Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

A larval Devonian lungfish


Perhaps the most enduring of puzzles in palaeontology has been the identity of Palaeospondylus gunni Traquair, a tiny (5–60-mm) vertebrate fossil from the Middle Devonian period ( 385 Myr ago) of Scotland, first discovered in 1890 (refs 1–3). It is known principally from a single site (Achanarras Quarry, Caithness) where, paradoxically, it is extremely abundant, preserved in varved lacustrine deposits along with 13 other genera of fishes4. Here we show that Palaeospondylus is the larval stage of a lungfish, most probably Dipterus valenciennesi Sedgwick and Murchison 1828 (ref. 5), and that development of the adult form requires a distinct metamorphosis. Palaeospondylus is the oldest known true larva of a vertebrate.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Palaeospondylus gunni.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Thomson, K. S. The puzzle of Palaeospondylus. Am. Sci. 80, 216–219 (1992)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  2. Forey, P. L. & Gardiner, B. G. J. A. Moy-Thomas and his association with the British Museum (Natural History). Bull. Br. Mus. Nat. Hist. (Geol.) 35, 131–144 (1981)

    Google Scholar 

  3. Traquair, R. H. On the fossil fishes at Achanarras Quarry, Caithness. Annu. Mag. Nat. Hist. 6(6), 479–486 (1890)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Trewin, N. Palaeoecology and sedimentology of the Achanarras fish bed of the Middle Old Red Sandstone, Scotland. Trans. R. Soc. Edinb. 77, 21–46 (1986)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Sedgwick, A. & Murchison, R. I. On the structure and relations of the deposits contained between the Primary Rocks and the Oolitic Series in the North of Scotland. Trans. Geol. Soc. Lond. 3, 125–160 (1828)

    Google Scholar 

  6. Sollas, W. J. & Sollas, I. B. J. An account of the Devonian fish Palaeospondylus gunni Traquair. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 196, 267–294 (1903)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  7. Moy-Thomas, J. A. The Devonian fish Palaeospondylus gunni Traquair. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 230, 391–413 (1940)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  8. Agassiz, A. The development of Lepisosteus. Proc. Am. Acad. Arts Sci. 14, 65–76 (1879)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Thomson, K. S. The nasal apparatus in Dipnoi, with special reference to Protopterus. Proc. Zool. Soc. Lond. 145, 207–238 (1965)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Fox, H. Early development of the head and pharynx of Neoceratodus with a consideration of its phylogeny. J. Zool. 146, 470–554 (1965)

    Google Scholar 

  11. Bemis, W. E. Feeding systems in living Dipnoi: anatomy and function. J. Morph. Suppl. 1, 249–275 (1987)

    Google Scholar 

  12. Kerr, J. G. The zoological position of Palaeospondylus (Traquair). Proc. Camb. Phil. Soc. 10, 298–299 (1900)

    Google Scholar 

  13. Rayner, D. H. The Achanarras Limestone of the Middle Old Red Sandstone, Caithness, Scotland. Proc. Yorks. Geol. Soc. 34, 117–138 (1963)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Sutton, M. D., Briggs, D. E. G., Siveter, David, J. & Siveter, Derek, J. Methologies for the visualisation and reconstruction of three-dimensional fossils from the Silurian Herefordshire lagerstätte. Paleont. Electron. 4(1) article 2, (2000)

  15. Sutton, M. D., Briggs, D. E. G., Siveter David, J. & Siveter, Derek, J. The arthropod Offacolus kingi (Chelicerata) from the Silurian of Herefordshire, England: computer based morphological reconstructions and phylogenetic affinities. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 269, 1195–1203 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London, and the staff of the Palaeontology Department for the loan of specimens, and Derek Siveter for assistance with photography.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Keith S. Thomson.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Movie 1: Video showing section images from serial-grinding of NHM P.59340. Slice spacing is 30 microns, width of field of view is 3.4mm. (MOV 1153 kb)

Supplementary Movie 2: Three-dimensional reconstruction of NHM P.59340 based on serial-sections. Structures picked out in false-colour (anterior to posterior): vomer (dark green); nasal capsules and sub-nasal cartilage (light blue); meckel’s cartilage (dark blue); palatoquadrate (mid green); ceratohyal (light green); epihyal (mid blue); basibranchial (light blue, medial); cranial arch (purple); cranial rib (light grey); vertebral column (dark brown). (MOV 1838 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Thomson, K., Sutton, M. & Thomas, B. A larval Devonian lungfish. Nature 426, 833–834 (2003).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing