Perplexing fish-like fossil finally classified

Friday 27 May 2022

For the first time since its discovery 130 years ago, one of the most mysterious fossil vertebrates has finally been classified, increasing our possible understanding of the first animals to crawl on Earth.

"This strange animal has baffled scientists since its discovery in 1890 as a puzzle that's been impossible to solve," Dr Daisy (Yuzhi) Hu, PhD graduate from the Material Physics department.

Dr Hu was part of a team that studied Palaeospondylus gunni, a mysterious fish-like fossil vertebrate with a strange set of morphological features, including a lack of teeth and dermal bones in the fossil record.

The small animal with an eel-like body lived approximately 390 million years ago. Despite its age, its position on the evolutionary tree has remained unclear, until now.

The team, led by the University of Tokyo in conjunction with ANU and the Evolutionary Morphology Laboratory RIKEN, deduced that the specimen was likely one of the earliest ancestors of four-limbed animals.

"Morphological comparisons of this animal have always been extremely challenging," Dr Hu said.  

"However, recent improvements in high resolution 3D segmentation and visualisation have made this previously impossible task possible.

"Finding a specimen as well preserved as the ones we used is like winning the lottery - or even better!" 

Previously damaged or incorrectly preserved specimens of the animal have meant that placing this fossil on the evolutionary tree has always been a challenge.

The researchers found that Palaeospondylus was most likely a member of Sarcopterygii, a group of lobe-finned fishes, due to its cartilaginous skeleton and the absence of paired appendages.

"Despite the investigation, it is still hard to determine what the animal was with 100 percent accuracy," Dr Hu said.  

The new findings mean that scientists could unlock a range of unknown morphological features and evolutionary history of four-limbed animals. 

"Even with this new information, long-lasting investigations with the joint effort of scientists from around the world is needed to give us the perfect answer of what actually is Palaeospondylus gunni." 

The study has been published in Nature.

» read more

Related news stories

A new study from The Australian National University (ANU) on a 400 million year old fish fossil has found a jaw structure that is part of the evolutionary lineage linked to humans.The fossil comes from ancient limestones around Lake Burrinjuck, 50 kilometres northwest of Canberra. The area is rich in fossil...
A new study from The Australian National University (ANU) on a 400 million year old fish fossil has found a jaw structure that is part of the evolutionary...
New software will allow scientists to see data in 3D and create life-like models of objects like fossils and mummies, making it possible to "zoom in" on smaller details without damaging the original. The revolutionary software involved, called Drishti, is simple, but powerful. Applications of the latest...
New software will allow scientists to see data in 3D and create life-like models of objects like fossils and mummies, making it possible to "zoom...
Researchers from The Australian National University (ANU) have developed a system to transport data using atomically-thin semiconductors in an extremely energy efficient way. The breakthrough could one day help power next-gen computers and smartphones that consume less electricity than current devices. This...
Researchers from The Australian National University (ANU) have developed a system to transport data using atomically-thin semiconductors in an extremely...
Scientists have for the first time detected black holes eating neutron stars, “like Pac Man”, in a discovery documenting the collision of the two most extreme and enigmatic objects in the Universe. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the US and the Virgo gravitational-wave...
Scientists have for the first time detected black holes eating neutron stars, “like Pac Man”, in a discovery documenting the collision...

Updated:  6 July 2022/ Responsible Officer:  Director, RSPhys/ Page Contact:  Physics Webmaster