A new study out of the University of Chicago, the Canadian Museum of Nature and the Albany Museum challenges a long-held hypothesis that the larvae of modern lampreys are a holdover from the distant past, resembling the ancestors of all living vertebrates, including ourselves.
The new fossil discoveries indicate that ancient lamprey hatchlings more closely resembled modern adult lampreys, and were completely unlike their modern larvae counterparts. The results were published on March 10 in Nature.
“We’ve basically removed lampreys from the position of the ancestral condition of vertebrates,” said first author Tetsuto Miyashita, formerly a Chicago Fellow at the University of Chicago and now a paleontologist at the Canadian Museum of Nature. “So now we need an alternative.”
Lampreys—unusual jawless, eel-like creatures—have long provided insights into vertebrate evolution, said Miyashita. “Lampreys have a preposterous life cycle,” he said. “Once hatched, the larvae bury themselves in the riverbed and filter feed before eventually metamorphosing into blood-sucking adults. They’re so different from adults that scientists originally thought they were a totally different group of fish.
“Modern lamprey larvae have been used as a model of the ancestral condition that gave rise to the vertebrate lineages,” Miyashita continued. “They seemed primitive enough, comparable to wormy invertebrates, and their qualities matched the preferred narrative of vertebrate ancestry. But we didn’t have evidence that such a rudimentary form goes all the way back to the beginning of vertebrate evolution.”
Newly discovered fossils in Illinois, South Africa and Montana are changing the story. Connecting the dots between dozens of specimens, the research team realized that different stages of the ancient lamprey lifecycle had been preserved, allowing paleontologists to track their growth from hatchling to adult. On some of the smallest specimens, about the size of a fingernail, soft tissue preservation even shows the remains of a yolk sac, indicating that fossil record had captured these lampreys shortly after hatching.
Crucially, these fossilized juveniles are quite unlike their modern counterparts (known as “ammocoetes”), and instead look more like modern adult lampreys, with large eyes and toothed sucker mouths. Most excitingly, this phenotype can be seen during the larval phase in multiple different species of ancient lamprey.
“Remarkably, we’ve got enough specimens to reconstruct a trajectory from hatchling to adult in several independent lineages of early lampreys,” said Michael Coates, a professor in the Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at UChicago, “and they each show the same pattern: the larval form was like a miniature adult.”