Coelacanth reveals new insights into skull evolution

ScienceDaily | 4/17/2019 | Staff
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The coelacanth Latimeria is a marine fish closely related to tetrapods, four-limbed vertebrates including amphibians, mammals and reptiles. Coelacanths were thought to have been extinct for 70 million years, until the accidental capture of a living specimen by a South African fisherman in 1938. Eighty years after its discovery, Latimeria remains of scientific interest for understanding the origin of tetrapods and the evolution of their closest fossil relatives -- the lobe-finned fishes.

One of the most unusual features of Latimeria is its hinged braincase, which is otherwise only found in many fossil lobe-finned fishes from the Devonian period (410-360 million years ago). The braincase of Latimeria is completely split into an anterior and posterior portion by a joint called the "intracranial joint." In addition, the brain lies far at the rear of the braincase and takes up only 1% of the cavity housing it. This mismatch between the brain and its cavity is totally unequalled among living vertebrates. How the coelacanth skull grows and why the brain remains so small has puzzled scientists for years. To answer these questions, researchers studied specimens at different stages of cranial development from several public natural history collections.

Specimens - Adult - Coelacanths - History - Collections

Although many specimens of adult coelacanths are available in natural history collections, earlier life stages such as fetuses are extremely rare. Scientists hence used state-of-the-art imaging techniques to visualize the internal anatomy of the specimens without damaging them. They notably digitalized a 5 cm-long fetus, the earliest developmental stage available for Latimeria, with synchrotron X-ray microtomography at the European Synchrotron (ESRF). Over the last two decades, the ESRF has developed unique expertise in designing non-invasive techniques widely used for evolutionary biology studies.

In addition, the...
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