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Concept: Chordate


The ability to perceive the number of objects has been known to exist in vertebrates for a few decades, but recent behavioral investigations have demonstrated that several invertebrate species can also be placed on the continuum of numerical abilities shared with birds, mammals, and reptiles. In this review article, we present the main experimental studies that have examined the ability of insects to use numerical information. These studies have made use of a wide range of methodologies, and for this reason it is striking that a common finding is the inability of the tested animals to discriminate numerical quantities greater than four. Furthermore, the finding that bees can not only transfer learnt numerical discrimination to novel objects, but also to novel numerosities, is strongly suggestive of a true, albeit limited, ability to count. Later in the review, we evaluate the available evidence to narrow down the possible mechanisms that the animals might be using to solve the number-based experimental tasks presented to them. We conclude by suggesting avenues of further research that take into account variables such as the animals' age and experience, as well as complementary cognitive systems such as attention and the time sense.

Concepts: Psychology, Insect, Animal, Cognition, Perception, Sense, Chordate, Invertebrate


The actinopterygians comprise nearly one-half of all extant vertebrate species and are very important for human well-being. However, the phylogenetic relationships among certain groups within the actinopterygians are still uncertain, and debates about these relationships have continued for a long time. Along with the progress achieved in sequencing technologies, phylogenetic analyses based on multi-gene sequences, termed phylogenomic approaches, are becoming increasingly common and often result in well-resolved and highly supported phylogenetic hypotheses. Based on the transcriptome sequences generated in this study and the extensive expression data currently available from public databases, we obtained alignments of 274 orthologue groups for 26 scientifically and commercially important actinopterygians, representing 17 out of 44 orders within the class Actinopterygii. Using these alignments and probabilistic methods, we recovered relationships between basal actinopterygians and teleosts, among teleosts within protacanthopterygians and related lineages, and also within acanthomorphs. These relationships were recovered with high confidence.

Concepts: Species, Fish, Phylogenetics, Vertebrate, Chordate, Actinopterygii, Osteichthyes, Teleostei


The great majority of metazoans belong to bilaterian phyla. They diversified during a short interval in Earth’s history known as the Cambrian explosion, ∼540 million years ago. However, the genetic basis of these events is poorly understood. Here we argue that the vertebrate genome organizer CTCF (CCCTC-binding factor) played an important role for the evolution of bilaterian animals. We provide evidence that the CTCF protein and a genome-wide abundance of CTCF-specific binding motifs are unique to bilaterian phyla, but absent in other eukaryotes. We demonstrate that CTCF-binding sites within vertebrate and Drosophila Hox gene clusters have been maintained for several hundred million years, suggesting an ancient origin of the previously known interaction between Hox gene regulation and CTCF. In addition, a close correlation between the presence of CTCF and Hox gene clusters throughout the animal kingdom suggests conservation of the Hox-CTCF link across the Bilateria. On the basis of these findings, we propose the existence of a Hox-CTCF kernel as principal organizer of bilaterian body plans. Such a kernel could explain (i) the formation of Hox clusters in Bilateria, (ii) the diversity of bilaterian body plans, and (iii) the uniqueness and time of onset of the Cambrian explosion.

Concepts: DNA, Gene expression, Evolution, Organism, Animal, Chordate, Cnidaria, Cambrian explosion


Problematic fossils, extinct taxa of enigmatic morphology that cannot be assigned to a known major group, were once a major issue in palaeontology. A long-favoured solution to the ‘problem of the problematica’, particularly the ‘weird wonders’ of the Cambrian Burgess Shale, was to consider them representatives of extinct phyla. A combination of new evidence and modern approaches to phylogenetic analysis has now resolved the affinities of most of these forms. Perhaps the most notable exception is Tullimonstrum gregarium, popularly known as the Tully monster, a large soft-bodied organism from the late Carboniferous Mazon Creek biota (approximately 309-307 million years ago) of Illinois, USA, which was designated the official state fossil of Illinois in 1989. Its phylogenetic position has remained uncertain and it has been compared with nemerteans, polychaetes, gastropods, conodonts, and the stem arthropod Opabinia. Here we review the morphology of Tullimonstrum based on an analysis of more than 1,200 specimens. We find that the anterior proboscis ends in a buccal apparatus containing teeth, the eyes project laterally on a long rigid bar, and the elongate segmented body bears a caudal fin with dorsal and ventral lobes. We describe new evidence for a notochord, cartilaginous arcualia, gill pouches, articulations within the proboscis, and multiple tooth rows adjacent to the mouth. This combination of characters, supported by phylogenetic analysis, identifies Tullimonstrum as a vertebrate, and places it on the stem lineage to lampreys (Petromyzontida). In addition to increasing the known morphological disparity of extinct lampreys, a chordate affinity for T. gregarium resolves the nature of a soft-bodied fossil which has been debated for more than 50 years.

Concepts: Evolution, Chordate, Fossil, Illinois, Dinosaur, Trilobite, Burgess Shale, Grundy County, Illinois


The head and anterior trunk region of most actinopterygian fishes is stiffened as, uniquely within vertebrates, the pectoral girdles have a direct and often strong connection through the posttemporal to the posterior region of the skull. Members of the mesopelagic fish family Stomiidae have their pectoral girdle separated from the skull. This connection is lost in several teleost groups, but the stomiids have an additional evolutionary novelty-a flexible connection between the occiput and the first vertebra, where only the notochord persists. Several studies suggested that stomiids engulf significantly large prey items and conjectured about the functional role of the anterior part of the vertebral column; however, there has been no precise anatomical description of this complex. Here we describe a unique configuration comprising the occiput and the notochordal sheath in Aristostomias, Eustomias, Malacosteus, Pachystomias, and Photostomias that represents a true functional head joint in teleosts and discuss its potential phylogenetic implications. In these genera, the chordal sheath is folded inward ventrally beneath its connection to the basioccipital and embraces the occipital condyle when in a resting position. In the resting position (wherein the head is not manipulatively elevated), this condyle is completely embraced by the ventral fold of the notochord. A manual manipulative elevation of the head in cleared and stained specimens unfolds the ventral sheath of the notochord. As a consequence, the cranium can be pulled up and back significantly farther than in all other teleost taxa that lack such a functional head joint and thereby can reach mouth gapes up to 120°.

Concepts: Vertebral column, Skull, Vertebra, Vertebrate, Anatomical terms of location, Chordate, Actinopterygii, Tetrapod


Examples of animals evolving similar traits despite the absence of that trait in the last common ancestor, such as the wing and camera-type lens eye in vertebrates and invertebrates, are called cases of convergent evolution. Instances of convergent evolution of locomotory patterns that quantitatively agree with the mechanically optimal solution are very rare. Here, we show that, with respect to a very diverse group of aquatic animals, a mechanically optimal method of swimming with elongated fins has evolved independently at least eight times in both vertebrate and invertebrate swimmers across three different phyla. Specifically, if we take the length of an undulation along an animal’s fin during swimming and divide it by the mean amplitude of undulations along the fin length, the result is consistently around twenty. We call this value the optimal specific wavelength (OSW). We show that the OSW maximizes the force generated by the body, which also maximizes swimming speed. We hypothesize a mechanical basis for this optimality and suggest reasons for its repeated emergence through evolution.

Concepts: Evolution, Species, Insect, Bird, Evolutionary biology, Vertebrate, Chordate, Common descent


Enamel, the hardest vertebrate tissue, covers the teeth of almost all sarcopterygians (lobe-finned bony fishes and tetrapods) as well as the scales and dermal bones of many fossil lobe-fins. Enamel deposition requires an organic matrix containing the unique enamel matrix proteins (EMPs) amelogenin (AMEL), enamelin (ENAM) and ameloblastin (AMBN). Chondrichthyans (cartilaginous fishes) lack both enamel and EMP genes. Many fossil and a few living non-teleost actinopterygians (ray-finned bony fishes) such as the gar, Lepisosteus, have scales and dermal bones covered with a proposed enamel homologue called ganoine. However, no gene or transcript data for EMPs have been described from actinopterygians. Here we show that Psarolepis romeri, a bony fish from the the Early Devonian period, combines enamel-covered dermal odontodes on scales and skull bones with teeth of naked dentine, and that Lepisosteus oculatus (the spotted gar) has enam and ambn genes that are expressed in the skin, probably associated with ganoine formation. The genetic evidence strengthens the hypothesis that ganoine is homologous with enamel. The fossil evidence, further supported by the Silurian bony fish Andreolepis, which has enamel-covered scales but teeth and odontodes on its dermal bones made of naked dentine, indicates that this tissue originated on the dermal skeleton, probably on the scales. It subsequently underwent heterotopic expansion across two highly conserved patterning boundaries (scales/head-shoulder and dermal/oral) within the odontode skeleton.

Concepts: Fish, Vertebrate, Chordate, Actinopterygii, Sarcopterygii, Tetrapod, Osteichthyes, Devonian


The success of vertebrates is linked to the evolution of a camera-style eye and sophisticated visual system. In the absence of useful data from fossils, scenarios for evolutionary assembly of the vertebrate eye have been based necessarily on evidence from development, molecular genetics and comparative anatomy in living vertebrates. Unfortunately, steps in the transition from a light-sensitive ‘eye spot’ in invertebrate chordates to an image-forming camera-style eye in jawed vertebrates are constrained only by hagfish and lampreys (cyclostomes), which are interpreted to reflect either an intermediate or degenerate condition. Here, we report-based on evidence of size, shape, preservation mode and localized occurrence-the presence of melanosomes (pigment-bearing organelles) in fossil cyclostome eyes. Time of flight secondary ion mass spectrometry analyses reveal secondary ions with a relative intensity characteristic of melanin as revealed through principal components analyses. Our data support the hypotheses that extant hagfish eyes are degenerate, not rudimentary, that cyclostomes are monophyletic, and that the ancestral vertebrate had a functional visual system. We also demonstrate integument pigmentation in fossil lampreys, opening up the exciting possibility of investigating colour patterning in Palaeozoic vertebrates. The examples we report add to the record of melanosome preservation in Carboniferous fossils and attest to surprising durability of melanosomes and biomolecular melanin.

Concepts: Evolution, Fish, Vertebrate, Chordate, Invertebrate, Paleontology, Hagfish, Agnatha


Neuroectodermal signalling centres induce and pattern many novel vertebrate brain structures but are absent, or divergent, in invertebrate chordates. This has led to the idea that signalling-centre genetic programs were first assembled in stem vertebrates and potentially drove morphological innovations of the brain. However, this scenario presumes that extant cephalochordates accurately represent ancestral chordate characters, which has not been tested using close chordate outgroups. Here we report that genetic programs homologous to three vertebrate signalling centres-the anterior neural ridge, zona limitans intrathalamica and isthmic organizer-are present in the hemichordate Saccoglossus kowalevskii. Fgf8/17/18 (a single gene homologous to vertebrate Fgf8, Fgf17 and Fgf18), sfrp1/5, hh and wnt1 are expressed in vertebrate-like arrangements in hemichordate ectoderm, and homologous genetic mechanisms regulate ectodermal patterning in both animals. We propose that these genetic programs were components of an unexpectedly complex, ancient genetic regulatory scaffold for deuterostome body patterning that degenerated in amphioxus and ascidians, but was retained to pattern divergent structures in hemichordates and vertebrates.

Concepts: Brain, Animal, Vertebrate, Chordate, Invertebrate, Bilateria, Echinoderm, Deuterostome


Cyclostomes, the living jawless vertebrates including hagfishes and lampreys, represent the most basal lineage of vertebrates. Although the monophyly of cyclostomes has been supported by recent molecular analyses, the phenotypic traits of hagfishes, especially the lack of some vertebrate-defining features and the reported endodermal origin of the adenohypophysis, have been interpreted as hagfishes exhibiting a more ancestral state than those of all other vertebrates. Furthermore, the adult anatomy of hagfishes cannot be compared easily with that of lampreys. Here we describe the craniofacial development of a series of staged hagfish embryos, which shows that their adenohypophysis arises ectodermally, consistent with the molecular phylogenetic data. This finding also allowed us to identify a pan-cyclostome pattern, one not shared by jawed vertebrates. Comparative analyses indicated that many of the hagfish-specific traits can be explained by changes secondarily introduced into the hagfish lineage. We also propose a possibility that the pan-cyclostome pattern may reflect the ancestral programme for the craniofacial development of all living vertebrates.

Concepts: Evolution, Fish, Phylogenetics, Vertebrate, Chordate, Lamprey, Hagfish, Agnatha