The brain and its cranial nerves are roughly an inch long and belong to an extinct bluegill-size fish.
The finding opens a window into the neural anatomy and early evolution of the major group of fishes alive today, the ray-finned fishes, according to the authors of a University of Michigan-led study scheduled for publication Feb. 1 in Nature.
The serendipitous find also provides insights into the preservation of soft parts in fossils of backboned animals. Most of the animal fossils in museum collections were formed from hard body parts such as bones, teeth and shells.
The CT-scanned brain analyzed for the new study belongs to Coccocephalus wildi, an early ray-finned fish that swam in an estuary and likely dined on small crustaceans, aquatic insects and cephalopods, a group that today includes squid, octopuses and cuttlefish. Ray-finned fishes have backbones and fins supported by bony rods called rays.
When the fish died, the soft tissues of its brain and cranial nerves were replaced during the fossilization process with a dense mineral that preserved, in exquisite detail, their three-dimensional structure.
“An important conclusion is that these kinds of soft parts can be preserved, and they may be preserved in fossils that we’ve had for a long time — this is a fossil that’s been known for over 100 years,” said U-M paleontologist Matt Friedman, a senior author of the new study and director of the Museum of Paleontology.