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Live birth in the Devonian period


The extinct placoderm fishes were the dominant group of vertebrates throughout the Middle Palaeozoic era1, yet controversy about their relationships within the gnathostomes (jawed vertebrates) is partly due to different interpretations of their reproductive biology2,3,4,5. Here we document the oldest record of a live-bearing vertebrate in a new ptyctodontid placoderm, Materpiscis attenboroughi gen. et sp. nov., from the Late Devonian Gogo Formation of Australia (approximately 380 million years ago)6. The new specimen, remarkably preserved in three dimensions, contains a single, intra-uterine embryo connected by a permineralized umbilical cord. An amorphous crystalline mass near the umbilical cord possibly represents the recrystallized yolk sac. Another ptyctodont from the Gogo Formation, Austroptyctodus gardineri7, also shows three small embryos inside it in the same position. Ptyctodontids have already provided the oldest definite evidence for vertebrate copulation8, and the new specimens confirm that some placoderms had a remarkably advanced reproductive biology, comparable to that of some modern sharks and rays. The new discovery points to internal fertilization and viviparity in vertebrates as originating earliest within placoderms.

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Figure 1: Holotype of Materpiscis attenboroughi gen. et sp. nov. (WAM 07.12.1).
Figure 2: Holotype of Materpiscis attenboroughi gen. et sp. nov. (WAM 07.12.1).
Figure 3: Materpiscis gen. nov.


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We thank M. Gomon and M. Lee for discussion of the material, and M. Caldwell for comments on the paper. P. Lillywhite assisted with photography. J.A.L., K.T. and G.C.Y. are supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant. We thank L. Hatcher for finding the specimen on the 2005 Museum Victoria Gogo Expedition. The specimen was partially prepared by D. Pickering.

Author Contributions The fine preparation of the new specimen was done by J.A.L., and it was described by J.A.L., K.T. and G.C.Y.; T.S. participated in the 2005 Gogo expedition and analysed the specimen using XCT scan imagery.

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Correspondence to John A. Long.

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Long, J., Trinajstic, K., Young, G. et al. Live birth in the Devonian period. Nature 453, 650–652 (2008).

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