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Pietschellidae fam. nov., a new family of miniature percomorph fishes from the Eocene of Monte Bolca, with the description of a new genus and species



Pietschellidae fam. nov., a new family of miniature percomorph fishes from
the Eocene of Bolca, with the description of a new genus and species
(*Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra, Università degli Studi di Torino, Torino, Italia)
(**Borisyak Paleontological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia)
A new genus and species of percomorph fish, Nickcaves pterygocephalus gen. et sp. nov., is described from the Eocene (Ypresian)
deposits of the Monte Postale site of the Bolca locality, north-eastern Italy. This new percomorph fish is based on a single, very small,
well-preserved and nearly complete specimen that exhibits a unique combination of features. This new genus closely resembles another
percomorph described from the same locality, Pietschellus aenigmaticus Bannikov & Carnevale, 2011. These two taxa share a
number of features, such as the possession of a sail-like dorsal fin originating over the neurocranium, and are included herein in the
new family Pietschellidae, placed incertae sedis with the percomorph fishes. The overall morphology of the pietschellid taxa suggests
that these fishes were characterized by a benthic lifestyle. The very small body size of both these taxa as well as the shared possession of
a suite of reductive characters concur to indicate that the Pietschellidae can be considered as miniature fishes.
Key words: Percomorpha incertae sedis, new family, genus and species, Eocene, north-eastern Italy, Bolca locality.
Nickcaves pterygocephalus gen. et sp. nov., un nuovo percomorfo proviente dai depositi carbonatici eocenici (Ypresiano) del
sito di Monte Postale, nel territorio della località di Bolca, Italia nord-orientale, viene descritto sulla base di un esemplare
parzialmente completo di dimensioni estremamente ridotte e caratterizzato da una combinazione di caratteri peculiare.
Nickcaves pterygocephalus mostra una spiccata somiglianza ad un altro percomorfo rinvenuto nel medesimo sito, Pietschellus
aenigmaticus Bannikov & Carnevale, 2011. Questi due taxa condividono numerosi caratteri, tra cui una pinna dorsale a
forma di vela la cui origine è localizzata lungo il margine dorsale del neurocranio, e vengono inseriti all’interno della famiglia
Pietschellidae fam. nov., considerata incertae sedis tra i Percomorpha. Nel complesso, la morfologia corporea dei taxa della
famiglia Pietschellidae suggerisce uno stile di vita bentonico. La ridottissima taglia corporea di entrambe le specie, che
condividono inoltre una serie di semplificazioni scheletriche, suggerisce che i membri della famiglia Pietschellidae possano
essere considerati come taxa miniaturizzati.
Parole chiave: Percomorpha incertae sedis, nuova famiglia, nuovo genere e nuova specie, Eocene, Italia nordorientale, località
di Bolca.
The Eocene fossiliferous locality of Bolca, about 25 km
NE of Verona, north-eastern Italy, is known worldwide
for the beautiful and exquisitely well-preserved fishes,
probably representing the most famous Italian Fossil-La-
gerstätte and certainly being one of the most important
paleoichthyofaunistic assemblages. Fossil fishes from Bol-
ca are known since the sixteenth century and have been
regularly excavated since the mid-nineteenth century, re-
sulting in the extraction of a huge number of specimens
currently disseminated in the museums, research insti-
tutions and private collections around the world (e.g.,
Blot, 1969). Fish skeletal remains are remarkably abun-
dant in the productive sites making this locality as the
most diverse of all the Cenozoic marine fish assemblages,
with more than 240 documented taxa (see Carnevale et
al., 2014; Bannikov, 2014). Overall, the fish assemblage
of Bolca consists of sharks, batoids, pycnodontiforms
and teleosts, representing one of the earliest record of a
spiny-rayed fishes dominated ichthyofauna, with a diver-
sity foreshadowing that of today (Patterson, 1993).
Most of the fish specimens from Bolca have been
collected from the Pesciara cave site, but a relevant
number of skeletons has been also extracted over the
years from another extremely productive site, that of
Monte Postale, located a few hundreds metres from the
Pesciara cave site. The geology of this site was described
in detail by Fabiani (1914, 1915). The Eocene strata were
considered of Lutetian or late Ypresian age by Malaroda
Studi e ricerche sui giacimenti terziari di Bolca, XVI - Miscellanea Paleontologica, 13, 2015: 17 - 26
(1954) and Hottinger (1960), respectively. However, an
updated biozonal assignment of the fossiliferous layers
remains elusive, even if these are currently regarded as
approximately coeval of those of the Pesciara site, dat-
ing back to the late Ypresian, slightly less than 50 Ma
(Papazzoni et al., 2014a; Trevisani, 2015).
The taxonomic composition of the fish fauna of the
Monte Postale site has been traditionally considered as
very similar to that of the Pesciara site (Bannikov and
Zorzin, 2004). Controlled excavations at this site in the
2000s led to the accumulation of a large collection of
fishes, invertebrates and plant remains, including sev-
eral new previously undescribed taxa. The goal of this
paper is therefore to describe a small acanthomorph
fish known by a single individual and collected at the
Monte Postale site in 2003. The fossil closely resembles
the only known specimen of Pietschellus aenigmaticus
also collected at the Monte Postale site in 2003 and
described by Bannikov and Carnevale (2011). The de-
tailed morphological and comparative analysis of the
new specimen revealed that these two fossils are the sole
members of the new family Pietschellidae fam. nov. in-
troduced herein.
Material and methods
The specimen documented herein was found among
the undescribed material collected at the Monte Post-
ale site during summer 2003 and housed in the Museo
Civico di Storia Naturale di Verona (MCSNV). The
fossil consists of a relatively well-preserved complete ar-
ticulated skeleton (with fragmentary counterpart) pre-
served on the surface of inframillimetrically laminated
micritic limestone. The specimen was examined using
a Wild Heerbrugg stereomicroscope equipped with a
camera lucida drawing arm and measurements were
taken with a dial caliper to the nearest 0.1 mm. Stand-
ard length (SL) is used throughout.
Some details of the specimen examined were best
seen when the specimen was moistened with alcohol.
The specimen was prepared by needle.
Systematic paleontology
Subdivision Teleostei sensu Patterson & Rosen, 1977
Percomorphacea Wiley & Johnson, 2010
Family Pietschellidae fam. nov.
Type genus
Pietschellus Bannikov & Carnevale, 2011.
A percomorph family unique in having the following
combination of characters: body moderately elongate
with shortened abdominal region; neurocranium deep,
with nearly smooth dorsal surface; premaxilla with dis-
tinct ascending and articular processes; jaws with small
conical teeth; vertebrae 25 (8+17); ribs and intermuscu-
lar bones absent; caudal skeleton with parhypural plus
hypurals 1-4 fused with terminal centrum; two epurals;
hypurapophysis absent; haemal spine of the penulti-
mate vertebra thick and fused to the centrum; caudal
fin rounded with 11 or 12 unbranched principal rays and
two upper and two lower procurrent rays; supraneural
absent; sail-like dorsal fin with origin shifted forward
over the neurocranium; 5 or 6 dorsal-fin spines; anal
fin with a spine and 11 to 12 rays; terminal dorsal- and
anal-fin pterygiophores support two rays; dorsal- and
anal-fin stays absent; anal-fin pterygiophores and ver-
tebrae in one-to-one relationship; body covered with
sparse unicuspid dermal scale spinules.
Type genus plus Nickcaves gen. nov.
Several osteological features clearly demonstrate that
the members of the family Pietschellidae pertain to the
percomorph clade, including possession of dorsal- and
anal-fin spines, absence of the second ural centrum, re-
duced number of hypurals, and caudal fin with less than
17 principal rays (see Johnson and Patterson, 1993; Wiley
and Johnson, 2010). Within percomorphs, pietschellids
exhibit a unique combination of features that strongly
support their separate status (Bannikov and Carnevale,
2011). However, some of the salient features characteris-
tic of these fishes are reductive or occur homoplasiously
in several unrelated percomorphs groups; some of the
reductive features are probably associated with the ben-
thic lifestyle of pietschellids (highly consolidated caudal
skeleton; caudal fin rounded; substantial one-to-one re-
lationship between pterygiophores and vertebrae) or to
the relative body elongation, being the product of con-
vergent evolution (e.g., Gosline, 1963; Gill and Mooi,
1993). Consequently, it is not possible for the moment
to provide any unambiguous hypothesis of a sister group
relationship with the known percomorphs and, for this
reason, the Pietschellidae should be placed as incertae
sedis within the highly diverse percomorph clade.
Genus Pietschellus Bannikov & Carnevale, 2011.
Pietschellus: Bannikov and Carnevale, 2011: 53.
Type Species
Pietschellus aenigmaticus Bannikov & Carnevale, 2011
from the Monte Postale site, Bolca locality, north-east-
ern Italy; late early Eocene (Fig. 1).
Emended Diagnosis
A member of the family Pietschellidae unique in having
the following combination of characters: basisphenoid
present; neural spine of the first abdominal vertebrae
greatly shortened; abdominal vertebrae five to eight
with triangular thickened parapophyses of progressive-
ly increasing length; caudal fin rounded with 12 (6+6)
unbranched rays and two upper and two lower procur-
rent rays; caudal-fin skeleton with a short autogenous
fifth hypural; neural arch of the penultimate vertebra
reduced to a low crest; dorsal fin notched and continu-
ous with six spines and 15 rays; vacant interneural space
between neural spines of sixth and seventh vertebrae;
dorsal- and anal-fin rays distally branched; anal fin con-
tains a short spine and 11 rays; first anal-fin pterygio-
phore slender; basipterygium short and massive with an
anteriorly directed spur; pelvic fin contains one spine
and three segmented rays.
Type species only.
Pietschellus aenigmaticus was described by Bannikov and
Carnevale (2011) based on a single specimen measur-
ing 18 mm SL (see Table 1). Like the new specimen
described herein and representing the holotype of a
new genus and species, the single available individual
of Pietschellus aenigmaticus (MCSNV I.G. VR. 66741)
was collected at the Monte Postale site during the 2003
excavation led by the Museo Civico di Storia Naturale
di Verona. The fossil consists of a nearly complete and
well-preserved articulated skeleton. Measurements for
Pietschellus aenigmaticus are summarized in Table 1.
Genus Nickcaves gen. nov.
Type Species
Nickcaves pterygocephalus gen. et sp. nov. from the Monte
Postale site, Bolca locality, north-eastern Italy; late early
A member of the family Pietschellidae unique in having
the following combination of characters: neural spines
of the three anterior abdominal vertebrae well-devel-
oped and anteroposterioly expanded; abdominal verte-
brae three to eight with triangular thickened parapo-
physes of progressively increasing length; neural spine
of the penultimate vertebra remarkably enlarged with
lobate profile; caudal fin rounded with 11 (5+6) un-
branched rays and two upper and two lower procur-
rent rays; dorsal fin continuous with five spines and 17
rays; height of dorsal-fin spines gradually decreasing
posteriorly; first dorsal-fin spine massive and strongly
Fig. 1Pietschellus aenigmaticus Bannikov & Carnevale, 2011. Reconstruction of the skeleton, right side, lateral view [from Bannikov and
Carnevale (2011, fig. 2), reversed]. Scale spinules omitted.
ossified; vacant interneural space between neural spines
of fifth and sixth vertebrae; dorsal- and anal-fin rays un-
branched; pterygiophores of the spinous portion of the
dorsal fin greatly expanded, nearly triangular in out-
line; anal fin contains a short spine and 12 rays; a series
of unicuspid dermal scale spinules associated with the
bases of the dorsal- and anal-fin rays.
Type species only.
The genus is named in honour of the Australian art-
ist Nicholas Edward Cave, better known as Nick Cave;
gender masculine.
Nickcaves pterygocephalus gen. et sp. nov.
Figure 2
MCSNV I.G. VR. 66660, nearly complete well-pre-
served articulated skeleton in part and counterpart
[counterpart (MCSNV I.G. VR. 666601) highly frag-
mentary]; 16.5 mm SL (Fig. 2A).
Type Locality and Horizon
North-eastern Italy, Bolca locality, Monte Postale site;
late early Eocene, late Ypresian, about 50 Ma (Papazzo-
ni et al., 2014b).
As for the genus.
After the Greek words πτερο
ν (for wing) and κεφαλη
(for skull).
Measurements for Nickcaves pterygocephalus are sum-
marized in Table 1. The body is relatively elongate and
nearly cylindrical, with a short and deep caudal pedun-
cle (Fig. 2). The head is moderately large; its length is
contained more that three times in SL. The snout is
short and compact. The orbit is relatively large. The
mouth is terminal and characterized by a moderately
developed gape. The continuous dorsal fin is extremely
elongate, occupying more than three fourths of the SL;
the dorsal-fin spines gradually decrease in height poste-
riorly in the series, with the posterior one being approx-
imately of the same length with the anteriormost dor-
sal-fin ray. The three posterior dorsal-fin rays of both
the dorsal and anal fins are shorter than the preceding
ones, producing an almost vertical posterior margin of
these fins. Overall, the dorsal-fin rays are shorter than
the opposite anal-fin elements. The inadequate preser-
vation of both pectoral and pelvic fins and girdles do
not allow to properly define their mutual position along
the body axis. The caudal fin appears to be rounded.
The neurocranium is short and rather deep, reach-
ing its maximum height in the orbital region and grad-
ually sloping in the otic and occipital regions (Fig. 2B).
The outer surface of the neurocranial bones seems to be
smooth. The ethmoid region is stout and strongly os-
sified. The post-orbital portion of the neurocranium is
antero-posteriorly compressed and laterally expanded.
The limits and morphology of the neurocranial bones
is difficult to recognize because of inadequate preserva-
tion. The only neurocranial bone that is clearly identifi-
able is the nearly straight parasphenoid, which occupies
more than half of the basicranial length. There is no
evidence of a supraoccipital crest.
The infraorbital bones are not preserved.
The premaxilla bears a very long and slender ascend-
ing process separated from a reduced articular process;
a well-developed postmaxillary process characterized by
a gently rounded dorsal profile is also present; the alve-
olar process appears to be robust and characterized by
Fig. 2Nickcaves pterygocephalus gen. et sp. nov.: A - holotype,
MCSNV I.G. VR. 66660 (wet with alcohol to improve contrast),
scale bar 5 mm; B - reconstruction of the skeleton, right side, lateral
view; body scale spinules omitted.
an almost straight ventral margin bearing a few small
and conical teeth (Fig. 2B). The maxilla is large with a
stout articular head. The mandible is relatively short,
its length is contained more than seven times in SL; it
is nearly quadrangular in outline, being remarkably low
in the symphyseal region.
The suspensorium (Fig. 2B) is poorly preserved and
most of its elements but the quadrate cannot be prop-
erly recognized. The main shaft of the hyomandibula is
almost vertically oriented. The quadrate is subtriangular
in outline, fan-like, with a stout and short articular head.
The bones of the pterygoid series are thin and laminar.
The ectopterygoid appears to be rather elongate.
Due to inadequate preservation, the opercular bones
are difficult to interpret. What appears to be the cres-
cent-shaped anterior profile of the preopercle is recog-
nizable. The opercle is roughly triangular in outline,
with a stout posterior spine representing the distal tip
of an horizontal thickened ridge located in the upper
fourth of the bone.
The hyoid bar is large, thick and well ossified (Fig. 2B).
Not less than five branchiostegal rays seem to be present.
The branchial skeleton is not exposed in the specimen.
The vertebral column consists of 25 vertebrae, eight
abdominal plus 17 caudal (Fig. 2B). The abdominal por-
tion of the vertebral column is contained slightly more
than two times in the length of the caudal portion. All
the centra, except for the terminal urostylar one are
amphicoelus and midlaterally constricted. The first two
centra are shorter than the remaining ones, which are
approximately equal in length. With exception of the
first two, all the centra are subrectangular, longer than
high. The neural spines of the three anterior vertebrae
are notably expanded anteroposteriorly. Most of the
neural spines are inclined posteriorly, whereas several
posterior abdominal and anterior caudal vertebrae have
the neural spines anteriorly inclined. The distal tips of
the neural spines of the anterior six vertebrae are point-
ed, whereas those of the following vertebrae are blunt.
The haemal spines are similar to their opposite neural
spines but somewhat stronger inclined. All the abdom-
inal vertebrae except for the anterior two bear strong
parapophyses of progressively increasing size. The
parapophysis of the posterior abdominal vertebra is
extremely developed and closely resembles the haemal
spine of the first caudal vertebra; however, based on its
anatomical position and the absence of direct relation-
ships with the anal-fin endoskeleton, it is reasonable to
interpret it as a greatly developed parapophysis (see also
Bannikov and Carnevale, 2011). There is no evidence of
ribs and intermuscular bones. The terminal urostylar
vertebra constitutes a single fused element (first preural
plus first and second ural centra). The configuration of
the caudal skeleton (Fig. 2B) is difficult to interpret,
and more particularly the upper portion of what ap-
pears to be a fan-like structure possibly produced by
the coalescence of the hypurals and the parhypural;
however, it is not possible to conclusively define the
morphology of such a structure for which additional
better preserved material would be necessary. There is
no evidence of a parhypurapophysis. Two rod-like epu-
rals can be recognized. The penultimate vertebra bears a
very large neural spine with a nearly lobate profile. The
haemal spine of the penultimate vertebra is remarkably
expanded anteroposteriorly and appears to be fused to
the centrum. The haemal spine of the antepenultimate
vertebra is thicker than those of the preceding vertebrae
of the caudal peduncle. The caudal fin contains five up-
per and six lower unbranched principal rays, plus two
pointed dorsal and ventral procurrent rays.
The sail-like dorsal fin inserts above the top of
the head, at the level of the second half of the or-
bit. It consists of five spines plus 17 soft segment-
ed but unbranched rays (Fig. 2B; dorsal-fin formula:
II/I/I/I/1//1/1/1/1/1/1/1/1/1/1/1/1/1/1/2), supported by 20
pterygiophores. There are no supraneurals. The dor-
sal-fin spines are pointed, heavily ossified and gradually
decrease in length backward. The first spine is especial-
ly massive and stout, measuring about three times the
length of the fifth one; it is in supernumerary association
with the first dorsal-fin pterygiophore. The height of the
dorsal-fin rays gradually increases posteriorly up to the
14th element of the series. The longest dorsal fin ray (14th)
is slightly shorter than the first dorsal-fin spine. The first
pterygiophore is bent forward over the posterodorsal
portion of the neurocranium. The pterygiophores of the
spinous portion of the dorsal fin are greatly enlarged and
subtriangular in shape. The two terminal dorsal-fin rays
are supported by the posteriormost pterygiophore. The
first dorsal-fin pterygiophore lies between the rear of the
neurocranium and the neural spine of the first vertebra.
With exception of the space between the neural spines
of the fifth and sixth vertebrae that is vacant, all the dor-
sal-fin pterygophores exhibit a one-to-one relationship
with the underlying vertebrae.
The anal fin inserts below the fourth caudal ver-
tebra and includes a single short and pointed spine
plus 12 soft unbranched rays (Fig. 2B; anal-fin formula:
/I+1/1/1/1/1/1/1/1/1/1/2/) supported by 1 1 pterygiophores.
The anal-fin spine is in supernumerary association with
the first pterygiophore. The morphology of the anal-fin
pterygiophores is similar to that of the opposite dor-
sal-fin pterygiophores. The first anal-fin pterygiophore
is longest and situated behind the haemal spine of the
first caudal vertebra. The two terminal anal-fin rays are
supported by the posteriormost pterygiophore. The lat-
ter inserts in the space between the 11th and 12th haemal
spines, being opposite to the penultimate dorsal-fin
pterygiophore. The anal-fin pterygiophores show a
one-to-one relationship with the overlying vertebrae.
There is no evidence of dorsal- and anal-fin stays (in
the sense of Weitzman, 1962).
The pectoral girdle is poorly preserved and only a
few bones are at least partially recognizable (Fig. 2B).
The cleithrum appears to be slender and elongate. Both
the contralateral postcleithra are clearly exposed in the
specimen; these are elongate, slender and distally point-
ed. What appear to be the pectoral-fin rays are elongate
and insert low on the flank at the level of the fifth ab-
dominal vertebra.
The pelvic girdle cannot be determined. The pelvic
fin appears to originate approximately at the same level of
the pectoral fin. The pelvic-fin rays are elongate. It is not
possible to define the original complements of pectoral
and pelvic-fin rays; all of them are definitely unbranched.
The body is uniformly covered by small, pointed
dermal scale spinules lacking a basal plate. A series of
these spinules is associated with the bases of dorsal- and
anal-fin rays (Fig. 2B).
Taxonomic discussion
As pointed out above, several features concur to
demonstrate that the family Pietschellidae pertains to
the highly diverse and morphologically heterogeneous
percomorph clade. However, within the percomorphs
the relationships of the members of this Eocene fam-
ily remain elusive. Looking for the possible relatives,
Bannikov and Carnevale (2011) surveyed several groups
and concluded that most of the features shared with
blennioids, callionymoids, cottoids, lophiiforms, ptery-
gocephalids, scorpaenoids, and trachinoids are prob-
ably associated to their similar lifestyle or represent
the product of convergent or parallel evolution. As a
consequence, these enigmatic fishes characterized by a
remarkable forward shift of the dorsal-fin origin over
the head were placed as incertae sedis within the per-
comorphs. The peculiar set of morphological features
exhibited by Nickcaves, the new pietschellid genus de-
scribed herein, definitely confirms the hypotheses pro-
vided by Bannikov and Carnevale (2011) based on the
genus Pietschellus alone. The skeletal anatomy of the
new genus suggests that the overall osteological struc-
ture of the new Eocene family was rather conservative.
Despite Nickcaves differs from Pietschellus in many re-
spects, they share a clearly recognizable body plan that
can be easily separated from that of all the other perco-
morphs. The differences between these genera concern
morphometric, meristic and skeletal features.
Most of the morphometric peculiarities of Nickcaves
are related to its relative elongation of the body and the
extension of the dorsal fin and its portions. In particular,
as evidenced in Table 1, Nickcaves differs from Pietschel-
lus in having a less deep body, a shorter snout, a much
slender and elongate mandible, more anterior insertion
of median fins, and longer dorsal fin. The overall de-
sign of the dorsal fin of Nickcaves is remarkably different
from that of Pietschellus in having a gradual backward
decrease of the height of the spines and a subsequent
gradual increase of the height of the soft rays up to the
14th element of the series rather than a notched profile of
its anterior region due to a steep decrease of the height
of the posterior three dorsal-fin spines.
The composition of the median fins of the two pi-
etschellid genera is clearly different. The caudal fin of
Nickcaves has five upper and six lower principal rays
whereas that of Pietschellus contains six upper and six
lower principal rays. The dorsal fin of Nickcaves con-
tains five spines plus 17 soft rays whereas that of Piet-
schellus has six spines plus 15 soft rays. Consequently,
the insertion pattern of the dorsal-fin pterygiophores in
the interneural spaces reflects these compositional dif-
ferences. Nickcaves exhibits a vacant space between the
neural spines of the fifth and sixth vertebrae and the an-
teriormost pterygiophore inserts in the space between
the rear of the neurocranium and the neural spine of
the first vertebra. The anteriormost dorsal-fin pterygio-
phore of Pietschellus inserts in the first interneural space
(between the neural spines of the first and second verte-
brae), and the vacant space is located between the neural
spines of the sixth and the seventh vertebrae. Moreover,
the two posterior dorsal-fin pterygiophores of Pietschel-
lus insert in a single interneural space, whereas there is a
substantial one-to-one relationship between dorsal-fin
pterygiophores and underlying vertebrae in Nickcaves.
The anal fin of Nickcaves contains a single spine plus 12
soft rays whereas that of Pietschellus has a single spine
plus 11 soft rays.
Finally, the skeleton of Nickcaves includes a series
of unique features that reinforce the morphometric
and meristic evidences discussed above. The ascending
process of the premaxilla of Nickcaves is extremely thin
and slender, whereas it is stout and robust in Pietschellus
(see Figs. 1-2). Some of the unique features of Nickcaves
pertain to the anterior abdominal vertebrae. The neural
spine of the anterior abdominal vertebra is well-devel-
oped and expanded in Nickcaves and very short in Piet-
schellus. The neural spines of the two following abdom-
inal vertebrae are notably expanded anteroposteriorly
in Nickcaves, whereas these are slender and relatively
thin in Pietschellus. The third and fourth abdominal
vertebrae of Nickcaves bear strong parapophyses, which
are absent in Pietschellus. Another difference between
these two pietschellid genera can be easily observed
in the penultimate vertebra that is characterized by a
very large neural spine with lobate profile in Nickcaves
and by a low crest-like neural arch in Pietschellus. The
dorsal- and anal-fin pterygiophores of Nickcaves are re-
markably enlarged compared to the thin and slender
elements characteristic of Pietschellus; in particular, the
pterygiophores of the spinous portion of the dorsal fin
of Nickcaves are broadly expanded and nearly triangu-
lar in outline, whereas those of Pietschellus are delicate
and approximately L-shaped. The distal ends of most
dorsal- and anal-fin rays are bifurcated in Pietschellus,
whereas these are always unbranched in Nickcaves.
Moreover, the bases of the dorsal- and anal-fin rays of
Nickcaves are associated with one or two pointed der-
mal scale spinules similar to those that cover part of the
body; this association was not observed in Pietschellus
(Bannikov and Carnevale, 2011).
Concluding remarks
One of the most striking features of Nickcaves and
Pietschellus is their very small body size. Body size is
one of the most obvious features of an animal with a
number of prominent ecological and evolutionary im-
plications (e.g., Peters, 1983; Hanken and Wake, 1993).
As documented above, both the pietschellid taxa are
known from individuals measuring less than 20 mm
SL. However, despite their very small size, the head and
axial skeleton of both genera are robust, solidly ossified
and completely developed, suggesting that the available
specimens represent adult individuals. The tendency to-
wards very small body size is relatively common among
fishes, in both marine and freshwater environments.
Numerous examples of marine fishes exhibiting a very
small body size have been documented (e.g., Tyler,
1970; Johnson and Brothers, 1989; Carnevale, 2008),
particularly among tropical gobies (e.g., Lachner and
Karnella, 1980; Winterbottom and Emery, 1981; Jew-
ett and Lachner, 1983; Winterbottom, 1990). Several
ecological hypotheses were proposed to explain the
existence of very small-sized fishes, including life-his-
tory strategies (Marzluff and Dial, 1991), resource par-
titioning allowing coexistence with larger competitors
(Schoener, 1974), and behaviour and habitat associa-
tions that reduce predation (Werner, 1984). Small-sized
species are usually short lived, exhibiting early maturity
and high reproductive output (see Begon et al., 1996).
According to Hutchinson (1959), small size permits a
deeper specialization to small and diversified elements
of the environmental mosaic. In particular, small-sized
fish species appear to be able to utilize the fine-grain
aspects of the environment, being more specialized in
terms of habitat use than large species (e.g., Munday
and Jones, 1998). This is particularly true in the tropi-
cal shallow-water benthic biotopes that offer a complex
mosaic of habitat at a fine spatial scale. Overall, small-
sized fish species tend to occupy restricted and sheltered
habitats and microhabitats not available to the larger
taxa (e.g., holes and crevices in reefs, branches of corals,
surface of sponges, symbiotic relationships with anem-
ones and echinoderms, and so on; see e.g., Tyler and
Böhlke, 1972; Greenfield and Johnson, 1990; Fautin
and Allen, 1992; Clarke, 1994; Patton, 1994; Randall
et al., 1997). The skeletal configuration of Pietschellus
led us (Bannikov and Carnevale, 2011) to hypothesize
that it was characterized by a benthic lifestyle. A similar
lifestyle can be therefore suggested for Nickcaves, which
exhibits a very similar morphology. The ecological spe-
cialization of pietschellid fishes is extremely problem-
atic to define based exclusively on their morphology.
However, the overall aspect of these Eocene benthic
fishes characterized by a sail-like dorsal fin is in some
ways reminiscent of that of certain extant blennioid
fishes that use the well-developed dorsal, anal and pel-
vic fins for flagging or other display behaviour patterns
(see Smith et al., 1998).
The comparative osteological analysis of Nickcaves
confirms the presence of a suite of reductive features
(cranial bones not ornamented; absence of ribs, in-
termuscular bones and supraneurals, reduced number
of caudal-fin rays; unbranched median-fin rays) also
observed in Pietschellus (see Bannikov and Carnevale,
2011), thereby representing some of the distinctive
characters defining the new family Pietschellidae. The
presence of these reductive features is clearly indicative
of the overall structural simplification of certain char-
acter complexes in the two pietschellid genera, primar-
ily in the axial skeleton. According to Weitzman and
Vari (1988), a diminutive size of less than 25-26 mm SL
associated to the presence of reductive morphological
features and to an overall tendency to structural simpli-
fication are characteristic of miniature fishes. The use
of these criteria strongly supports the conclusion than
Nickcaves and Pietschellus are miniature taxa. The ana-
tomical consequences of miniaturization are problem-
atic to quantify. Miniaturized taxa may be dwarfed im-
ages of their larger relatives, or may closely resemble an
early developmental stage of them (Britz and Kottelat,
2003), or, in many cases, may exhibit one of the vari-
ous intermediate stages in between these extremes. The
presence of reductive features associated with the very
small size are often considered as indicative of progene-
sis, an evolutionary process resulting in paedomorphic
phenotypes in which a truncated development with an
accelerated maturation produces dwarfed adults charac-
terized by the larval features (see Gould, 1977). Extreme
and less extreme cases of developmentally truncated lar-
val-like marine fishes are known primarily among gobi-
oids (e.g., Springer, 1983, 1988; Johnson and Brothers,
1993). Despite the presence of several reductive features,
the robust skeletal structure of pietschellid fishes does
not exhibit the typical traits of larval-like fishes charac-
terized by progenetic expression (e.g., Springer, 1983;
Johnson and Brothers, 1993). Therefore, the osteology
of both Nickcaves and Pietschellus seems to indicate that
miniaturization does not always involve the emergence
of extreme developmental truncation (see also Johnson
and Brothers, 1989). Conversely, these Eocene benthic
percomorphs should be regarded as “proportioned
dwarfs” (in the sense of Gould, 1971), in which the
miniaturization is associated to a general simplification
of certain axial skeletal structures. As a final note, it is
necessary to take into account that miniaturization is
not only associated with reduction of features but also
with the emergence of morphological novelties (Hank-
en, 1993). The sail-like dorsal fin, the spinulose dermal
cover and at least some of the reductive characters typ-
ical of pietschellid fishes might be also interpreted as
morphological novelties, representing some of the final
products of miniaturization.
We are very grateful to Giuseppe Minciotti, Director
of the MCSNV for providing funding for the travel of
AFB in 2015 to Verona to engage in this and other stud-
ies. We also thank Roberto Zorzin and Anna Vaccari at
the MCSNV for their continuing help in facilitating
our research on the fishes of Bolca. Thanks are also
due to Federica Giudice for the improvement of the
English. The research of GC was supported by grants
(ex-60% 2013 and 2014) from the Università degli Studi
di Torino. AFB was supported by the Russian Founda-
tion for Basic Research, project no. 14-04-00005. The
photograph is courtesy of Leonardo Latella (MCSNV).
Nickcaves pterygocephalus Pietschellus aenigmaticus
Standard length 16.5 18.0
Head length 28.4 25.9
Maximum body depth 30.0 34.9
Snout length 7.7 10.1
Orbit diameter 7.7 7.7
Mandible length 13.4 12.5
Caudal peduncle depth 10.9 12.8
Predorsal length 16.9 22.9
Predorsal (soft dorsal) length 40.4 46.5
Preanal length 62.3 54.5
Prepelvic length ~37 22.4
Dorsal-fin base length 76.5 72.4
Spinous dorsal-fin base length 23.5 30.6
Soft dorsal-fin base length 51.9 46.8
Anal-fin base length 30.6 31.6
First dorsal-fin spine length 21.0 24.8
Last dorsal-fin spine length 6.2 (fifth spine) 4.0 (sixth spine)
Longest dorsal-fin ray length ~18 24.2
Anal-fin spine length 3.0 4.4
Longest anal-fin ray length ~21 19.5
Longest caudal-fin ray length ~18 26.3
Table 1. Synopsis of morphometric values of pietschellid taxa. Standard length in mm. All other measurements are as
percentage of SL.
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Addresses of the authors
Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra
Università degli Studi di Torino
Via Valperga Caluso, 35
I-10125 Torino
Borisyak Paleontological Institute of the Russian Acad-
emy of Sciences
Profsoyuznya 123
Moscow 117997
... A comprehensive analysis of recently collected material (see led to the discovery of what have been interpreted as putative cryptobenthic taxa (Bannikov & Carnevale, 2009Carnevale & Bannikov, 2015). These are small (adult length less than 50 mm) fishes that today represent a very important component of the coral reef food webs, and live near or within the seabed where they are visually or behaviourally cryptic (e.g., Goatley & Brandl, 2017). ...
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