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Concept: Sarcopterygii


gen. et sp. nov. is described from the Famennian Worange Point Formation; the holotype is amongst the largest tristichopterids and sarcopterygians documented by semi-articulated remains from the Devonian Period. The new taxon has dentary fangs and premaxillary tusks, features assumed to be derived for large Northern Hemisphere tristichopterids (, , ). It resembles in ornament, but is distinguished by longer proportions of the parietal compared to the post-parietal shield, and numerous differences in shape and proportions of other bones. Several characters (accessory vomers in the palate, submandibulars overlapping ventral jaw margin, scales ornamented with widely-spaced deep grooves) are recorded only in tristichopterids from East Gondwana (Australia-Antarctica). On this evidence gen. nov. is placed in an endemic Gondwanan subfamily Mandageriinae within the Tristichopteridae; it differs from the nominal genotype in its larger size, less pointed skull, shape of the orbits and other skull characters. The hypothesis that tristichopterids evolved in Laurussia and later dispersed into Gondwana, and a derived subgroup of large Late Devonian genera dispersed from Gondwana, is inconsistent with the evidence of the new taxon. Using oldest fossil and most primitive clade criteria the most recent phylogeny resolves South China and Gondwana as areas of origin for all tetrapodomorphs. The immediate outgroup to tristichopterids remains unresolved - either from Greenland as recently proposed, or from Gondwana, earlier suggested to be the sister group to all tristichopterids. Both taxa combine two characters that do not co-occur in other tetrapodomorphs (extratemporal bone in the skull; non-cosmoid round scales with an internal boss). Recently both ‘primitive’ and ‘derived’ tristichopterids have been discovered in the late Middle Devonian of both hemispheres, implying extensive ghost lineages within the group. Resolving their phylogeny and biogeography will depend on a comprehensive new phylogenetic analysis.

Concepts: Phylogenetic nomenclature, Phylogenetics, Cladistics, Vertebrate, Sarcopterygii, Tetrapod, Carboniferous, Devonian


A major challenge in understanding the origin of terrestrial vertebrates has been knowledge of the pelvis and hind appendage of their closest fish relatives. The pelvic girdle and appendage of tetrapods is dramatically larger and more robust than that of fish and contains a number of structures that provide greater musculoskeletal support for posture and locomotion. The discovery of pelvic material of the finned elpistostegalian, Tiktaalik roseae, bridges some of these differences. Multiple isolated pelves have been recovered, each of which has been prepared in three dimensions. Likewise, a complete pelvis and partial pelvic fin have been recovered in association with the type specimen. The pelves of Tiktaalik are paired and have broad iliac processes, flat and elongate pubes, and acetabulae that form a deep socket rimmed by a robust lip of bone. The pelvis is greatly enlarged relative to other finned tetrapodomorphs. Despite the enlargement and robusticity of the pelvis of Tiktaalik, it retains primitive features such as the lack of both an attachment for the sacral rib and an ischium. The pelvic fin of Tiktaalik (NUFV 108) is represented by fin rays and three endochondral elements: other elements are not preserved. The mosaic of primitive and derived features in Tiktaalik reveals that the enhancement of the pelvic appendage of tetrapods and, indeed, a trend toward hind limb-based propulsion have antecedents in the fins of their closest relatives.

Concepts: Fish, Pelvis, Sarcopterygii, Tetrapod, Sacrum, Coelacanth, Ischium, Fin


In a previous analysis of the phylogenetic relationships of coelacanths, lungfishes and tetrapods, using cartilaginous fish as the outgroup, the sister relationship of lungfishes and tetrapods was constructed with high statistical support. However, using as the outgroup ray-finned fish, which are more taxonomically closely related to the three lineages than cartilaginous fish, the sister relationship of coelacanths and tetrapods was most often constructed depending on the methods and the data sets, but the statistical support was generally low except in the cases in which the data set including a small number of species was analyzed. In this study, instead of the fast evolving ray-finned fish, teleost fish, in the previous data sets, by using two slowly evolving ray-finned fish, gar and bowfin, as the outgroup, we showed that the sister relationship of lungfishes and tetrapods was reconstructed with high statistical support. In our analysis the evolutionary rates of gar and bowfin were similar to each other and one third to one half of teleost fish. The difference of the amino acid frequencies of the two species with other lineages were larger than those of teleost fish. This study provides a strong support for lungfishes as the closest relative of tetrapods and indicates the importance of using an appropriate outgroup with small divergence in phylogenetic construction.

Concepts: Evolution, Fish, Phylogenetic tree, Phylogenetics, Actinopterygii, Sarcopterygii, Coelacanth, Osteichthyes


Tetrapods evolved from sarcopterygian fishes in the Devonian and were the first vertebrates to colonize land. The locomotor component of this transition can be divided into four major events: terrestriality, the origins of digited limbs, solid substrate-based locomotion, and alternating gaits that use pelvic appendages as major propulsors. As the sister group to tetrapods, lungfish are a morphologically and phylogenetically relevant sarcopterygian taxon for understanding the order in which these events occurred. We found that a species of African lungfish (Protopterus annectens) uses a range of pelvic fin-driven, tetrapod-like gaits, including walking and bounding, in an aquatic environment, despite having a derived limb endoskeleton and primitively small, muscularly supported pelvis. Surprisingly, given these morphological traits, P. annectens also lifts its body clear of the substrate using its pelvic fins, an ability thought to be a tetrapod innovation. Our findings suggest that some fundamental features of tetrapod locomotion, including pelvic limb gait patterns and substrate association, probably arose in sarcopterygians before the origin of digited limbs or terrestriality. It follows that the attribution of some of the nondigited Devonian fossil trackways to limbed tetrapods may need to be revisited.

Concepts: Fish, Vertebrate, Sarcopterygii, Tetrapod, Fossil, Coelacanth, Osteichthyes, Devonian


Coelacanths are lobe-finned fishes known from the Devonian to Recent that were long considered extinct, until the discovery of two living species in deep marine waters of the Mozambique Channel and Sulawesi. Despite extensive studies, the pulmonary system of extant coelacanths has not been fully investigated. Here we confirm the presence of a lung and discuss its allometric growth in Latimeria chalumnae, based on a unique ontogenetic series. Our results demonstrate the presence of a potentially functional, well-developed lung in the earliest known coelacanth embryo, and its arrested growth at later ontogenetic stages, when the lung is clearly vestigial. The parallel development of a fatty organ for buoyancy control suggests a unique adaptation to deep-water environments. Furthermore, we provide the first evidence for the presence of small, hard, flexible plates around the lung in L. chalumnae, and consider them homologous to the plates of the ‘calcified lung’ of fossil coelacanths.

Concepts: Fish, Sarcopterygii, Tetrapod, Fossil, Coelacanth, Tiktaalik


The discovery of a living coelacanth specimen in 1938 was remarkable, as this lineage of lobe-finned fish was thought to have become extinct 70 million years ago. The modern coelacanth looks remarkably similar to many of its ancient relatives, and its evolutionary proximity to our own fish ancestors provides a glimpse of the fish that first walked on land. Here we report the genome sequence of the African coelacanth, Latimeria chalumnae. Through a phylogenomic analysis, we conclude that the lungfish, and not the coelacanth, is the closest living relative of tetrapods. Coelacanth protein-coding genes are significantly more slowly evolving than those of tetrapods, unlike other genomic features. Analyses of changes in genes and regulatory elements during the vertebrate adaptation to land highlight genes involved in immunity, nitrogen excretion and the development of fins, tail, ear, eye, brain and olfaction. Functional assays of enhancers involved in the fin-to-limb transition and in the emergence of extra-embryonic tissues show the importance of the coelacanth genome as a blueprint for understanding tetrapod evolution.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Fish, Vertebrate, Sarcopterygii, Tetrapod, Coelacanth, Osteichthyes


Enamel, the hardest vertebrate tissue, covers the teeth of almost all sarcopterygians (lobe-finned bony fishes and tetrapods) as well as the scales and dermal bones of many fossil lobe-fins. Enamel deposition requires an organic matrix containing the unique enamel matrix proteins (EMPs) amelogenin (AMEL), enamelin (ENAM) and ameloblastin (AMBN). Chondrichthyans (cartilaginous fishes) lack both enamel and EMP genes. Many fossil and a few living non-teleost actinopterygians (ray-finned bony fishes) such as the gar, Lepisosteus, have scales and dermal bones covered with a proposed enamel homologue called ganoine. However, no gene or transcript data for EMPs have been described from actinopterygians. Here we show that Psarolepis romeri, a bony fish from the the Early Devonian period, combines enamel-covered dermal odontodes on scales and skull bones with teeth of naked dentine, and that Lepisosteus oculatus (the spotted gar) has enam and ambn genes that are expressed in the skin, probably associated with ganoine formation. The genetic evidence strengthens the hypothesis that ganoine is homologous with enamel. The fossil evidence, further supported by the Silurian bony fish Andreolepis, which has enamel-covered scales but teeth and odontodes on its dermal bones made of naked dentine, indicates that this tissue originated on the dermal skeleton, probably on the scales. It subsequently underwent heterotopic expansion across two highly conserved patterning boundaries (scales/head-shoulder and dermal/oral) within the odontode skeleton.

Concepts: Fish, Vertebrate, Chordate, Actinopterygii, Sarcopterygii, Tetrapod, Osteichthyes, Devonian


The construction of the vertebral column has been used as a key anatomical character in defining and diagnosing early tetrapod groups. Rhachitomous vertebrae-in which there is a dorsally placed neural arch and spine, an anteroventrally placed intercentrum and paired, posterodorsally placed pleurocentra-have long been considered the ancestral morphology for tetrapods. Nonetheless, very little is known about vertebral anatomy in the earliest stem tetrapods, because most specimens remain trapped in surrounding matrix, obscuring important anatomical features. Here we describe the three-dimensional vertebral architecture of the Late Devonian stem tetrapod Ichthyostega using propagation phase-contrast X-ray synchrotron microtomography. Our scans reveal a diverse array of new morphological, and associated developmental and functional, characteristics, including a possible posterior-to-anterior vertebral ossification sequence and the first evolutionary appearance of ossified sternal elements. One of the most intriguing features relates to the positional relationships between the vertebral elements, with the pleurocentra being unexpectedly sutured or fused to the intercentra that directly succeed them, indicating a ‘reverse’ rhachitomous design. Comparison of Ichthyostega with two other stem tetrapods, Acanthostega and Pederpes, shows that reverse rhachitomous vertebrae may be the ancestral condition for limbed vertebrates. This study fundamentally revises our current understanding of vertebral column evolution in the earliest tetrapods and raises questions about the presumed vertebral architecture of tetrapodomorph fish and later, more crownward, tetrapods.

Concepts: Vertebral column, Vertebra, Vertebrate, Sarcopterygii, Tetrapod, Labyrinthodontia, Tiktaalik, Acanthostega


Devonian tetrapods (limbed vertebrates), known from an increasingly large number of localities, have been shown to be mainly aquatic with many primitive features. In contrast, the post-Devonian record is marked by an Early Mississippian temporal gap ranging from the earliest Carboniferous (Tournaisian and early Viséan) to the mid-Viséan. By the mid-Viséan, tetrapods had become effectively terrestrial as attested by the presence of stem amniotes, developed an essentially modern aspect, and given rise to the crown group. Up to now, only two localities have yielded tetrapod specimens from the Tournaisian stage: one in Scotland with a single articulated skeleton and one in Nova Scotia with isolated bones, many of uncertain identity. We announce a series of discoveries of Tournaisian-age localities in Scotland that have yielded a wealth of new tetrapod and arthropod fossils. These include both terrestrial and aquatic forms and new taxa. We conclude that the gap in the fossil record has been an artifact of collection failure.

Concepts: Sarcopterygii, Tetrapod, Synapsid, Fossil, Paleontology, Amphibian, Carboniferous, Devonian


The origin of tetrapods and the transition from swimming to walking was a pivotal step in the evolution and diversification of terrestrial vertebrates. During this time, modifications of the limbs—particularly the specialization of joints and the structures that guide their motions—fundamentally changed the ways in which early tetrapods could move. Nonetheless, little is known about the functional consequences of limb anatomy in early tetrapods and how that anatomy influenced locomotion capabilities at this very critical stage in vertebrate evolution. Here we present a three-dimensional reconstruction of the iconic Devonian tetrapod Ichthyostega and a quantitative and comparative analysis of limb mobility in this early tetrapod. We show that Ichthyostega could not have employed typical tetrapod locomotory behaviours, such as lateral sequence walking. In particular, it lacked the necessary rotary motions in its limbs to push the body off the ground and move the limbs in an alternating sequence. Given that long-axis rotation was present in the fins of tetrapodomorph fishes, it seems that either early tetrapods evolved through an initial stage of restricted shoulder and hip joint mobility or that Ichthyostega was unique in this respect. We conclude that early tetrapods with the skeletal morphology and limb mobility of Ichthyostega were unlikely to have made some of the recently described Middle Devonian trackways.

Concepts: Fish, Bird, Vertebrate, Sarcopterygii, Tetrapod, Labyrinthodontia, Tiktaalik, Eusthenopteron