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A lamprey from the Devonian period of South Africa


Lampreys are the most scientifically accessible of the remaining jawless vertebrates, but their evolutionary history is obscure. In contrast to the rich fossil record of armoured jawless fishes, all of which date from the Devonian period and earlier1,2,3, only two Palaeozoic lampreys have been recorded, both from the Carboniferous period1. In addition to these, the recent report of an exquisitely preserved Lower Cretaceous example4 demonstrates that anatomically modern lampreys were present by the late Mesozoic era. Here we report a marine/estuarine fossil lamprey from the Famennian (Late Devonian) of South Africa5,6, the identity of which is established easily because many of the key specializations of modern forms are already in place. These specializations include the first evidence of a large oral disc, the first direct evidence of circumoral teeth and a well preserved branchial basket. This small agnathan, Priscomyzon riniensis gen. et sp. nov., is not only more conventionally lamprey-like than other Palaeozoic examples7,8, but is also some 35 million years older. This finding is evidence that agnathans close to modern lampreys had evolved before the end of the Devonian period. In this light, lampreys as a whole appear all the more remarkable: ancient specialists that have persisted as such and survived a subsequent 360 million years.

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Figure 1: Holotype of Priscomyzon riniensis gen. et sp. nov.
Figure 2: Reconstruction of Priscomyzon riniensis , illustrating tadpole-like body proportions and large oral disc, compared with post-metamorphic modern lamprey, Lampetra fluviatilis.
Figure 3: Cladograms showing the hypothesized position of Priscomyzon among early craniates.


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We are grateful to B. de Klerk for his continuing support, and thank M. A. Purnel, R. J. Aldridge and M. M. Chang for advice and discussions. Work by R.W.G. and B.S.R. is supported by the Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST), National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST) of South Africa, and that of M.I.C. by the Faculty Research Fund of the University of Chicago. Author Contributions The discovery, identification, diagnosis and morphological description of the specimen are primarily the work of R.W.G. Phylogenetic analysis was performed by M.I.C., as well as final drafting of the paper. The research was supervised by B.S.R. All authors read, commented on and contributed to all parts of the paper.

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Correspondence to Robert W. Gess.

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Supplementary Notes

This file contains Supplementary Information on photographic methods used as well as information relevant to the phylogenetic analysis. This latter includes notes on taxa selected, characters, character re-weighting, enforced constraints and a reduced taxon subset, in addition to two supplementary trees, a character list and a data set. (DOC 86 kb)

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Gess, R., Coates, M. & Rubidge, B. A lamprey from the Devonian period of South Africa. Nature 443, 981–984 (2006).

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