When Sabers Become Spikes
I’m a fan of the great late hippy poet Richard Brautigan. My interest was piqued one day when I read a short poem of his called ‘The Fish Music’. The last line in it read “the trout waited patiently for the dinosaurs to go away”. I laughed out loud.
But were there actually trout in the days of the dinosaurs? I loved the idea so I did a colored pencil drawing of trout in a pond surrounded by dinosaurs all leering down at the lovely speckled fish below.
But now I really wanted to know if this scenario had any truth to it, so I reached out to some ichthyologists I knew at the University of Washington’s fish collection. They weren’t sure about salmonids that might have lived in the late Cretaceous but they mentioned a big saber toothed salmon from the Pliocene rocks of Oregon.
I was gobsmacked. This had to be the coolest salmon ever! The UW crew were kind enough to send me the scientific paper written by Lavender and Miller in 1972.
Wanting badly to draw this creatures accurately as I could I contacted a few paleoichthyologists I knew, experts in the ancient fishes of North America. A couple of them told me they thought the big ‘fang’s' pointed downward lousy like a saber toothed ‘cat’. But others thought they might have pointed outward. This confusion came about because the first skull ever found of this fish and published in that scientific paper in 72 didn’t have the big upper teeth attached to the skull.
So in 1990 I did a pastel drawing called ‘the Sag of the Saber Toothed Salmon”. It was my first attempt at drawing what was then called Smilodonichthys rastrosus. In that drawing I drew the teeth both ways, pointing out and pointing downwards and of course I had to draw the saber toothed salmon battling saber toothed cats.
A few years later a scientist friend named Gerald (Jerry) Smith at the University of Michigan realized after much study that this big fish was indeed a Pacific salmon, so Jerry moved it into that genus and renamed it Oncorhynchus rastrosus. His analysis places it as a sister species to today’s Sockeye salmon, which are darn delicious. Imagine the fillets on this gigantic fish!
Jerry also postulates that O. rastrossus easily reached 8 feet in length and probably weighed in the 400 pound range. He also believes it was a plankton feeder since it has an unusually large number of gill rakers.
More recent discoveries in eastern Oregon show that the so called fangs actually pointed sideways and not downward like a saber tooth. The sideways pointing teeth were use like spikes by spawning males to fiercely defend their territory. The females probably used their sideways spikes like shovels to dig grooves in the river gravel to lay their eggs in.
The big fighting spikes were reinforced by massive bone nodules on the snout of the fish. In life the teeth were probably razor sharp and could also be used like weapons to deter large predators. I can only imagine the force a 400 pound salmon could use on a hapless fisherman. It would make you think twice before landing one in your boat!
So I am now calling it the GIANT SPIKE TOOTHED SALMON, and I hope you will too! They lived all along the pacific coast of North America from 3 to 5 million years ago. Now if we could only extract some DNA and cross breed it with a Sockeye. Mmmmmm.
- Ray Troll