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.

Paleontologists believe they are the most primitive jawed vertebrates, even predating sharks.

(Related: "Fossil Meat Found in 380-Million-Year-Old Fish" [February 12, 2007].)

The newfound mother fish measures 10 inches (25 centimeters) long, but other placoderms can grow to 20 feet (6 meters)—"some gargantuan in size," Long said.

Much of the fish's soft tissue has been preserved in a three-dimensional state, making the fossil "basically an exact replica of the living animal," said study co-author Kate Trinajstic, a paleontologist at the University of Western Australia.

(Read about a dinosaur fossil found with intact skin in China.)

"The material was so well preserved that we were able to pick up subtle details," Trinajstic said.

Such details helped the scientists determine that the prehistoric mother and baby are a new species of ptyctodont, a type of placoderm that has plates around the head and neck rather than the extensive body armor of its relatives.

They named the species Materpiscis attenboroughi—a combination of "mother fish" and a nod to world-renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough.

Attenborough's 1979 TV series Life on Earth first brought to light the scientific value of the Gogo area in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

The area is the site of an ancient barrier reef that once teemed with marine life.

Fossils in the Gogo are so immaculately preserved because the reef became devoid of oxygen, which quickly killed the fish and the scavengers that would otherwise devour them, Trinajstic said.

Rapid burial and a stable tectonic continent made for near-perfect fossil preservation conditions.

A description of the fossil is published in this week's issue of the journal Nature.

Evolutionary Innovation

Michael Lee, an evolutionary biologist at the South Australian Museum, was not involved in the new research.

"Live-bearing and maternal nourishment of embryos is a very important evolutionary innovation, which we ourselves exhibit," Lee said.

"The evidence that the included individual is an embryo [rather than ingested prey] is very strong—it's the same species, the right size to be an embryo, in the correct location within the body, and has what appear to be umbilical structures."

Live birth "might be preserved more commonly than we thought. Now that we know what to look for, it might be noticed more often," he added.

In fact, a reevaluation of a fossil found in 1986 reveals that it is a second placoderm fossil with three embryos nestled inside the mother. Study author Long had found the second specimen, a Gogonasus fossil, on an expedition to Gogo funded by a National Geographic Society grant. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society).

At the time, Long thought the embyros were scales.

(Related: "Ancient Fish Fossil May Rewrite Story of Animal Evolution" [October 18, 2006].)

"There are still lots of things to discover," Long said. "Gogo is giving us a picture not just of reproduction, but of the whole lifestyle of these creatures."

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