Ancient Sex

Fossils of an extinct, armored fish challenge current understanding of when copulation and internal fertilization evolved in jawed vertebrates.

By Sandhya Sekar | October 19, 2014

Artist's impression of Microbrachius mating sceneBRIAN CHOO, FLINDERS UNIVERSITYIt is widely believed that external fertilization—like frogs spawning in pools—is the ancestral mode of reproduction among jawed vertebrates; internal fertilization—typically involving some form of sex—is thought to have evolved later. But the discovery of certain structures indicative of internal fertilization in the 400 million-year-old fossils of Microbrachius, which were among the first jawed fish, shakes the very foundation of this claim.

“It would not take a whole lot of evidence to reshape that tree to suggest a different history,” said evolutionary biologist Martin Brazeau of Imperial College London who was not involved in the study, which was published today (October 19) in Nature. “But I think that’s part of what makes this a really exciting discovery. It’s going to drive a lot of debate and I think it’s one of the most important discoveries in this area of research in years.”

 “Internal fertilization might be even more widespread than implied by these fossils, because it doesn’t always have an obvious morphological (anatomical) signature,” Michael Coates from the University of Chicago who was also not involved with the research said in an e-mail.

Microbrachius is an “antiarch,” a member of heavily armored group of fish that are believed to be the most primitive subgroup among armored fish (placoderms), dating to about 380 million to 400 million years ago. Looking at new specimens from Orkney Islands in Scotland, an international team of researchers concluded that solid bone structures on backsides of males, once thought to be modified pelvic fins, are actually claspers that may have protected soft tissues used for transferring sperm into the female’s cloaca. “Claspers are very distinctive structures with a single function: to effect internal fertilization. These claspers, which have now been found in numerous specimens, are conclusive evidence that fertilization was internal in Microbrachius,” said coauthor Per Ahlberg of Uppsala University in Sweden.

Fossilized females also showed evidence of having accepted a male’s genetic package internally. Ahlberg describes the “paired plates at the posterior end of the body armor, with a peculiar ridged surface that faces inwards. The fact that the ridges face inwards, whereas the internal surfaces of all other bones are smooth, suggests that they have a role in copulation: we surmise that they face into the cloaca, and that the hooks and ridges of the claspers grasp onto them during mating.”

“I was gobsmacked to realize what a huge discovery it was with all its implications to understanding the origin and evolution of sexual reproduction in our deep distant ancestors,” said first author John Long, a paleontologist at Flinders University in Australia.

Researchers have found similar genital plates on females of two other antiarch species, as well as evidence of embryos being found inside the body cavities of females in other placoderms, suggesting internal fertilization may have been more widespread in these ancient fish.  However, claspers have previously only been found in later placoderms. This absence of obvious [structures on] males is a puzzle, but it is possible, for example, that claspers only developed during the mating season and that our fossil localities didn’t sample their breeding environments,” said Ahlberg.

“Now that claspers have also turned up in antiarchs, the simplest explanation is that . . . internal fertilization is ancestral for the modern jawed vertebrates,” he added, “and thus that external fertilization has evolved from internal in certain jawed vertebrate groups such as ray-finned fishes and amphibians.”

Indeed, Coates said, it might well be the case that “reproductive strategies change throughout vertebrate evolution, from internal to external, flipping back & forth more than might commonly be considered.”

J. Long et al., “Copulation in antiarch placoderms and the origin of gnathostome internal fertilization,” Nature, doi: 10.1038/nature13825, 2014.

Add a Comment

Avatar of: You



Sign In with your LabX Media Group Passport to leave a comment

Not a member? Register Now!

LabX Media Group Passport Logo


Avatar of: Andries


Posts: 14

October 20, 2014


Avatar of: Stuart21


Posts: 15

October 22, 2014

Ah ha!

It what made sex a verb!

Avatar of: mpuppi


Posts: 1

October 24, 2014

Reference Article: Green versus Brown anole in Florida

This is a very interesting finding. I would like to add my own observations. I live in Pearland, a few miles south of Houston, TX. I am an avid gardener as a hobby and have noticed the presence of the brown anole in my garden 2 years ago.

My garden is the oasis of the neighborhood for it's extensive landscaping, plant diversity, and the presence of local wild life. I have thousands of the green anole in the garden at any time of the year.

Noticing the presence of the brown anole at first made me excited for the "new " discovery, however as I started to notice it's behavior I became aprehensive.

The brown anole is very agrressive as compared to the green anole which has a "friendly" predisposition. My kids grew up holding and playing with the green anole. But we have never came close catching the brown one.

I hope the presence of brown anole will not disrrupt the balance of my personal biome.

Monica Puppi

Popular Now

  1. Could Rapamycin Help Humans Live Longer?
  2. Renowned Physicist Stephen Hawking Dies
  3. John Sulston, Human Genome Project Leader, Dies
  4. Pupil Response to an Optical Illusion Tied to Autistic Traits