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3D mouth of an ancient jawless fish suggests they were filter-feeders, not scavengers or hunters

Date:
April 10, 2024
Source:
University of Birmingham
Summary:
Early jawless fish were likely to have used bony projections surrounding their mouths to modify the mouth's shape while they collected food. Experts have used CT scanning techniques to build up the first 3D pictures of these creatures, which are some of the earliest vertebrates (animals with backbones) in which the mouth is fossilized. Their aim was to answer questions about feeding in early vertebrates without jaws in the early Devonian epoch -- sometimes called the Age of Fishes -- around 400 million years ago.
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Early jawless fish were likely to have used bony projections surrounding their mouths to modify the mouth's shape while they collected food.

Experts led by the University of Birmingham have used CT scanning techniques to build up the first 3D pictures of these creatures, which are some of the earliest vertebrates (animals with backbones) in which the mouth is fossilised. Their aim was to answer questions about feeding in early vertebrates without jaws in the early Devonian epoch -- sometimes called the Age of Fishes -- around 400 million years ago.

Feeding behaviours are commonly used by scientists to help piece together early evolution of vertebrates, and different jaw shapes and constructions can suggest a broad range of feeding strategies. In the absence of jaws, many competing theories have been developed ranging from biting and slicing, to filtering food from sediment or water.

In a new study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, an international team of palaeontologists have been able to visualise the mouth parts of one of these jawless fish, called Rhinopteraspis dunensis, in detail. The images revealed the structure and arrangement of finger-like bones that project from the lower 'lip' of the animal's mouth, which the scientists believe acted to control the mouth's size and shape as it captured food particles from surrounding water.

Senior author and project lead Dr Ivan Sansom said: "The application of CT scanning techniques to the study of fossil fish is revealing so much new information about these ancient vertebrates and giving us the opportunity to study precious and unique specimens without destructive investigation."

Lead author Dr Richard Dearden explained: "In this case, these methods have allowed us to fit all of the small bones of this animal's mouth together, and try and understand how it fed from this integrated system rather than by using isolated bones. Instead of a steady trend towards 'active food acquisition' -- scavenging or hunting -- we see a real diversity and range of feeding behaviours among our earliest vertebrate relatives."

The reconstruction produced by the team shows that the bony plates around the mouth would have had limited movement, making it unlikely that the animals were hunters capable of 'biting'. In combination with an elongated snout, they would also have found it difficult to scoop and filter sediment directly from the bottom of the sea. However these plates would have allowed it to control opening of the mouth, and perhaps strain food from water in a way also used by animals such as flamingos or oysters.

The findings offer a new perspective on theories of vertebrate evolution, since current hypotheses argue that long term evolutionary trends move from passive food consumption to increasingly predatory behaviour. In contrast, the work outlined in this paper suggests that in fact, early vertebrates had a broad range of different feeding behaviours long before jawed animals started to appear.

The study was funded by the Leverhulme Trust and is part of a collaborative project between the University of Birmingham, the Natural History Museum, and the University of Bristol, in the UK, and Naturalis Biodiversity Centre, in the Netherlands.

Early jawless fish were likely to have used bony projections surrounding their mouths to modify the mouth's shape while they collected food.

Experts led by the University of Birmingham have used CT scanning techniques to build up the first 3D pictures of these creatures, which are some of the earliest vertebrates (animals with backbones) in which the mouth is fossilised. Their aim was to answer questions about feeding in early vertebrates without jaws in the early Devonian epoch -- sometimes called the Age of Fishes -- around 400 million years ago.

Feeding behaviours are commonly used by scientists to help piece together early evolution of vertebrates, and different jaw shapes and constructions can suggest a broad range of feeding strategies. In the absence of jaws, many competing theories have been developed ranging from biting and slicing, to filtering food from sediment or water.

In a new study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, an international team of palaeontologists have been able to visualise the mouth parts of one of these jawless fish, called Rhinopteraspis dunensis, in detail. The images revealed the structure and arrangement of finger-like bones that project from the lower 'lip' of the animal's mouth, which the scientists believe acted to control the mouth's size and shape as it captured food particles from surrounding water.

Senior author and project lead Dr Ivan Sansom said: "The application of CT scanning techniques to the study of fossil fish is revealing so much new information about these ancient vertebrates and giving us the opportunity to study precious and unique specimens without destructive investigation."

Lead author Dr Richard Dearden explained: "In this case, these methods have allowed us to fit all of the small bones of this animal's mouth together, and try and understand how it fed from this integrated system rather than by using isolated bones. Instead of a steady trend towards 'active food acquisition' -- scavenging or hunti

Senior author and project lead Dr Ivan Sansom said: "The application of CT scanning techniques to the study of fossil fish is revealing so much new information about these ancient vertebrates and giving us the opportunity to study precious and unique specimens without destructive investigation."

Lead author Dr Richard Dearden explained: "In this case, these methods have allowed us to fit all of the small bones of this animal's mouth together, and try and understand how it fed from this integrated system rather than by using isolated bones. Instead of a steady trend towards 'active food acquisition' -- scavenging or hunting -- we see a real diversity and range of feeding behaviours among our earliest vertebrate relatives."

The reconstruction produced by the team shows that the bony plates around the mouth would have had limited movement, making it unlikely that the animals were hunters capable of 'biting'. In combination with an elongated snout, they would also have found it difficult to scoop and filter sediment directly from the bottom of the sea. However these plates would have allowed it to control opening of the mouth, and perhaps strain food from water in a way also used by animals such as flamingos or oysters.

The findings offer a new perspective on theories of vertebrate evolution, since current hypotheses argue that long term evolutionary trends move from passive food consumption to increasingly predatory behaviour. In contrast, the work outlined in this paper suggests that in fact, early vertebrates had a broad range of different feeding behaviours long before jawed animals started to appear.

The study was funded by the Leverhulme Trust and is part of a collaborative project between the University of Birmingham, the Natural History Museum, and the University of Bristol, in the UK, and Naturalis Biodiversity Centre, in the Netherlands.

Early jawless fish were likely to have used bony projections surrounding their mouths to modify the mouth's shape while they collected food.

Experts led by the University of Birmingham have used CT scanning techniques to build up the first 3D pictures of these creatures, which are some of the earliest vertebrates (animals with backbones) in which the mouth is fossilised. Their aim was to answer questions about feeding in early vertebrates without jaws in the early Devonian epoch -- sometimes called the Age of Fishes -- around 400 million years ago.

Feeding behaviours are commonly used by scientists to help piece together early evolution of vertebrates, and different jaw shapes and constructions can suggest a broad range of feeding strategies. In the absence of jaws, many competing theories have been developed ranging from biting and slicing, to filtering food from sediment or water.

In a new study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, an international team of palaeontologists have been able to visualise the mouth parts of one of these jawless fish, called Rhinopteraspis dunensis, in detail. The images revealed the structure and arrangement of finger-like bones that project from the lower 'lip' of the animal's mouth, which the scientists believe acted to control the mouth's size and shape as it captured food particles from surrounding water.

Senior author and project lead Dr Ivan Sansom said: "The application of CT scanning techniques to the study of fossil fish is revealing so much new information about these ancient vertebrates and giving us the opportunity to study precious and unique specimens without destructive investigation."

Lead author Dr Richard Dearden explained: "In this case, these methods have allowed us to fit all of the small bones of this animal's mouth together, and try and understand how it fed from this integrated system rather than by using isolated bones. Instead of a steady trend towards 'active food acquisition' -- scavenging or hunting -- we see a real diversity and range of feeding behaviours among our earliest vertebrate relatives."

The reconstruction produced by the team shows that the bony plates around the mouth would have had limited movement, making it unlikely that the animals were hunters capable of 'biting'. In combination with an elongated snout, they would also have found it difficult to scoop and filter sediment directly from the bottom of the sea. However these plates would have allowed it to control opening of the mouth, and perhaps strain food from water in a way also used by animals such as flamingos or oysters.

The findings offer a new perspective on theories of vertebrate evolution, since current hypotheses argue that long term evolutionary trends move from passive food consumption to increasingly predatory behaviour. In contrast, the work outlined in this paper suggests that in fact, early vertebrates had a broad range of different feeding behaviours long before jawed animals started to appear.

The study was funded by the Leverhulme Trust and is part of a collaborative project between the University of Birmingham, the Natural History Museum, and the University of Bristol, in the UK, and Naturalis Biodiversity Centre, in the Netherlands.


Story Source:

Materials provided by University of Birmingham. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Richard P. Dearden, Andy S. Jones, Sam Giles, Agnese Lanzetti, Madleen Grohganz, Zerina Johanson, Stephan Lautenschlager, Emma Randle, Philip C. J. Donoghue, Ivan J. Sansom. The three-dimensionally articulated oral apparatus of a Devonian heterostracan sheds light on feeding in Palaeozoic jawless fishes. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2024; 291 (2019) DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2023.2258

Cite This Page:

University of Birmingham. "3D mouth of an ancient jawless fish suggests they were filter-feeders, not scavengers or hunters." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 April 2024. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2024/04/240410112736.htm>.
University of Birmingham. (2024, April 10). 3D mouth of an ancient jawless fish suggests they were filter-feeders, not scavengers or hunters. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 24, 2024 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2024/04/240410112736.htm
University of Birmingham. "3D mouth of an ancient jawless fish suggests they were filter-feeders, not scavengers or hunters." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2024/04/240410112736.htm (accessed May 24, 2024).

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