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Scientists find lamprey a 'living fossil'

sis, 18 months ago in an ancient estuary in Grahamstown, South Africa. Preserved showing the underside, the fossil measures less than 2 inches long and reveals a set of 14 teeth surrounding the mouth that is proportionately larger than its descendents today.

"The most striking feature of Priscomyzon is its large oral disc, edged with a soft outer lip, supported by an annular cartilage, and surrounding a circular mouth," the authors wrote. "This is the first clear evidence of a Palaeozoic lamprey with an oral disc."

According to the scientists, this find greatly adds to what was a severely limited lamprey fossil record and, for the first time, places the origin of modern lamprey morphology deep within the Palaeozoic period. It adds essential new detail to the emerging and changing picture of early vertebrate evolution.

Until now, the lamprey fossil record included only those that show a side view but reveal little of the gill basket and feeding apparatus. However, earlier this year, Nature reported on a freshwater lamprey fossil found in the Jehol biota of China (Inner Mongolia) from the Early Cretaceous period (about 125 million years ago).

The newly discovered South African fossil shows that these anatomically specialized fish are "holdovers" from ancient marine ecosystems, Coates said. Obviously exceptional survivors, these animals predate the advent of modern fish and have survived at least four major extinction events.

"There are few representatives of these early branches in vertebrate evolution that are still around today," Coates said, which is why so much scientific attention has been paid to lampreys. Although highly specialized in their own right, these primitive animals are used as surrogate ancestors for comparative research on living jawed vertebrates.

"It gives us a calibration point," Coates said. "We study lampreys because, in many respects, they're so primitive. They never had jaws, they never ha
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Contact: Catherine Gianaro
catherine.gianaro@uchospitals.edu
773-702-6241
University of Chicago Medical Center
25-Oct-2006


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