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Head and backbone of the Early Cambrian vertebrate Haikouichthys

Nature volume 421, pages 526529 (30 January 2003) | Download Citation



Agnathan fish hold a key position in vertebrate evolution, especially regarding the origin of the head and neural-crest-derived tissue1. In contrast to amphioxus2, lampreys and other vertebrates possess a complex brain and placodes that contribute to well-developed eyes, as well as auditory and olfactory systems3. These sensory sytems were arguably a trigger to subsequent vertebrate diversifications. However, although they are known from skeletal impressions in younger Palaeozoic agnathans4, information about the earliest records of these systems has been largely wanting. Here we report numerous specimens of the Lower Cambrian vertebrate Haikouichthys ercaicunensis, until now only known from the holotype5. Haikouichthys shows significant differences from other fossil agnathans: key features include a small lobate extension to the head, with eyes and possible nasal sacs, as well as what may be otic capsules. A notochord with separate vertebral elements is also identifiable. Phylogenetic analysis indicates that this fish lies within the stem-group craniates. Although Haikouichthys somewhat resembles the ammocoete larva of modern lampreys, this is because of shared general craniate characters; adult lampreys and hagfishes (the cyclostomes if monophyletic6,7) are probably derived in many respects.

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This work was supported by the Ministry of Sciences and Technology of China, the Natural Science Foundation of China, the Ministry of Education of China, the National Geographic Society (USA), The Royal Society, and St John's College, Cambridge. We thank K. Kardong and B. J. Swalla. L. Guo, X. Cheng, M. Cheng and S. Last are thanked for technical assistance, and Y. Ji and H. Guo for fieldwork help.

Author information


  1. *Early Life Institute and Department of Geology, Northwest University, Xi'an, 710069, China

    • D.-G. Shu
    • , J. Han
    • , Z.-F. Zhang
    • , L. Chen
    • , X.-L. Zhang
    • , J.-N. Liu
    • , Y. Li
    •  & H.-Q. Liu
  2. †School of Earth Sciences and Resources, China University of Geosciences, Beijing, 100083, China

    • D.-G. Shu
  3. ‡Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EQ, UK

    • S. Conway Morris
  4. §Institute of Molecular Embryology and Genetics, Division of Development and Biohistory, Kumamoto University, 2-2-1 Honjo, Kumamoto 860-0811, Japan

    • K. Yasui
  5. UMR 8569 du CNRS, Laboratoire de Paléontologie, Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, 8 rue Buffon, Paris 75005, France, and Department of Palaeontology, Natural History Museum, London SW7 5BD, UK

    • P. Janvier


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The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to D.-G. Shu.

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