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Oregon Family Magazine

Fish Tales

05/03/2020 03:42PM ● By Andrea Willingham
What comes to mind when you think of ancient animals? You might think of big dinosaurs, massive mammoths, or giant ground sloths. It’s no secret that many of these now-extinct species were bigger than their relatives today, and salmon were no exception. In fact, the salmon that swam in Oregon waters millions of years ago were over seven feet long and weighed over 400 pounds. Imagine a fish that big jumping up a waterfall during spawning season!

Scientists learn about these ancient fish by looking at fossils, but sometimes the fossil record can be challenging to read, making it difficult to piece together the story of the past. In the case of the giant salmon, we originally got the story wrong. 

In 1964, researchers first uncovered giant salmon fossils at a quarry near Madras, Oregon. They were amazed not only by the size of these animals, but also by their large, fang-like teeth, which appeared to point downward from the fish’s upper jaw. Scientists used these first fossils to define the species, naming it the “sabertooth salmon.”

But in 2014 Museum of Natural and Cultural History paleontologist Edward Davis made a groundbreaking discovery: After uncovering two more giant salmon skulls from the same Madras quarry, he noticed that the so-called saber teeth didn’t point downward at all.

“In these newly uncovered fossils, which are the first to be found with their teeth still attached to the skulls, the ‘fangs’ are actually pointing sideways out of the jaw,” Davis said. “And this isn’t just one unusual individual; we have two skulls showing the same pattern.”

So why did we originally think this fish had downward-pointing fangs like a sabertooth cat? It turns out that first fossil had been misshapen—crushed by rock and sediment over millions of years—which pushed the teeth downward.

With this new understanding about the true form of the species, we renamed it the “spike-tooth salmon” and began to develop a clearer picture of how it behaved. We now believe that this salmon used its spike-like teeth to fight with other fish during spawning season, competing for the best spot in the stream to lay their eggs. They also likely used these spikes for gentler actions, like digging in the gravel to build their nests.

The spike-toothed salmon teaches us that the process of scientific discovery is not always as simple as it seems. New discoveries can reveal new evidence, showing us that we were wrong about something for decades! But that’s what makes science so exciting: it’s a lifelong learning process, and every new generation of scientists can pick up where the last ones left off.

The Museum of Natural and Cultural History is temporarily closed to help slow the spread of COVID-19. However, you can join us online on our Explore from Home web page (mnch.uoregon.edu/explore-home), updated regularly with family-friendly crafts and activities exploring a variety of fascinating science and culture topics!