A Devonian tetrapod-like fish reveals substantial parallelism in stem tetrapod evolution

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The fossils assigned to the tetrapod stem group document the evolution of terrestrial vertebrates from lobe-finned fishes. During the past 18 years the phylogenetic structure of this stem group has remained remarkably stable, even when accommodating new discoveries such as the earliest known stem tetrapod Tungsenia and the elpistostegid (fish–tetrapod intermediate) Tiktaalik. Here we present a large lobe-finned fish from the Late Devonian period of China that disrupts this stability. It combines characteristics of rhizodont fishes (supposedly a basal branch in the stem group, distant from tetrapods) with derived elpistostegid-like and tetrapod-like characters. This mélange of characters may reflect either detailed convergence between rhizodonts and elpistostegids plus tetrapods, under a phylogenetic scenario deduced from Bayesian inference analysis, or a previously unrecognized close relationship between these groups, as supported by maximum parsimony analysis. In either case, the overall result reveals a substantial increase in homoplasy in the tetrapod stem group. It also suggests that ecological diversity and biogeographical provinciality in the tetrapod stem group have been underestimated.

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We thank B. Choo for life restoration and L. Xiang for specimen preparation. This research was funded by Natural Science Foundation of China (41530102, 41272029), Key Research Program of Frontier Sciences of CAS (QYZDJ-SSW-DQC002), Strategic Priority Research Program of CAS (XDPB05) and CAS Funds for Paleontology Fieldwork and Fossil Preparation. P.E.A. was supported by Swedish Research Council grant 2014-4102 and a Wallenberg Scholarship from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation.

Author information


  1. Key Laboratory of Vertebrate Evolution and Human Origins of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, PO Box 643, Beijing, 100044, China

    • Min Zhu
    • , Wen-Jin Zhao
    •  & Lian-Tao Jia
  2. College of Earth Science, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, 100049, China

    • Min Zhu
    •  & Wen-Jin Zhao
  3. Subdepartment of Evolution and Development, Department of Organismal Biology, Evolutionary Biology Centre, Uppsala University, Uppsala, 752 36, Sweden

    • Per E. Ahlberg


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M.Z. conceived the project. M.Z., W.-J.Z., P.E.A. and L.-T.J. did the fieldwork. M.Z. and P.E.A. conducted the phylogenetic analyses, discussed the results and prepared the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Min Zhu or Per E. Ahlberg.

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  1. 1.

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  2. 2.

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    Executable data matrices