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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

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.


  1. 1

    Denison, R. Handbook of Paleoichthyology. Placodermi 128 (Gustav Fischer, Stuttgart, 1978)

  2. 2

    Gardiner, B. G. The relationships of placoderms. J. Vert. Paleo. 4, 379–395 (1984)

  3. 3

    Young, G. C. The relationships of placoderm fishes. Zool. J. Linn. Soc. 88, 1–57 (1986)

  4. 4

    Goujet, D. & Young, G. C. in Recent Advances in the Origin and Early Radiation of Vertebrates (eds Arratia, G., Wilson, M. & Cloutier, R.) 109–126 (Dr Freiderich Pfeil, Munich, 2004)

  5. 5

    Miles, R. S. & Young, G. C. in Problems in Vertebrate Evolution (eds Andrews, S. M., Miles, R. S. & Walker, A. D.) 123–198 (Linnean Soc. Symp. Series 4, 1977)

  6. 6

    Long, J. A. Swimming in Stone—the Amazing Gogo Fossils of the Kimberley 320 (Fremantle Arts Centre, Perth, 2006)

  7. 7

    Long, J. A. Ptyctodontid fishes (Vertebrata, Placodermi) from the Late Devonian Gogo Formation, Western Australia, with a revision of the European genus Ctenurella Ørvig, 1960. Geodiversitas 19, 515–555 (1997)

  8. 8

    Miles, R. S. Observations on the ptyctodont fish, Rhamphodopsis Watson. J. Linn. Soc. Zool. 47, 99–120 (1967)

  9. 9

    Trinajstic, K., Marshall, E., Long, J. & Bifield, K. Exceptional preservation of nerve and muscle tissues in Devonian placoderm fish and their phylogenetic implications. Biol. Lett. 3, 197–200 (2007)

  10. 10

    Böttcher, R. Neue Erkenntnisse über die Fortpflanzungsbiologie der Ichthyosaurier (Reptilia). Stuttgarter Beitr. Nat. B 164, 1–51 (1990)

  11. 11

    Maxwell, E. E. & Caldwell, M. W. First record of live birth in Cretaceous ichthyosaurs: closing an 80 million year gap. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 270 (Suppl. 1). S104–S107 (2003)

  12. 12

    Caldwell, M. W. & Lee, M. S. Y. Live birth in marine lizards (mosasauroids). Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 268, 2397–2401 (2001)

  13. 13

    Lund, R. Viviparity and interuterine feeding in a new holocephalan fish from the Lower Carboniferous of Montana. Science 209, 697–699 (1980)

  14. 14

    Upeniece, I. The unique fossil assemblage from the Lode Quarry (Upper Devonian, Latvia). Mitt. Mus. Natkd. Berl. Geowiss. 4, 101–119 (2001)

  15. 15

    Wourms, J. Maximization of evolutionary trends for placental viviparity in the spadenose shark, Scoliodon laticaudus. Env. Biol. Fish. 38, 269–294 (1993)

  16. 16

    Sakellariou, A., Sawkins, T. J., Senden, T. J. & Limaye, A. X-ray tomography for mesoscale physics applications. Physica A 339, 152–158 (2004)

  17. 17

    Sakellariou, A. et al. An x-ray tomography facility for quantitative predictions of mechanical and transport properties in geological, biological and synthetic systems. In Development in X-Ray Tomography IV (ed. Bonse, U.) Proc. SPIE Vol. 5535 473–484 (SPIE, Bellingham, Western Australia, 2004)

Download references


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.

Author information

Correspondence to John A. Long.

Supplementary information

Supplementray Information

The file contains Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Methods and additional references. (PDF 225 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Long, J., Trinajstic, K., Young, G. et al. Live birth in the Devonian period. Nature 453, 650–652 (2008) doi:10.1038/nature06966

Download citation

Further reading


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.