Let's face it. It's easy to
take for granted that mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish –
vertebrates just like people – have a face. But it has not always been the
The first creatures with a
backbone – jawless fish from hundreds of millions of years ago – did not.
Scientists have been eager to learn how the evolution of the face unfolded.
A small, primitive armoured
fish known as Romundina that swam the seas 415 million years ago and whose
fossilised remains were unearthed in the Canadian Arctic is providing some
Evolution of the jaw
With Romundina at the centre
of their work, Swedish and French researchers described in a study published in
the journal Nature the step-by-step development of the face, as
jawless vertebrates evolved into creatures with jaws.
The evolution of the jaw
led to development of the face.Read: Life on earth may have sparked into existence as early as 4.4 billion years ago
The researchers scanned the
internal structures of Romundina's skull using high-energy X-rays at the
European Synchrotron (ESRF) in France, then digitally reconstructed the anatomy
in three dimensions.
Romundina, one of the
earliest jawed fish, was found to boast a mix of primitive features seen in
jawless fish and more modern ones that appear in fish with jaws. Its head had a
distinctive anatomy, with a very short forebrain and an odd "upper
lip" extending forward in front of the nose, they said.
Disappeared 360 million years ago
Romundina was a type of
fish called a placoderm that thrived during the Silurian and Devonian periods
in Earth's history but disappeared about 360 million years ago. It was small,
but some placoderms like the fearsome Dunkleosteus became apex predators bigger
than a great white shark.
Per Ahlberg, an expert in
vertebrate evolution at Uppsala University in Sweden, said Romundina was
roughly 8 inches (20 cm) long, had a small defensive spine on its back and had
jaws without real teeth but with flat crushing plates.
Its front end was encased
in armour, while its back end was flexible, with fins and a shark-like tail,
Ahlberg said. It may have hunted small invertebrates like worms and
While the very first
vertebrates were jawless, the only ones left are lampreys and hagfishes.
"The face is one of
the most important and emotionally significant parts of our anatomy, so it is
interesting to understand how it came into being," Ahlberg said by email.
Read: Do fish feel?
Image: These two images show the skull of the small fossil fish Romundina (415 million years old) scanned at the ESRF and digitally reconstructed in three dimensions. The internal structures of the face reveal the internal anatomy show a mixture of structures of jawless and jawed vertebrates (here in left lateral view, top). External bones of two different kinds in orange and pink grey, nerves and cranial cavity in yellow, arteries in red, veins in dark blue and inner ears in light blue; anterior part of the bone rendered semitransparent in bottom image (bottom). Credit: Vincent Dupret, Uppsala University
By comparing Romundina with
other creatures, the researchers determined that the transition from jawless to
jawed vertebrate with a face occurred in three major steps.
In the first step
represented by Romundina, jaws evolved while a single nostril structure that
reached under the brain in jawless vertebrates was replaced by a solid floor
under the brain and separate left and right nostrils opening on the face.
The forebrain remained
extremely short in Romundina with the nose located right between the eyes and
the skull extended in front of it like a big bony "upper lip".
In the second step
represented by more advanced armoured fish, the "upper lip" shrank to
nothing, leaving the nose at the front of the face immediately above the upper
jaw, but with the forebrain remaining short. In the final step as seen in
modern jawed vertebrates, the forebrain and face lengthen.
"When you look at
Romundina, it's like looking at yourself in the mirror, but with a 415
million-year-old image," Vincent Dupret of Uppsala, another of the
researchers, said in a telephone interview. "It's like in a
science-fiction movie. You look at the mirror, but it's not you. It's your
The study was a
collaboration among researchers at Uppsala, the National Museum of Natural
History in Paris, and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble. Read more at Phys.org
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