An assessment of age determination in fossil fish: the case of the opercula in the Mesozoic actinopterygian Saurichthys

Scheyer, Torsten ; Schmid, Leonhard ; Furrer, Heinz ; Sánchez-Villagra, Marcelo

In: Swiss Journal of Palaeontology, 2014, vol. 133, no. 2, p. 243-257

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    Analyzing and interpreting life history data (e.g., aging and longevity, age at sexual maturity) are fundamental in many paleontological studies. In the case of extant and fossil fishes, otoliths, and to a lesser degree other incrementally growing hard tissue structures such as scales and bones, have been utilized to reveal these data. We investigated the microanatomy and internal microstructure of opercula of Saurichthys, one of the most easily recognized and globally distributed fishes in the Triassic, to elucidate whether these prominent skull bones provide reliable age estimates. Opercula, and where the subopercula is present, of several outgroup taxa were sectioned to provide a phylogenetic framework for the study. The external protrusions and ridges or internal concentric bands or wrinkles are not related to internal age-related bone tissue structures such as annuli and growth zones, but are instead purely ornamental in the case of the former and probably structural/taphonomic in case of the latter. Opercular morphogenesis of Saurichthys opercula differs from that of the extant outgroups examined in that they show rostro-medial to caudo-lateral extending growth increments instead of ones that extend sub-parallel to the opercular bone surfaces. Individual age data could thus not be reliably extracted from those opercula. Furthermore, an odontode-like complex was not encountered in Saurichthys opercula, but a few specimens show a peculiar, weakly birefringent thin tissue layer of unknown origin filling the valleys between the external ornamental ridges. Although all Saurichthys opercula showed growth marks, these could not be counted to produce reliable individual age data, whereas bones with a more concentric cross section, such as the ceratohyal, appear better suited for this purpose.