A Late Cretaceous pachycormid "Swordfish"

Copyright © 2002-2012 by Mike Everhart

Page created 11/19/2002;  Updated 02/12/2012









LEFT: "Protosphyraena" by Mark Dubeau; adapted from the figure on page 96 in my 2007 book - Sea Monsters; Prehistoric Creatures of the Deep. Copyright National Geographic 

Charles Sternberg  imagined that his "snout-fishes" were among the most dangerous fish in the Western Interior Sea. While that view is probably incorrect, they were certainly among the strangest of the large predatory fishes during the Late Cretaceous.

“… I used to think that the man-eating sharks off the Florida coast were the most blood-thirsty of the order, but this one is still worse. Notice the head is prolonged in front into a long round bony snout, or ram. On account of this, I called it a snout fish, when I first discovered their bones in the Kansas Chalk. The ram ends, you notice, in a sharp point eight or ten inches long. Then at the end of the mouth there are four lance-like teeth projecting forward and outward. The object of these is to cut wider the breach his ram makes in the quivering flesh of a mosasaur, so he can force his head into the bleeding flesh to the eye rims. But his most terrible weapons are his pectoral fins. See, they are four feet long, serrated on the cutting or outer edge, enameled, and as sharp as a knife. They can be locked, and stand out straight from the body. A sudden swing would, if he was close to a mosasaur, cut a gash several feet long in its vitals. See these fins span over eight feet. I pity the fish or reptile that comes his way."

Excerpted from Charles H. Sternberg's "Hunting Dinosaurs on the Red Deer River, Alberta, Canada" (1917, p. 167-168).

The genus Protosphyraena  is represented by the remains of several fairly common fish found in the Smoky Hill Chalk and elsewhere around the world (Europe, Japan). It would have looked somewhat like a modern swordfish with a sharp, sword-like beak and long, sickle shaped front fins. The teeth were first described from the English chalk by Mantell and the genus was named by Leidy in 1857 from English specimens.

For a recent and very accurate reconstruction of Protosphyraena perniciosa as shown in the National Geographic IMAX movie, Sea Monsters, go HERE //  Official National Geographic Sea Monsters web site

The first specimens of Protosphyraena from Kansas were apparently collected by B. F. Mudge near the Solomon River (Rooks County) in 1872-73 and sent to E. D. Cope who named them. Cope's original genus name (Erisichthe) was later determined to be a junior synonym of Leidy's Protosphyraena.   Protosphyraena nitida and P. gladius were named in 1873, followed by Ichthyodectes perniciosus (= Protosphyraena perniciosa) in 1874.

Cope described the fin of I. perniciosus as: "The cutting edge is coarsely serrate, each projecting tooth marking the end of one of the oblique component rods [pectoral fin spines]. The apex of each tooth is the end of a transverse thickening or low ridge of the surface of the spine, so that the cutting edge is equally acute at the bottoms of the concavities as at the rather obtuse apices of the teeth."

The incorrect spelling of the species name, "pernicosa" in recent publications (including a number of mine in the past) is the subject of some concern because it was not officially changed, and should remain "perniciosa." The original spelling authored by Woodward (1895, p. 414) is used here.

The Name Game

Cope (1874, p. 41) gave the name Ichthyodectes perniciosus

Cope (1875, p. 244) changed the name to Pelecopterus perniciosus (male gender)

Woodward (1895) changed the name to Protosphyraena perniciosa (female gender)

Loomis (1900, p. 221) mentions the species as Protosphyraena perniciosa

Hay (1903, p. 9) discusses the species as Protosphyraena perniciosa.

J. D. Stewart (1979, 1988 and 1990) spelled the species name: P. pernicosa… This spelling has been repeated in a number of papers by other authors, including myself, since 1990.

B. F. Mudge (1874, p. 122) wrote: “The most remarkable species of fish which we have found, the present season, are of a genus new to me, and I think to science. They are armed with a long, strong weapon at the extremity of the upper jaw, something like that of a sword-fish, but round and pointed and composed of strong fibres. The jaws are provided with three kinds of teeth. On the outer edge is a row of large, flat, cutting teeth, somewhat resembling those of a shark. Inside, and placed irregularly, are small, blunt teeth; while in the back portion of the palate is the third set- small, sharp and needle-like in shape, forming a pavement. The jaws are also fibrous, like the snout. There are three species of this genus. Prof. Marsh has them for critical scientific examination.” 

Apparently, at least fourteen  specimens (YPM 42152, 42200, 42285, 42137, 42138, etc.) were collected by Mudge in 1874 from Ellis and Rooks counties... and never reported by Marsh.

P. perniciosa grew to fairly large size (est. 3 m) while others (P. nitida and P. tenuis) were smaller (2 m or less). Another rare, giant "species named" Protosphyraena gladius is not actually be a member of the genus (and below). An other species named by Cope, Erisichthe ziphioides 1877, was determined to be a completely new and unrelated genus (Martinichthys) which was described by McClung in 1926, and revised by Taverne (1999). 

LEFT: A pair of Protosphyraena coracoid bones from the Smoky Hill Chalk.  These distinctive shoulder bones and the pectoral fins are most frequently preserved as fossils of this genus, and in several species (P. perniciosa and P. tenuis) the fins have a distinctive saw-toothed, leading edge. Partial skulls, with a sharp rostrum (nose) is also found preserved in the chalk and is readily recognized by the flat, blade-like teeth. The anterior teeth in the upper and lower  jaws point forward. The remaining skeleton was poorly ossified and has not been found preserved, except for the hypural bone at the base of the caudal fin. Two specimens at the University of Kansas do preserve a nearly complete caudal fin (KUVP-293 and KUVP 49419: below): 
protospa.jpg (16781 bytes)

LEFT: This is what Frederick Loomis (1900) thought that Protosphyraena looked like.  Although it is incorrect in several aspects, including the tail, we have learned very little more about the appearance of this strange fish in the last 100 years. ... until recently, that is.

LEFT: My sketch at left is probably much closer to the actual appearance of Protosphyraena perniciosa than the one by Loomis (above). It is based on a recent discovery by Mike Triebold (LEFT)in the Smoky Hill Chalk of Gove County. The specimen is currently on display in the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center in Woodland Park, Colorado. Although lacking the anterior portion of the skull, it is the most complete specimen of Protosphyraena ever found, and provides valuable information regarding the unusual characteristics of this fish. The fish is rather short for the size of it's  long, saw-toothed pectoral fins and large nearly vertical caudal fin. The pelvic fins are long and streamer-like, and emerge just behind the pectoral fins. The dorsal fin is large and rounded. Both the second dorsal fin and the anal fin are rounded, and are located just anterior to the caudal fin. Their position suggests that they served to enlarge the surface area of the tail and possibly provide additional thrust for fast swimming.  

See more colorful reconstructions of Protosphyraena perniciosa and P. nitida by Dmitry Bogdanov here:

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PROTOSPHYRAENA NITIDA - Protosphyraena nitida was a primitive predatory fish that looked something like a modern swordfish, but did not have well ossified vertebrae.  It was somewhat smaller than P. perniciosa. To date, this is the only known specimen of Protosphyraena nitida which has the pectoral fins preserved with the skull.  The specimen below was donated to the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History and a picture of the right side of the prepared skull was published in the LACMNH Magazine, TERRA, in 1993 (Vol. 31, Number 4).  A cast of the skull was exhibited in the Denver Museum of Natural History, in the Ray Troll traveling exhibit in 1998. Pictures of our cast of the skull are   HERE  and  HERE. 

LEFT: Pam Everhart and daughter Katie at the site of Pam's 1988 discovery of the skull and pectoral fins of a Late Cretaceous fish called Protosphyraena nitida (EPC 1888-13). 

RIGHT: Here Pam is clearing away the loose chalk around the specimen. Although the chalk was badly weathered and broken, the skull fins were mostly undamaged. 

LEFT: Here we have the skull mostly uncovered. Daughter Katie is taking pictures for us.

RIGHT: Here's the first photo of the skull insitu. Rock hammer is about 12 inches long.

LEFT: A close-up of the snout of the Protosphyraena nitida skull. The rostrum is usually broken on these skulls and a root can be seen protruding from under the break. The broken piece is about 4 inches long.

RIGHT: Here we are digging around the skull to make a pedestal of chalk under the skull. I didn't have plaster with me, so we decided to carry the skull out in a block of chalk.

LEFT: As I lifted the block of chalk into a cardboard box, it shattered, but the skull itself was unharmed. 

RIGHT: This 1988 photograph shows the left (upper) side of the completely articulated Protosphyraena nitida skull, just removed from the field and unprepared. The specimen was collected from the lower chalk in Ellis County, northwest of Hays, Kansas.

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ep88-14a.jpg (14292 bytes) LEFT: The right (lower) side of a cast of the skull of Protosphyraena nitida (LACM 129752). The oversized front tooth was added for the casting. 

RIGHT: The left (upper) side of a cast of the skull of Protosphyraena nitida (LACM 129752). The oversized front tooth was added for the casting. 

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LEFT: An anterior view of the scapulo-coracoids and attached (but incomplete) pectoral fins of the P. nitida specimen. (From a 1988 photograph)

RIGHT: This photo shows the "articulation" between the shoulder girdle (scapulo-coracoid) and the back of the skull as found. In life, they would not have been attached to the skull, but located just behind it.  The two incomplete pectoral fins point off to the top right and mid-right of the photograph.

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EPC1994-04a.jpg (28870 bytes) LEFT: FHSM VP-17561 - Protosphyraena nitida fins do not have the jagged, saw-toothed edges found in P. perniciosa. Instead they have fine grooves at right angles to the edge of the fin (CLICK HERE FOR CLOSE-UP). (EPC 1994-04)
EPC2003-14a.jpg (22837 bytes) LEFT: FHSM VP-17562 - An associated partial skull and pectoral fin of a very small (about 3 ft or 1 m) Protosphyraena nitida (EPC 2003-14) that I collected in the lower chalk of southeastern Gove County (2003). This specimen is unusual both for the small size and the association of a rostrum with a pectoral fin. The specimen shows evidence of being scavenged by a shark, probably Squalicorax falcatus.


LEFT: In May, 2010, I discovered this skull of Protosphyraena perniciosa eroding from the edge of a gully.  The rostrum (bill) had already broken off and rolled down the slope. After removing enough matrix from around the specimen to put it up on a pedestal, I went back to the van to get the necessary materials (water, paper towels, aluminum foil and plaster bandages) to put a jacket on the skull. 
LEFT: Once the jacket was completed, I had to let it dry.  Then I rolled it over and removed the excess matrix.
LEFT: The matrix is carefully removed down to a point where the first bit of bone is encountered, in this case, the sagittal crest of the skull (white oval). This lowered the weight of the jacket significantly and made it much easier to carry about a quarter mile up the slope to my van. 
LEFT: It had been raining for a few days before I collected the specimen. The chalk was pretty damp around the bones and needed to dry a little before I would be able to work on it. After letting the specimen dry out for a couple of days, I removed the remaining matrix over the top of the skull. The bones are broken and there is some root damage, but otherwise the skull is in excellent condition. 
LEFT: This is the broken end of the rostrum (bill) of this specimen. They were the first recognizable pieces I saw before locating the skull. Note the distinctive patterning on this bone.
LEFT: The partially prepared skull re-assembled to show the position of the rostrum (sword). The skull is 17.5 in (44.5 cm) long. It has been donated to the Sternberg Museum of Natural History (FHSM VP-17600)
LEFT: The skull of Protosphyraena perniciosa in dorsal and ventral views. Adapted from Loomis (1900, Plate XIX). Abbreviations for labels on bones: Eth. = Ethmoid; Eth. Lat. = Ethmoid laterale; Fr. = Frontal; Sq. = Squamosal; Psp. = Parasphenoid; Osp.  = Orbitosphenoid; Asp. = Alisphenoid; Prot.  = Prootic; Oot. = Opisthotic; Sot. = Sphenoid; Ptet. = Pterotic; Bock. = Basioccipital; Eoc. = Exoccipital; Vom. = Vomer.   

LEFT: A complete set of Protosphyraena perniciosa fins (FHSM VP-80) that are on exhibit in the Sternberg Museum at Fort Hays State University, Hays, Kansas. These were collected in the lower Smoky Hill Chalk (late Coniacian) of Ellis County. Each fin measures over 36 inches, and the complete mount measures 77 inches across including the pectoral girdle (scapulo-coracoid).

vp-81a.jpg (33374 bytes) LEFT: A complete skull of Protosphyraena sp. (probably P. perniciosa) that was previously on exhibit in the original Sternberg Museum on the campus of Fort Hays State University, Hays, Kansas. This specimen (FHSM VP-81) was collected and prepared by George Sternberg from the chalk of Ellis County, and measures 15 in. (38 cm) from the back of the skull to the tip of the rostrum. Note the forward facing teeth in both the upper and lower jaws.
protofna.jpg (32236 bytes) LEFT: A field photo of a complete set of Protosphyraena perniciosa fins and shoulder girdle (scapulo-coracoids) found by Pam Everhart in the lower chalk of Trego County, in 2004.
1993-14b.jpg (4927 bytes) LEFT: The anterior portion of another Protosphyraena skull in my collection, showing the long rostrum.  This particular specimen shows evidence of scavenging by sharks, probably Squalicorax.
KE-Proto2a.jpg (21222 bytes) LEFT: A Protosphyraena perniciosa (FHSM VP-17573) skull and lower jaws in right lateral view. This nearly complete skull was found by Keith Ewell in the lower Smoky Hill Chalk (Late Coniacian) of western Trego County in 2003. Unfortunately, most of the skull had weathered out sometime earlier and all but one of the larger teeth were damaged by erosion. However, the smaller teeth on the coronoid bones at the anterior end of the lower jaws were preserved largely intact: Anterior ends of lower jaws; Left dentary; Left dentary; right dentary; right dentary.
Nosefirst1a.jpg (15317 bytes) LEFT: Fractured rostrum of a Protosphyraena skull that impacted the bottom at a high rate of speed and buried itself several inches deep in the chalky mud before hitting a buried, long-dead clam shell.

RIGHT: Dorsal and ventral views of the same rostrum showing the fractures and deformation that probably occurred during the process of preservation, not as a result on impact on the clam shell. 

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mantella.jpg (14478 bytes) LEFT: Probably the first published record of the fin of Protosphyraena (P. ferox Leidy, 1856?) is found in G. A. Mantell (1822). The drawing of the fragment from the Upper Chalk, near Lewes, England,  was done by his wife, Mary Ann Mantell.
1989-05D.jpg (18873 bytes) LEFT: For comparison with the above drawing, a photograph of a fragment of a Protosphyraena perniciosa fin from the basal Smoky Hill Chalk of Ellis County in western Kansas.  CLICK HERE FOR A CLOSE-UP OF THE EDGE OF THIS FIN.  The edge of another Protosphyraena perniciosa fin is shown here.


Protosphyraena tenuis is a bit problematic. Outwardly, it appears that the saw-toothed edges of the pectoral fins are less pronounced than in P. perniciosa. According to J.D. Stewart (pers. comm., 1994) the teeth are also much thinner, exhibiting less of a vertical bulge on the leading edge of the fin. This is not a readily quantifiable characteristic and over the years I have tended to believe that they are actually variations within the same species.

EPC1994-15a.jpg (22894 bytes) LEFT: A partial pectoral fin of Protosphyraena tenuis Loomis 1900 in my collection (EPC 1994-15). CLICK HERE FOR A DETAIL OF THE EDGE OF THIS FIN.
EPC1995-38a.jpg (29655 bytes) LEFT: A partial pectoral fin of Protosphyraena tenuis Loomis 1900 in my collection (EPC 1995-38). CLICK HERE FOR A DETAIL OF THE EDGE OF THIS FIN.


A fourth (and a very large) species of "Protosphyraena" found in the Smoky Hill Chalk is P. gladius (Cope, 1873).  According to Stewart (1988) the fins of this species have some distinct characteristics that may set P. gladius apart from other species of Protosphyraena. In addition, the skull of P. gladius was unknown, so it was not certain that it even had the sword-like rostrum typical of P. perniciosa, P. nitida and P. tenuis. A discovery made in 2003, however, showed that this genus was, instead, a giant filter-feeding (planktivorous) pachycormid. It was redescribed and renamed as Bonnerichthys gladius by Friedman et al. (2010).

AMNH 1849-Figa.jpg (54747 bytes) LEFT: Figure 3, Plate LII from Cope (1875) showing the pectoral fin of Bonnerichthys gladius, collected by B.F. Mudge from the Smoky Hill Chalk along the Solomon River in Rooks County, Kansas, and first described by Cope in 1873. (The anterior edge is at the bottom).
LEFT: The type specimen of "Protosphyraena gigas" Stewart 1899 (KUVP 338) from the Sharon Springs Member of the Pierre Shale, Logan County, KS. In this case, however, it is actually one of the few Kansas specimens of Bonnerichthys gladius from the Pierre Shale.

Stewart, A. 1899. Notice of three new Cretaceous fishes, with remarks on the Saurodontidae Cope. Kansas University Quarterly 8(3):107-112.

p_glada.jpg (12198 bytes) LEFT: Although a fair number of specimens of this species have been collected from as far back as the 1870s (Stewart (1988) lists 17), I have only collected a small piece of one... the fin fragment shown above left.

RIGHT: This complete pectoral fin (FHSM VP-212) is in the Sternberg Museum collection (88 cm long, 20 cm wide at the base) and was collected by G.F. Sternberg in 1949. Proximal end of the fin edge is HERE - Distal tip of fin edge is HERE.

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kuvp508a.jpg (10422 bytes) LEFT: A pair of fins and associated shoulder (scapulo-coracoid) elements in the University of Kansas collection are shown at left (KUVP 508). Cope (1875) remarked that, "This is a formidable weapon, and could be readily used to split wood in the fossilized condition." Note that Protosphyraena gigas (Stewart, 1899) is a junior synonym of Bonnerichthys gladius

RIGHT: A recent discovery (July 2008) of a Bonnerichthys gladius specimen in Gove County.

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JULY2008-02a.jpg (18264 bytes) LEFT: Mike Everhart and Kenshu Shimada work to remove a block of chalk containing the large fin (see above right). The block containing the fin is shown HERE

RIGHT: The fin as prepared out of the chalk (Photo by K. Shimada).

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New insights on the Upper Cretaceous pachycormid ‘Protosphyraena’ gladius (Actinopterygii: Teleostei) from North America

Matt Friedman1, Kenshu Shimada2 and Anthony Maltese3

1 University of Chicago, Committee on Evolutionary Biology, 1025 E 57th St., Chicago, IL 60637,  USA

2 DePaul University, Environmental Science Program and Department of Biological Sciences, 325 North Clifton Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60614, USA

3 Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center, 719-686-1820 Woodland Park, CO, USA

 'Protosphyraena’ gladius is an enigmatic pachycormid from the Late Cretaceous of North America, where it is known from the Coniacian-Campanian Niobrara chalks and the Campanian Pierre Shale and Selma Formations. Described remains of this species consist exclusively of pectoral fins, which can exceed one metre in length. Features of these fins link ‘P.gladius to pachycormids (Lambers, 1992), but provide no evidence linking it to other species of 'Protosphyraena'. Newly prepared material of ‘P.’ gladius reveals details of the skull roof, neurocranium, jaws, hyoid and branchial arches, operculogular series, and shoulder girdle. These remains indicate that ‘P.’ gladius cannot be placed within ’Protosphyraena’. Unlike that genus, ‘P.’ gladius is edentulous and lacks anterior extension of the rostrodermethmoid into a prominent rostrum. While ‘P.’ gladius is not closely related to 'Protosphyraena', it is very similar to two Jurassic pachycormids: Asthenocormus and Leedsichthys (Lambers, 1992). These two taxa appear to have been ram filter-feeders, and one of them–Leedsichthys– reached enormous sizes (Liston & Noè, 2004). ‘P.’ gladius also displays features consistent with filter feeding, and extends the range of this large-bodied pachycormid clade from the Late Jurassic to the Late Cretaceous. This range extension also fills a conspicuous ecological gap: no large-bodied filter feeders were known previously from the Cretaceous. The apparent extinction of this group of pachycormids at or near the end of the Cretaceous is also intriguing, because it occurs shortly before the earliest records of large-bodied, ram filter-feeding chondrichthyans (rhincodontids, cetorhinids, mobulids) in the earliest Paleogene (Shimada, 2007).

On a related note, "Ichthypriapus hubbsi" was the name given to an "odd" bone (KUVP 888) in the University of Kansas collection by Claude Hibbard (1942) ... he thought it was a clasper from an as then unidentified chimaeroid fish ... However, it was collected by H.T. Martin in close association with a large Protosphyraena gladius specimen (KUVP 465)... After he had prepared it out, Martin labeled it as an "unknown bone." I think it is pretty safe to assume it is part of the original P. gladius specimen.. For one thing, you just do not see that many co-mingled specimens in the chalk, and for another, it was noted in Schultze et al. (1982) that the "unknown bone" is actually real bone and not calcified cartilage (not something you would expect from a cartilaginous fish like a chimaeroid).

Hibbard, C. W. 1942   A new chimaeroid fish from the Niobrara Cretaceous of  Logan County, Kansas.  University Kansas Science Bulletin 28-2(11):237-240, 4 fig.

The following figures and descriptions are from: Hay, O. P., 1903. On certain genera and species of North American Cretaceous Actinopterous fishes. Bull. Amer. Mus. Nat. Hist. XIX 1-95, pls. i-v, 72 text-figs. All the specimens shown in this section are in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).

hay01a.jpg (13873 bytes) LEFT: Fig. 1. Protosphyraena nitida (Cope). No. 2105. Type of Erisichthe penetrans Cope. Rostrum seen from below. x 1/3.  eth., ethmoid; par., parasphenoid; vom., vomer; t., vomerine teeth.

LEFT: Fig. 2.  Protosphyraena nitida (Cope). No. 2105. Type of Erisichthe penetrans Cope. Rostrum seen from above.  x 1/3. With cross sections. eth., ethmoid; f., frontal bone.

RIGHT: Fig. 3. Protosphyraena nitida (Cope). No. 2121. x 1/2. den., dentary; pct., fragment of pectoral fin; spl., splenial.

hay02a.jpg (20132 bytes)
hay03a.jpg (19886 bytes) LEFT: Fig. 4.  Protosphyraena perniciosa (Cope).  No. 1901. x 1/3. cl., cleithrum; cor., coracoid; sc., scapula.  

LEFT: Fig. 5.  Protosphyraena perniciosa (Cope).   No. 1901. x 1/3. cl., cleithrum; cor., coracoid; p.cor., precoracoid.  

RIGHT: Fig. 6. Protosphyraena sp. No. 1646. x 1/3. bas., baseosts; cor., coracoid; pct. pectoral fin; sc., scapula.

RIGHT: Fig. 7. Protosphyraena perniciosa (Cope). No. 2009. x 1/3. Cleithrum seen from inner surface.

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Sometime around 1908, the University of Kansas purchased a Protosphyraena caudal fin (KUVP-293) that had been discovered by C. H. Sternberg. A short note regarding the specimen and an illustration were included in McClung (1908).  The text, Plate 13 (Left) and a recent photo (Right) are shown below:
                                                         M'CLUNG: THE KANSAS CRETACEOUS                                                                                                              245

...                       CAUDAL FIN OF PROTOSPHYRÆNA.

    "The entire skeleton of any member of this genus has not yet been discovered. There is therefore lacking a knowledge of several portions of the body, among which are the occipital region of the skull, the vertebral column and the caudal fin. Light upon all these points is afforded by material now at my disposal. I wish here to consider the caudal fin and incidentally the vertebræ. Through purchase from Mr. C. H. Sternberg the University of Kansas has come into possession of a specimen of the caudal fin, which not only shows the nature of this organ but also clearly demonstrates the absence of ossified vertebrae. In plate XIII is represented a lateral view of this specimen, from which the essential features may be understood without much description. The ossified neurals and hæmals appear very plainly, as they do in the nearly related Hyposocormus, according to Woodward, but the centra are absent. The last hæmal is considerably modified, forming a urostyle, to which many of the fin-rays attach. This bone is frequently found by collectors, but its character and relationships have not heretofore been understood. The fin-rays are fine, closely apposed and very numerous. In the specimen under consideration they are incomplete and broken, so that the exact form of the fin cannot be ascertained. Apparently it was broad and firm."

246                                   KANSAS UNIVERSITY SCIENCE BULLETIN.

     Owing. to the isolated condition of the specimen its specific position cannot be determined, and any attempt to do this would be only a guess. It is an important specimen, however, since it definitely places the genus in the family Pachycormidæ, upon the assumption that only the uncertainty of vertebral characters previously made the classification doubtful."

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ku49419a.jpg (9348 bytes) LEFT: The tail of Protosphyraena sp. (KUVP 49419) in the University of Kansas collection; collected from the Smoky Hill Chalk of Trego County. The upper lobe of the tail is complete; the lower lobe is damaged and incomplete.

RIGHT: A closer view at the same specimen. Note that the centra of the vertebrae of Protosphyraena are poorly ossified and are not preserved even though the dorsal and ventral processes are.   Protosphyraena has a distinctive bone at the base of the tail (caudal fin) called the hypural that is sometimes preserved separately. 

ku49419c.jpg (17543 bytes)

prototth.jpg (41492 bytes)

1990-56b.jpg (6116 bytes) (ABOVE) The teeth of Protosphyraena are flat and blade-shaped, and non-serrated.  They are quite unlike any other large teeth found in the Smoky Hill Chalk.  Click HERE and HERE to see other views. (RIGHT) - This section of the lower jaw of Protosphyraena shows the arrangement of the more posterior teeth.
dk-prota.jpg (17900 bytes) LEFT: Eight fragments of Protosphyraena sp. teeth collected by Keith Ewell from the Upper Dakota  Sandstone (upper Middle Cenomanian) of Russell County, KS.
KUVP414B.jpg (17697 bytes) LEFT: Albin Stewart (1898, p. 27) described a new species of Protosphyraena from the Lincoln Member (Upper Cenomanian) of the Greenhorn Limestone that had been found by S. W. Williston in 1893 in southern Mitchell County.  Stewart named the new species Protosphyraena bentonianum. The specimen (KUVP 414) consists of a 20 cm (8 in) rostrum and several unidentifiable bone fragments.  Although the type material does not contain teeth, it is likely that the teeth in the photo at above left are also from P. bentonianum. The inset is a close-up of the surface texture of the snout which Stewart believed to be distinctive for the species. However, the same texture also appears on Protosphyraena snouts from the Smoky Hill Chalk.

Note that the species name was first published as "bentonia" in 1898 by A. Stewart, but then was noted to be a typographical error by A. Stewart (1900).  

LEFT: A recently collected (2005) specimen of Protosphyraena perniciosa(?) / P. bentonianum from the Fort Hays Limestone of Jewell County (private collection). Note the same surface texture on the snout as noted above.

Other Oceans of Kansas webpages on Late Cretaceous fish:


Field Guide to Sharks and Bony Fish of the Smoky Hill Chalk



Kansas Shark Teeth

Cretoxyrhina and Squalicorax




Bony Fish


Pycnodonts and Hadrodus












Saurodon and Saurocephalus


Suggested references:

Cope, E. D. 1873. [On an extinct genus of saurodont fishes]. Proc. Acad. Nat. Sci. Phil. 24:280-281. (meeting of Dec. 17, 1872) Wherein Cope names of the genus Erisichthe and describes Erisichthe (Protosphyraena) nitida). <EM>

Cope, E.D. 1873. On two new species of Saurodontidae. Proc. Acad. Nat. Sci. Phil. 25:337-339. (naming of Portheus lestrio (Xiphactinus audax),  Portheus gladius (Protosphyraena gladius) and Daptinus (Saurodon leanus).

Cope, E.D. 1874. Review of the vertebrata of the Cretaceous period found west of the Mississippi River. U. S. Geol. Surv. Terr. Bull. 1(2):3-48.

Cope, E.D. 1875. The vertebrata of the Cretaceous formations of the West. Report, U. S. Geol. Surv. Terr. (Hayden). 2:302 p, 57 pls.

Diedrich, C. 2001. Ein pectoralflossenrest von Protosphyraena sp. (Pachycormidae, Actinopterygii) aus dem Ober-Cenoman von Halle/Westf. (NW-Deutschland). Ber. Naturwiss. Verein fur Bielfefeld u. Umgegend 41:31-44. (Report of a fairly complete specimen in Germany)

Friedman, M., Shimada, K., Martin, L., Everhart, M.J., Liston, J., Maltese, A. and Triebold, M. 2010. 100-million-year dynasty of giant planktivorous bony fishes in the Mesozoic seas. Science 327:990-993.

Hay, O.P. 1903. On certain genera and species of North American Cretaceous Actinopterous fishes. Bull. Amer. Mus. Nat. Hist. XIX 1-95, pls. i-v, 72 text-figs.

Hibbard, C.W. 1942   A new chimaeroid fish from the Niobrara Cretaceous of  Logan County, Kansas.  University Kansas Science Bulletin 28-2(11):237-240, 4 fig.

Kear, B.P. 2007. First record of a pachycormid fish (Actinopterygii: Pachycormiformes) from the lower Cretaceous of Australia. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 27(4):1033-1038.

Leidy, J. 1857. Remarks on Saurocephalus and its allies. Trans. Amer. Philos. Soc. xi pp. 91-95, with pl. vi.

Loomis, F. B. 1900. Die anatomie und die verwandtschaft der Ganoid- und Knochen-fische aus der Kreide-Formation von Kansas, U.S.A. Palaeontographica, 46: 213-283, pl. XIX-XXVII. (in German)

Mantell, G. 1822. The fossils of the South Downs; or illustrations of the geology of Sussex. Lupton Relfe, London, xiv + 327 p., 42 p. (page 319 and plate 39, first publication of a drawing the fin of Protosphyraena)

McClung, C.E. 1908. Ichthyological notes on the Kansas Cretaceous, I. Kansas Univ. Sci. Bull. IV 235-246, pls. x-xiii, 10 text-figs. (SEE ABOVE)

Schultze, H.-P., J. D. Stewart, A. M. Neuner and R. W. Coldiron. 1982. Type and figured specimens of fossil vertebrates in the collection of the University of Kansas Museum of Natural History.  Part I. Fossil fishes. Misc. Pub. University Kansas Museum Natural History 73:53 pp.

Stewart, A. 1898. A contribution to the knowledge of the ichthyic fauna of the Kansas Cretaceous. Kansas University Quarterly 7(1):22-29, pl. I, II. (Portheus lowii sp. nov., Daptinus broadheadi sp. nov., Saurocephalus dentatus sp. nov., Protosphyraena bentonia sp. nov., and Protosphyraena, sp. nov.) 

Stewart, A. 1899. Notice of three new Cretaceous fishes, with remarks on the Saurodontidae Cope. Kansas Univ. Quar. 8(3):107-112. (Xiphactinus, Protosphyraena gigas and Empo [Cimolichthys])

Stewart, A. 1900. Teleosts of the Upper Cretaceous. The University Geological Survey of Kansas. Topeka 6:257-403, 6 figs., pls. XXXIII-LXXVIII.

Stewart, J.D. 1979. Biostratigraphic distribution of species of Protosphyraena (Osteichthyes: Actinopterygii) in the Niobrara and Pierre Formations of Kansas. Proceedings of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences and Affiliated Societies, 89th Annual Meeting, p. 51-52. (abstract)  

Stewart, J.D. 1988. The stratigraphic distribution of late Cretaceous Protosphyraena in Kansas and Alabama, Geology, In Nelson, M. E. (ed.), Paleontology and biostratigraphy of western Kansas: Articles in honor of Myrl V. Walker, Fort Hays Studies, 3(10):80-94. (Science)

Stewart, J.D. 1990. Niobrara Formation vertebrate stratigraphy, pages 19-30, In Bennett, S. C. (ed.),  Niobrara Chalk Excursion Guidebook, The University of Kansas Museum of Natural History and the Kansas Geological Survey. 

Taverne, L. 1999. Révision du genre Martinichthys, poisson marin (Teleostei, Tselfatiirormes) du Crétecé supérior du Kansas (États-Unis). Geobios 33(2):211-222. (Revision of the genus Martinichthys, marine fish (Teleostei, Tselfatiiformes) from the Late Cretaceous of Kansas (United States))

Woodward, A.S. 1895.  Catalogue of the fossil fishes in the British Museum. Part 3. British Museum of Natural History, London.  Pp. i-xliii, 1-544, pls.