Ecomorphological inferences in early vertebrates: reconstructing(Arthrodira, Placodermi) caudal fin from palaeoecological data

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Our knowledge about the body morphology of many extinct early vertebrates is very limited, especially in regard to their post-thoracic region. The prompt disarticulation of the dermo-skeletal elements due to taphonomic processes and the lack of a well-ossified endoskeleton in a large number of groups hinder the preservation of complete specimens. Previous reconstructions of most early vertebrates known from partial remains have been wholly based on phylogenetically closely related taxa. However, body design of fishes is determined, to a large extent, by their swimming mode and feeding niche, making it possible to recognise different morphological traits that have evolved several times in non-closely related groups with similar lifestyles. Based on this well-known ecomorphological correlation, here we propose a useful comparative framework established on extant taxa for predicting some anatomical aspects in extinct aquatic vertebrates from palaeoecological data andvice versa.For this, we have assessed the relationship between the locomotory patterns and the morphological variability of the caudal region in extant sharks by means of geometric morphometrics and allometric regression analysis. Multivariate analyses reveal a strong morphological convergence in non-closely related shark species that share similar modes of life, enabling the characterization of the caudal fin morphology of different ecological subgroups. In addition, interspecific positive allometry, affecting mainly the caudal fin span, has been detected. This phenomenon seems to be stronger in sharks with more pelagic habits, supporting its role as a compensation mechanism for the loss of hydrodynamic lift associated with the increase in body size, as previously suggested for many other living and extinct aquatic vertebrates. The quantification of shape change per unit size in each ecological subgroup has allowed us to establish a basis for inferring not only qualitative aspects of the caudal fin morphology of extinct early vertebrates but also to predict absolute values of other variables such as the fin span or the hypocercal and heterocercal angles. The application of this ecomorphological approach to the specific case ofDunkleosteus terrellihas led to a new reconstruction of this emblematic placoderm. Our proposal suggests a caudal fin with a well-developed ventral lobe, narrow peduncle and wide span, in contrast to classical reconstructions founded on the phylogenetic proximity with much smaller placoderms known from complete specimens. Interestingly, this prediction gains support with the recent discovery of fin distal elements (ceratotrichia) in a well preservedD. terrelli, which suggests a possible greater morphological variability in placoderm caudal fins than previously thought.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere4081
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 6 Dec 2017


  • Caudal fin
  • Dunkleosteus terrelli
  • Early vertebrates
  • Ecomorphology
  • Geometric morphometrics
  • Palaeoart
  • Sharks
  • Size

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