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Lower Cambrian vertebrates from south China


The first fossil chordates are found in deposits from the Cambrian period (545–490 million years ago), but their earliest record is exceptionally sporadic and is often controversial. Accordingly, it has been difficult to construct a coherent phylogenetic synthesis for the basal chordates. Until now, the available soft-bodied remains have consisted almost entirely of cephalochordate-like animals from Burgess Shale-type faunas. Definite examples of agnathan fish do not occur until the Lower Ordovician (475 Myr BP), with a more questionable record extending into the Cambrian. The discovery of two distinct types of agnathan from the Lower Cambrian Chengjiang fossil-Lagerstätte is, therefore, a very significant extension of their range. One form is lamprey-like, whereas the other is closer to the more primitive hagfish. These finds imply that the first agnathans may have evolved in the earliest Cambrian, with the chordates arising from more primitive deuterostomes in Ediacaran times (latest Neoproterozoic, 555 Myr BP), if not earlier.

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Figure 1: Map of Chengjiang area, Yunnan province and its position relative to the rest of China.
Figure 2: The Lower Cambrian agnathan vertebrate Myllokunmingia fengjiaoa Shu, Zhang & Han gen. et sp. nov. from Haikou, Yunnan.
Figure 3: Camera-lucida drawing of specimen, with certain features (notably structures interpreted as extrabranchial atria) combined by reversal from the counterpart (Fig. 1c), to show interpretation.
Figure 4: The Lower Cambrian agnathan vertebrate Haikouichthys ercaicunensis Luo, Hu & Shu gen. et sp. nov. from Haikou, Yunnan.
Figure 5: Phylogenetic analysis of early vertebrates, to include Myllokunmingia gen. nov. and Haikouichthys gen. nov.


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Supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, Ministry of Sciences & Technology of China, National Geographic USA (D-G.S.; X-L.Z.; L.C.; J.H.; Y.L.), Royal Society (S.C.M.), Science & Technology Committee of Yunnan Province (H-L.L.; S-X.H.; L-Z.C.), and Chinese Academy of Sciences (M.Z.). We thank R. J. Aldridge, P. Janvier and R. P. S. Jefferies for helpful remarks, and S. J. Last, S. Capon, D. Simons and L-H. Li for technical assistance.

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Shu, DG., Luo, HL., Conway Morris, S. et al. Lower Cambrian vertebrates from south China. Nature 402, 42–46 (1999).

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