Nathan Van Vranken, visiting instructor of geology and biology at West Virginia University Potomac State College, holds a cast of an aspidorhynchid fish. Aspidorhynchids, like Belonostomus, have been extinct for millions of years and are recognizable by their needle-like snout. (Photo credit: Nicholas Gardner, Mary F. Shipper Library)
While new to West Virginia University Potomac State College, visiting instructor of geology and biology, Nathan Van Vranken, is no stranger to his field, having professionally researched fossil vertebrates for the past six years.
Most recently, Van Vranken described new fossils of the extinct fish, Belonostomus, in the latest issue of Palaeontologia Electronica, with fellow paleontologists from Emory & Henry College in Virginia and the McWane Science Center in Birmingham, Ala.
One hundred million years ago, the interior of North America was split in two by the Western Interior Seaway that ran from the Arctic Ocean southward to the Gulf of Mexico. The Western Interior Seaway was home to a wide diversity of fossil fishes, including the Aspidorhynchidae or “shield snout forms” to which Belonostomus belonged, which were superficially like the living, marine needlefish.
Belonostomus fossils, though rare, are known from Northern American localities as old as 113 million years ago and up to 66 million years ago at the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction event (though some younger fossils may also be known). Most of these fossils are from the northern Western Interior Seaway. The new fossils described by Van Vranken and his colleagues all are from the Gulf Coast states, specifically from sites in Alabama, Mississippi and Texas.
The new fossils expand the range of Belonostomus much further south through the Western Interior Seaway than previously reported and demonstrates that Belonostomus persisted to the end of the Cretaceous throughout the seaway, not just in the north.
Van Vranken and his colleagues learned of these fossils through conversations with private collectors in their respective regions and were able to convince the collectors that such significant fossils should be housed in museum collections where they could be studied.
The full paper, “New occurrences of Belonostomus (Teleostomorpha: Aspidorhynchidae) from the Late Cretaceous of the North American Gulf Coastal Plain, USA”, by Nathan Van Vranken, Christopher Fielitz, and Jun A. Ebersole, is available to read for free at the following link: https://doi.org/10.26879/983.
Van Vranken joined the teaching staff at WVU Potomac State College this fall, having previously taught geology courses in Texas. He graduated in 2015 with a master’s degree in geology from the University of Texas at the Permian Basin in Odessa, Texas.