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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.

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Figure 1: Palaeospondylus gunni.


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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.

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Correspondence to Keith S. Thomson.

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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)

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

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