Pigmented anatomy in Carboniferous cyclostomes and the evolution of the vertebrate eye

Sarah E. Gabbott*, Philip Donoghue, Robert Sansom, Jakob Vinther, Andrei Dolocan, Mark A. Purnell

*Corresponding author for this work

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

23 Citations (Scopus)
299 Downloads (Pure)


The success of vertebrates is linked to the evolution of a camera-style eye and
sophisticated visual system. In the absence of useful data from fossils, scenarios for evolutionary assembly of the vertebrate eye have been based necessarily on evidence from development, molecular genetics and comparative anatomy in living vertebrates. Unfortunately, steps in the transition from a light-sensitive ‘eye spot’ in invertebrate chordates, to an image-forming camera-style eye in jawed vertebrates, are constrained only by hagfish and lampreys (cyclostomes), which are interpreted to reflect either an intermediate or degenerate condition. Here we report - based on evidence of size, shape, preservation mode and localized occurrence - the presence of melanosomes (pigment-bearing organelles) in fossil cyclostome eyes. Time of flight secondary ion mass spectrometry analyses reveal secondary ions with a relative intensity characteristic of melanin as revealed through principal components analyses. Our data support the hypotheses that extant hagfish eyes are degenerate, not rudimentary, that cyclostomes are monophyletic, and that the ancestral
vertebrate had a functional visual system. We also demonstrate integument
pigmentation in fossil lampreys, opening up the exciting possibility of investigating colour-patterning in Palaeozoic vertebrates. The examples we report add to the record of melanosome preservation in Carboniferous fossils and attest to surprising durability of melanosomes and biomolecular melanin.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20161151
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1836
Early online date3 Aug 2016
Publication statusPublished - 17 Aug 2016


  • cyclostomes
  • Mazon Creek
  • melanosomes
  • retinal pigment epithelium

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