Field of Science

Another Case of Mistaken Identity

Just the other day, Adam Yates showed us a couple of photos of a fossil that had been identified as dinosaurian, but actually belonged to a fish. Identifying isolated pieces of things can be a hazardous activity, and a mistaken identification can become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy - once the idea of a certain identity for your specimen has developed, you will tend to find "characters" that support your identification. Palaeontology, of course, presents researchers with no shortage of fragmentary remains, and it is not entirely surprising that a few snafus have occured. Adam referred to the case of Aachenosaurus multidens, a "hadrosaur" described in 1888 that was soon reidentified as a piece of petrified wood. A similar fate befell the "sauropod jaw" Succinodon putzeri (making the first four letters of the species name even more apropos). But while the most famous (and most dramatic) examples of such misidentifications involve fossils, studies of recent organisms have not been entirely free of impostors.

The figure above from Huys (2001) shows two views of the paratype of Megallecto thirioti, described by Gotto in 1986. The two specimens originally assigned to this species came from a plankton haul off the coast of Mauretania. Gotto identified them as parasitic copepods belonging to the family Splanchnotrophidae, and suggested that their hosts might be pteropods from the same haul.

Parasitic copepods can certainly be very strange creatures. While free-living males (and larvae of both sexes) may look like fairly ordinary copepods, the parasitic females may have highly derived morphologies that barely resemble crustaceans, let alone copepods. Consider the female of another splanchnotrophid, Arthurius elysiae (also from Huys, 2001):

When Huys (2001) revised the Splanchnotrophidae, however, he discovered that Gotto's Megallecto was (A) not a splanchnotrophid, and (B) not even a copepod. In fact:

'Megallecto' was nothing but a large chunk of the detached head of Phrosina semilunata, a pelagic amphipod. Phrosina belongs to a group of amphipods known as Hyperiidea. Most hyperiids feed on gelatinous plankton such as jellyfish or salps. They may or may not feed on pteropods.


Huys, R. 2001. Splanchnotrophid systematics: A case of polyphyly and taxonomic myopia. Journal of Crustacean Biology 21 (1): 106-156.

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