Oldest Live-Birth Fossil Found; Fish Had Umbilical Cord

Carolyn Barry in Sydney, Australia
for National Geographic News
May 28, 2008

Remains of the world's oldest known mother have been unearthed in the Australian outback, scientists say.

The remarkably well-preserved fossil—about 375 to 380 million years old—shows an embryo connected to its mother fish by an umbilical cord.

It is the earliest evidence of a vertebrate giving birth to live young, shifting back the date some 200 million years, said John Long, head of sciences at Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, and lead author of a new study describing the find.

(See a prehistoric time line.)

The fossil is also the earliest record of vertebrate sex, since live birth occurs when an ovum, or egg, has been fertilized internally by male sex cells.

"Having such advanced reproduction for a fish that primitive is amazing," Long said.

Evidence of live birth—as opposed to egg laying—is extremely rare and has only been found in a few fossils of dolphin-like reptiles called ichthyosaurs and marine lizards known as mosasaurs, Long said.

The new fossil captures a long-extinct placoderm, a primitive, shark-like armored fish.

(Related: "Shark Ate Amphibian Ate Fish: First 'Food-Chain Fossil'" [November 8, 2007].)

Dinosaurs of the Sea

Often called the "dinosaurs of the sea," placoderms were the ruling class of marine creatures for 70 million years—in the middle of the Paleozoic period—until their extinction about 360 million years ago.

Continued on Next Page >>


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