The spinal column in tetrapods is made up of five different regions of distinctly-shaped vertebrae: cervical (neck), thoracic (upper back attached to ribs), lumbar (lower back without ribs), sacral (pelvic) and caudal (tail).

Non-tetrapod vertebrates like fish have spines that are much less differentiated, with just body and tail segments. So for a long time multiple distinct spine regions were thought to be something completely unique to tetrapods – a specialization developed early in their evolutionary history that served to better support their weight when moving around on land.

But one little fossil fish makes this idea… problematic.

Tarrasius problematicus lived during the early Carboniferous, about 345 million years ago, in shallow tropical marine waters in what is now southern Scotland. Around 9cm long (3.5″), it was an early type of ray-finned fish with a scaleless body and a long scaled eel-like tail with a single continuous dorsal fin.

And it also had some very unusual vertebrae for a non-tetrapod fish.

Its spine shows five different regions all corresponding to those seen in tetrapods, despite it not being closely related to them. But unlike early tetrapods Tarrasius was no land-walker, with its lack of hind fins indicating it was instead a streamlined fully aquatic fast swimmer.

It’s not clear why this fish developed such an incredibly convergent backbone, but it may have helped to stiffen its body so its more flexible tail could provide more efficient thrust, swimming like a modern tadpole.

It also suggests that a pre-existing genetic basis for regionalization – specific patterns of Hox gene expression – was actually an ancestral trait for all bony fish or jawed vertebrates. Tarrasius and early tetrapods may have just happened to specialize their spines in the same way for different purposes, with only the tetrapods going on to see long-term evolutionary success with it.

Cambrian Explosion Month #16: Phylum Chordata – Vertebrata

Vertebrates are by far the most numerous and diverse group of chordates today, with over 65,000 known species including fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Genetic studies show that they’re closely related to the weird bag-like tunicates, and their shared common ancestor was probably something lancelet-like.

And the earliest true vertebrates would have looked something like Haikouichthys ercaicunensis.

Continue reading “Cambrian Explosion Month #16: Phylum Chordata – Vertebrata”


While Doryaspis nathorsti here looked a bit like a weird prehistoric sawfish, it was actually an ancient jawless fish more closely related to modern lampreys and hagfish.

Measuring just 15cm long (6″), this odd little fish lived in the shallow seas of what is now the Arctic Svalbard archipelago, around 407 million years ago during the early Devonian period when the region was located in much more tropical latitudes.

It was part of a group called the heterostracans, a lineage of jawless fish with heavy armor covering the fronts of their bodies. They had no paired fins and relied solely on their powerful tails for propulsion, and some like Doryaspis also developed large stiff wing-like projections from the sides of their armor that acted like hydrofoils to provide extra lift while swimming.

But the strangest feature of Doryaspis is that pointy serrated saw-like “snout” – which wasn’t actually a snout at all, but instead formed from a part of its jawless mouth roughly equivalent to the lower lip and chin.

It’s unclear what the purpose of this appendage was, but it might have been used for prey detection, probing around the muddy seafloor in a similar manner to sawfish or the big-chinned porpoise Semirostrum.