Proceedings of the Royal Society B
Tetrapods possess up to five morphologically distinct vertebral series: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral and caudal. The evolution of axial regionalization has been linked to derived Hox expression patterns during development and the demands of weight-bearing and walking on land. These evolutionary and functional explanations are supported by an absence of similar traits in fishes, living and extinct. Here, I show that, Tarrasius problematicus, a marine ray-finned fish from the Mississippian (Early Carboniferous; 359–318 Ma) of Scotland, is the first non-tetrapod known to possess tetrapod-like axial regionalization. Tarrasius exhibits five vertebral regions, including a seven-vertebrae ‘cervical’ series and a reinforced ‘sacrum’ over the pelvic area. Most vertebrae possess processes for intervertebral contact similar to tetrapod zygapophyses. The fully aquatic Tarrasius evolved these morphologies alongside other traits convergent with early tetrapods, including a naked trunk, and a single median continuous fin. Regional modifications in Tarrasius probably facilitated pelagic swimming, rather than a terrestrial lifestyle or walking gait, presenting an alternative scenario for the evolution of such traits in tetrapods. Axial regionalization in Tarrasius could indicate tetrapod-like Hox expression patterns, possibly representing the primitive state for jawed vertebrates. Alternately, it could signal a weaker relationship, or even a complete disconnect, between Hox expression domains and vertebrate axial plans.
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