Early Evolution of the Vertebrate Eye - Fossil Evidence
By Gavin C. Young (Research School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra)
(Evolution: Education and Outreach, Oct. 2008)
Evidence of detailed brain morphology is illustrated and described for 400-million-year-old fossil skulls and braincases of early vertebrates (placoderm fishes). Their significance is summarized in the context of the historical development of knowledge of vertebrate anatomy, both before and since the time of Charles Darwin. These ancient extinct fishes show a unique type of preservation of the cartilaginous braincase and demonstrate a combination of characters unknown in other vertebrate species, living or extinct. The structure of the oldest detailed fossil evidence for the vertebrate eye and brain indicates a legacy from an ancestral segmented animal, in which the braincase is still partly subdivided, and the arrangement of nerves and muscles controlling eye movement was intermediate between the living jawless and jawed vertebrate groups. With their unique structure, these placoderms fill a gap in vertebratemorphology and also in the vertebrate fossil record. Like many other vertebrate fossils elucidated since Darwin's time, they are key examples of the transitional forms that he predicted, showing combinations of characters that have never been observed together in living species.