago than modern eels.

The researchers then analyzed the eels' DNA and found that it dated back to 200 million years ago, near the beginning of the Jurassic period. This was around the time when the supercontinent Pangaea broke into two, and the sea teemed with a variety of life.

"Living fossil" is a term used to refer to species that survive relatively unchanged for millions of years. The last living fossil discovered was the coelacanths in the 1930's, although they were known from the fossil record. There is no known fossil record of P. palau, which is so different from other eels that the scientists created a new family classification for it.

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