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Neurocranial development of the coelacanth and the evolution of the sarcopterygian head


The neurocranium of sarcopterygian fishes was originally divided into an anterior (ethmosphenoid) and posterior (otoccipital) portion by an intracranial joint, and underwent major changes in its overall geometry before fusing into a single unit in lungfishes and early tetrapods1. Although the pattern of these changes is well-documented, the developmental mechanisms that underpin variation in the form of the neurocranium and its associated soft tissues during the evolution of sarcopterygian fishes remain poorly understood. The coelacanth Latimeria is the only known living vertebrate that retains an intracranial joint2,3. Despite its importance for understanding neurocranial evolution, the development of the neurocranium of this ovoviviparous fish remains unknown. Here we investigate the ontogeny of the neurocranium and brain in Latimeria chalumnae using conventional and synchrotron X-ray micro-computed tomography as well as magnetic resonance imaging, performed on an extensive growth series for this species. We describe the neurocranium at the earliest developmental stage known for Latimeria, as well as the major changes that the neurocranium undergoes during ontogeny. Changes in the neurocranium are associated with an extreme reduction in the relative size of the brain along with an enlargement of the notochord. The development of the notochord appears to have a major effect on the surrounding cranial components, and might underpin the formation of the intracranial joint. Our results shed light on the interplay between the neurocranium and its adjacent soft tissues during development in Latimeria, and provide insights into the developmental mechanisms that are likely to have underpinned the evolution of neurocranial diversity in sarcopterygian fishes.

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Fig. 1: The development of the living coelacanth L. chalumnae.
Fig. 2: The neurocranium of L. chalumnae fetus.
Fig. 3: Endocranium and brain in L. chalumnae growth series.
Fig. 4: Neurocrania of selected extant osteichthyan fishes and a tetrapod.

Data availability

The PPC-SRμCT acquisitions are available online at All surface files are deposited online at Any other relevant data are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.


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We thank R. Bills and A. Paterson (South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB)) for the loan of the fetus; and D. Neumann (Zoologische Staatssammlung München (ZSM)) for the loan of P2; M. Garcia Sanz for micro-computed tomography scanning of the adult specimen at ‘AST-RX, plate-forme d’accès scientifique à la tomographie à rayons X’ in the ‘UMS 2700 Outils et Méthodes de Systématique intégrative CNRS-MNHN’; the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) for granting beam time to H.D. on ID19 for performing the PPC-SRμCT acquisitions (Proposal EC-1023); C. Bens and A. Verguin of the Collections de Pièces anatomiques en Fluides at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (MNHN) for their help; and É. Heude (MNHN) and P. Gueriau (University of Lausanne) for their comments and input on an earlier version of the draft. This work was supported by a grant from Agence Nationale de la Recherche under the LabEx ANR-10-LABX-0003-BCDiv, in the program ‘Investissements d’avenir’ n\u0001 ANR-11-IDEX-0004-02. H.D. was supported by a BBSRC grant (BB/M008525/1).

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Nature thanks Per Ahlberg and Matt Friedman for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Authors and Affiliations



H.D., G.C., M.H., A.H. and P.J. designed the research. H.D. and P.T. made the PPC-SRμCT acquisitions. H.D., G.C. and M.H. made the conventional microtomographical acquisitions with the assistance of local staff. M.D.S. made the magnetic resonance imaging acquisitions. H.D. segmented the scans and made the three-dimensional rendering of all of the developmental stages, with the assistance of M.G. J.A.L. provided fossil material for comparative study and provided input for the discussion. M.J.F. and A.H. provided input for the results and discussion. H.D. wrote the manuscript, and made the figures and scientific illustrations. All other authors provided critical comments and were involved in the writing of the manuscript. All authors accepted the final version of the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Hugo Dutel.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 The neurocranium of the fetus of L. chalumnae.

a, b, The neurocranium in right anterolateral view, with the ethmosphenoid portion virtually cut open along the mid-sagittal plane in b. c, d, Dorsal view of the neurocranium with the roof of the otoccipital portion virtually cut open. The brain is shown in position in c, and was digitally removed in d to show the underlying neurocranial structures. e, Posterior view of the ethmosphenoid portion. f, Posterior view of the otoccipital portion.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Comparison of the neurocranium between the fetus and P1 of L. chalumnae.

Coronal sections obtained from PPC-SRμCT acquisition along the head of the fetus (left column) and P1 (right column) of L. chalumnae. a, Section at the level of the orbital foramen. b, Section at the level of the hypophyseal fossa. c, Section at the level of the basisphenoid–palatoquadrate joint. d, Section at the level of the inner ear. Sample size for each stage, n = 1.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Endocranium and brain morphology in L. chalumnae growth series.

ae, The fetus (a), P1 (b), P2 (c), juvenile (d) and adult (e) in right lateral (left) and dorsal (right) views. Grey portions in the juvenile (d) were reconstructed based on P2 (c). The rostral organ was not reconstructed in d, because it had been destroyed in the dissection of this specimen. IX, glossopharyngeal nerve. Sample size for each stage, n = 1.

Extended Data Fig. 4 The brain of L. chalumnae at different stages of development.

ad, The brains of the fetus (a), P1 (b), P2 (c) and adult (d) are shown in right lateral view (left) and dorsal (right) views. The brain of the juvenile is not displayed, because it was extracted from the endocranium and was not imaged in situ. Sample size for each stage, n = 1.

Extended Data Fig. 5 The brain of the juvenile in situ.

Photograph taken during the dissection of the juvenile (MNHN C79 (CCC 94)) in 1974 at the MNHN. As in earlier developmental stages, the brain spans the intracranial joint (indicated by the needle) in the juvenile. Scale in centimetres.

Extended Data Table 1 Morphometric measurements of the notochord, brain and endocranial cavity
Extended Data Table 2 Protocols of the PPC-SRμCT acquisitions

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Dutel, H., Galland, M., Tafforeau, P. et al. Neurocranial development of the coelacanth and the evolution of the sarcopterygian head. Nature 569, 556–559 (2019).

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