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Lamprey living in the Jurassic era were flesh-eating species

In an extraordinary leap forward for paleontology and evolutionary biology, a team from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, along with international collaborators, have unearthed fossils that illuminate the shadowy past of one of the most enigmatic creatures of the aquatic world — the lamprey.

Published in the esteemed journal Nature Communications, this study not only shatters previous assumptions about lamprey evolution, but also revamps our understanding of their biogeography and developmental life cycles.

Lamprey: Jurassic giants and tiny teeth

Nestled in the rich deposits of the Yanliao Biota, scientists have uncovered two remarkably well-preserved lamprey fossils dating back 158–163 million years.

Among these is the Yanliaomyzon occisor, an extraordinary specimen spanning a stunning 642 mm in length. This species has earned the title of the largest fossil lamprey discovered to date.

What stands out is the exceptional preservation of their keratinous teeth, a feature that has propelled a comprehensive reevaluation of the evolutionary trajectory of these jawless vertebrates.

The pouched lamprey parallel

One of the most striking revelations from the study is the remarkable similarity between the Jurassic lampreys’ feeding structures and that of the modern pouched lamprey, Geotria australis.

Lead author WU Feixiang elucidates, “Our study resolved these Jurassic lampreys as the closest fossil relatives to extant lampreys.” This resemblance suggests a much more ancient origin of certain lamprey characteristics than previously thought.

Flesh over blood: A dietary revolution

The conventional narrative of lamprey ancestry posited that ancient lampreys were primarily blood feeders. However, this new research proposes a radical shift in this perspective.

WU says that the Jurassic lampreys were likely flesh eaters. This is a trait that hints at similar dietary preferences in the most recent common ancestor of today’s lampreys.

The Jurassic lamprey transformation

The Jurassic period emerges as a critical juncture in the story of lamprey evolution. Prior to this era, Paleozoic lampreys were characterized by smaller body sizes and simpler dental structures, traits unsuited for predation, especially given the armored nature of contemporary fish.

However, with the advent of teleost fishes boasting thinner scales, a proverbial buffet was laid out for the lampreys. This catalyzed a significant evolutionary adaptation in their feeding apparatus. In turn, this new trait supported larger body sizes and the development of a complex life cycle involving metamorphosis.

Bayesian inference and the time tree

The study’s methodological backbone was the construction of a time-calibrated family tree, using a Bayesian total-evidence dating framework. This approach allowed the researchers to weave together diverse data sources, factoring in uncertainties.

This process was described by corresponding author ZHANG Chi as superior to the more rigid parsimony method. It is through this lens that the researchers were able to trace the evolutionary journey of lampreys with greater accuracy and nuance.

Biogeography of the Jurassic lamprey

The story of lamprey evolution has long been puzzling due to a scarcity of fossil evidence. However, the new Jurassic lamprey calibrations have shed light on the perplexing anti-tropical distribution of these creatures.

By tracing back the lineages, the researchers now posit that the ancestors of modern lampreys originated in the Southern Hemisphere during the Late Cretaceous. This revelation challenges the previously held belief of a Northern Hemisphere origin.

Implications and future research

The implications of this study are far-reaching. Prof. Philippe Janvier was a co-author from France’s National Museum of National History. He said, “This discovery clearly indicates that the extant southern lampreys retain a feeding morphology that already arose in the Jurassic.”

The newfound consistency between modern lamprey phylogeny and a Southern Hemisphere origin, alongside adaptations to a carnivorous diet, provides a fresh perspective on these ancient beings.

Though the evolutionary history of lampreys is punctuated with gaps and mysteries, discoveries like the Jurassic fossils unearthed by IVPP researchers are pivotal. They not only challenge existing paradigms but also pave the way for future explorations into the depths of prehistoric life.

Rewriting the Jurassic lamprey ancestral tale

As we delve into the narrative penned by these ancient fossils, a new chapter in the evolutionary saga of the lampreys emerges. This new is one filled with unexpected twists and radical departures from established lore.

Through meticulous research and innovative methodologies, the veiled past of these unique creatures slowly comes to light, promising a richer understanding of the biodiversity that has shaped our planet’s biological heritage. As the scientific community eagerly anticipates further discoveries, the tale of the lamprey stands as a testament to the ever-evolving nature of life on Earth and our understanding of it.

More about Jurassic lamprey

As mentioned above, lampreys are jawless fish, belonging to the order Petromyzontiformes, which includes about 38 known species. They are often mistaken for eels due to their elongated bodies but are quite distinct in terms of evolution and biological characteristics.

Distinctive feeding mechanisms

Adult lampreys are notorious for their parasitic feeding habits. They use their toothed, funnel-like sucking mouth to attach to the flesh of other fish.

Once firmly attached, lampreys secrete an anticoagulant and feed on the blood and body fluids of their hosts. In addition, as described previously, Jurassic lamprey were flesh-eaters. Furthermore, some species are non-parasitic and do not feed after reaching adulthood.

Lamprey life cycle

The lamprey life cycle is a complex process involving several stages. They begin as burrowing larvae, known as ammocoetes, which live in freshwater sediments and filter-feed on microorganisms.

After several years, they undergo a dramatic metamorphosis, transforming into free-swimming adults. Parasitic species then migrate to the sea or lakes, where they attach to other fish for nourishment. After a period of feeding, they return to freshwater to spawn and die shortly after.

Ecological role and conservation

Lampreys play a significant ecological role in aquatic ecosystems. As predators, they help control fish populations, and as prey, they provide food for species like trout and walleye. However, lampreys can become invasive and pose a threat to local fish populations, as seen with the sea lamprey in the Great Lakes of North America.

While some lamprey species are considered pests, others are endangered due to habitat destruction, pollution, and barriers to migration like dams. Efforts are underway in various regions to protect critical habitats and ensure lampreys can complete their life cycles.

Economic impact

Lampreys have had both positive and negative impacts on human economies. The sea lamprey invasion in the Great Lakes has caused significant damage to the local fishing industry, leading to extensive and costly control measures. On the other hand, in some cultures, lampreys are a culinary delicacy, creating a niche market for their harvest.

Cultural significance

Lampreys hold cultural importance in some regions, featured in traditional dishes and historical texts. Their presence in rivers and streams has been a part of human history for centuries, contributing to local traditions and cuisines.

In summary, lampreys are remarkable creatures that have captivated scientists and laypeople alike with their unique biology and evolutionary significance. Despite their reputation, it’s clear they are an integral part of the aquatic world, deserving of both our attention and conservation efforts.

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