October 12, 2011
Nearly All Vertebrates Descended From Ancestor With Sixth Sense
A new study finds that sharks, paddlefishes and certain other aquatic vertebrates have a sixth sense: the ability to detect weak electrical fields in the water, and to use this information to detect prey, communicate and orient themselves.
The study, which caps more than a quarter century of work, found that the vast majority of vertebrates — roughly 30,000 species of land animals (including humans) and a roughly equal number of ray-finned fishes — descended from a common ancestor that had a well-developed electroreceptive system.
The vast majority of the approximately 65,000 living vertebrate species are its descendants, the researchers said.
"This study caps questions in developmental and evolutionary biology, popularly called 'evo-devo,' that I've been interested in for 35 years," said Willy Bemis, Cornell professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and a senior author of the paper.
Hundreds of millions of years ago, there was a major split in the evolutionary tree of vertebrates. One lineage led to the ray-finned fishes, or actinopterygians, and the other to lobe-finned fishes, or sarcopterygians. The latter gave rise to land vertebrates, Bemis said.
Some land vertebrates, including salamanders such as the Mexican axolotl, have electroreception and, until now, offered the best-studied model for early development of this sensory system.
As part of changes related to terrestrial life, the lineage leading to reptiles, birds and mammals lost electrosense as well as the lateral line.
Some ray-finned fishes — including paddlefishes and sturgeons — retained these receptors in the skin of their heads. With as many as 70,000 electroreceptors in its paddle-shaped snout and skin of the head, the North American paddlefish has the most extensive electrosensory array of any living animal, Bemis said.
Until now, it was not clear whether these organs in different groups were evolutionarily and developmentally the same.
Using the Mexican axolotl as a model to represent the evolutionary lineage leading to land animals, and paddlefish as a model for the branch leading to ray-finned fishes, the researchers found that electrosensors develop in precisely the same pattern from the same embryonic tissue in the developing skin, confirming that this is an ancient sensory system.
The researchers also found that the electrosensory organs develop immediately adjacent to the lateral line, providing compelling evidence "that these two sensory systems share a common evolutionary heritage," Bemis said.
Researchers can now create a picture of what the common ancestor of these two lineages looked like, and better link the sensory worlds of living and fossil animals, Bemis added.
The study appears in the October 11 issue of Nature Communications.
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