Discriminating signal from noise in the fossil record of early vertebrates reveals cryptic evolutionary history

Robert Sansom, Emma Randle, Philip C J Donoghue

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)
309 Downloads (Pure)


The fossil record of early vertebrates has been influential in elucidating the evolutionary assembly of the gnathostome bodyplan. Understanding of the timing and tempo of vertebrate innovations remains, however, mired in a literal reading of the fossil record. Early jawless vertebrates (ostracoderms) exhibit restriction to shallow-water environments. The distribution of their stratigraphic occurrences therefore reflects not only flux in diversity, but also secular variation in facies representation of the rock record. Using stratigraphic, phylogenetic and palaeoenvironmental data, we assessed the veracity of the fossil records of the jawless relatives of jawed vertebrates (Osteostraci, Galeaspida, Thelodonti, Heterostraci). Non-random models of fossil recovery potential using Palaeozoic sea-level changes were used to calculate confidence intervals of clade origins. These intervals extend the timescale for possible origins into the Upper Ordovician; these estimates ameliorate the long ghost lineages inferred for Osteostraci, Galeaspida and Heterostraci, given their known stratigraphic occurrences and stem-gnathostome phylogeny. Diversity changes through the Silurian and Devonian were found to lie within the expected limits predicted from estimates of fossil record quality indicating that it is geological, rather than biological factors, that are responsible for shifts in diversity. Environmental restriction also appears to belie ostracoderm extinction and demise rather than competition with jawed vertebrates.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20142245
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1800
Publication statusPublished - 7 Feb 2015

Bibliographical note

Date of Acceptance: 21/11/2014


  • eustasy
  • competitive replacement
  • facies bias
  • ostracoderm
  • gnathostomes
  • diversity


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