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Shaking up the fish family tree: ‘Living fossil’ not as old as we thought


The cranium of a 250 million yr old fossil fish and a digital mannequin of its inside skeleton, together with a life reconstruction.

Polypterids are bizarre and puzzling African fish which have perplexed biologists since they had been found throughout Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in the late 1700s.

Usually referred to as residing fossils, these eel-like misfits have lungs and fleshy pectoral fins, bony plates and thick scales harking back to historic fossil fish, and flag-like fins alongside their again which might be distinctive.

For a number of many years, scientists have positioned polypterids down close to the base of the family tree of ray-finned fish, a big group believed to have originated round 385 million years in the past.

However a brand new examine that used CT scans to probe three-dimensionally preserved fossil fish skulls shakes up the fish family tree by concluding that the emergence of polypterids occurred a lot later than researchers had thought. The findings additionally counsel that the origin of all trendy ray-finned fish might have occurred tens of thousands and thousands of years later than is usually believed.

The worldwide analysis staff was led by Sam Giles of the College of Oxford and consists of College of Michigan paleontologist Matt Friedman. A paper summarizing the findings is scheduled for publication Aug. 30 in Nature.

“This causes a shakeup in the fish family tree, which indicates that the ancestor shared by all ray-finned fishes lived tens of millions of years after previously thought, maybe in the aftermath of a mass extinction event around 360 million years ago that decimated many other groups,” stated Friedman, an affiliate curator at the U-M Museum of Paleontology and an affiliate professor in the Division of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

Ray-finned fish characterize about half of all back-boned animals on Earth. For each species of mammal, hen, reptile and amphibian on land, there’s a species of bony fish in the ocean.

Polypterids embody a couple of dozen species of African fish referred to as bichirs and a single species of rope fish. They’ve lengthy defied classification however are usually accepted to be the most primitive residing ray-finned fish, separated from the different trendy teams by a bunch of long-extinct fossil fish.

However the new CT examine repositions polypterids on the fish evolutionary tree so they’re “nestled neatly back more closely with other living ray-finned fishes, kicking a range of fossil ray-fins to a more distant branch of the evolutionary tree,” stated Oxford’s Giles, first writer of the Nature paper.


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“These results change our understanding of when the largest living group of vertebrates evolved and allow us to iron out a lot of the wrinkles in our understanding of the sequence of evolutionary events.”

An everlasting puzzle about polypterids has been the lack of early fossil proof. The oldest fossil polypterids are simply 90 million years old, leaving a spot of greater than 1 / 4 billion years in the fossil file. If polypterids are actually as old scientists have believed, the place’s the fossil proof?

To get at some solutions, the researchers examined high-definition computed tomography (CT) scans of Fukangichthys, a 230 million-year-old fossil fish from China that belongs to a widespread group of fossil fish referred to as scanilepiforms.

Evaluation of bodily traits in three-dimensionally preserved Fukangichthys skulls, as nicely as an examination of DNA sequences from 12 genes, revealed that scanilepiforms are literally historic cousins of polypterids. Scanilepiforms originated in the Triassic Interval, 252 to 201 million years in the past, when the first dinosaurs had been evolving on land.

“While this finding extends the fossil record of polypterids, it also has some unexpected consequences,” U-M’s Friedman stated. “It shows that many features of polypterids aren’t primitive at all, but rather are specializations that evolved later in their history.”

Stated Oxford’s Giles: “Polypterids appear to have undergone several reversals in their evolution, which has clouded the view of their position in the fish family tree. It’s like if your brand new smart phone came with a rotary dialer and without Wi-Fi. We know it’s the latest handset, but its characteristics might lead us to thinking it’s an older model.”

This repositioning of the polypterids sends shock waves by means of the fish family tree and means that ray-finned fish might have emerged tens of thousands and thousands of years later than scientists had thought, close to the boundary between the Devonian and Carboniferous intervals about 360 million years in the past.

“Analyses like these are powerful tools and go to show that paleontology doesn’t always rely on the discovery of new fossils,” Giles stated. “Re-examination of old fossils using new techniques is just as important for revitalizing our understanding of vertebrate evolution.”

The opposite authors of Nature paper are Guang-Hui Xu of the Chinese language Academy of Sciences and Thomas Close to of Yale College.

Giles was supported by a Junior Analysis Fellowship from Christ Church, Oxford, and a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Girls in Science Fellowship. Xu was supported by the Nationwide Pure Science Basis of China.

Close to was supported by the U.S. Nationwide Science Basis and the Bingham Oceanographic Fund from the Peabody Museum of Pure Historical past at Yale College. Friedman was supported by a Philip Leverhulme Prize and a Leverhulme Belief Venture Grant, and by U-M’s Division of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Museum of Paleontology, and Faculty of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

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