Field of Science

Living Larvae and Fossil Fish

Marshall's macristium larva, from Rosen (1971).

Before anything else, a-few-days-belated birthday wishes to Tetrapod Zoology, which has now been going in one form or another for three years. Darren Naish, the author of Tetrapod Zoology, also notes that the number of palaeontology blogs being written that aren't afraid to be technical has increased significantly in recent times - "I don't know if it seems arrogant to think that Tet Zoo was a driving force behind this uber-nerd movement, but I like the idea that it was, so will stick with it". I don't know about other sites, but Darren Naish can pretty much take sole credit (or blame, whichever way you want to look at it) for inspiring yours truly to publish my own ramblings. Of course, I haven't Darren's ability, and I've never achieved his level of following (I'm still waiting for my invite to join ScienceBlogs ;-) ).

In my last post, I briefly alluded to the recent discovery that what have been thought to be three separate species of fish in three different families are, in fact, different life cycle stages (larva, adult male and adult female) of a single species. As remarkable as this discovery is, it can't be called completely incredible - it simply highlights just how little we know about many marine animals. In animals that undergo significant metamorphic changes over the course of development, it is not surprising that the connection between stages should not be initially recognised*. What really struck me about the affair were the low numbers of known specimens - of the three "families" involved, only 65 specimens of "Megalomycteridae" (the adult males) have ever been collected. "Mirapinnidae" (the larvae) are represented by only 120 specimens, while "Cetomimidae" (the adult females) tip the scales at about 600 specimens. To put that into a bit of perspective, the other day I was counting my way through a vial of harvestmen that included some 200 specimens from a single collection.

*Indeed, for those of you familiar with marine invertebrates, this is the reason behind the latin-derived terms for many invertebrate larvae - nauplius, cypris, cercaria. These forms were all initially described as distinct taxa, and after they were recognised as larvae of other taxa their past generic names persisted as terms for that stage in the life cycle.

Because Ed Yong at the link above has already done a bang-up job of explaining the cetomimid situation, I thought I'd dig into the vaults a little and bring up an earlier situation where a family of fish became written off as larvae - the Macristiidae.

Bathysaurus mollis. Photo from here.

"Macristium chavesi" was described by Regan in 1903 from a single specimen collected off the Azores in the North Atlantic (Rosen, 1971). It should be noted that "Macristium" was recognised from the start as a larval form, but supposedly of adults as yet unknown. Initially, Regan regarded Macristium as related to Bathysaurus, a genus of deep-water predatory fish currently in the Aulopiformes, but in 1911 he separated it as its own family that he suggested was related to the Alepocephalidae (other deep-water predators, but now in an entirely different order, the Osmeriformes). Regan's Macristium specimen was in dreadfully poor shape - the lower jaw was damaged, part of the upper jaw was lost entirely, and only one fin (a pectoral) had remained reasonably intact. A second macristiid specimen, in better condition, would not be recognised until 1961, when Marshall described a specimen collected by the ship 'Discovery' in the Bay of Biscay. Marshall's specimen was long and slender, with remarkably elongate fins. On the basis of the new specimen, Marshall reclassified Macristium once again, as a member of the Ctenothrissiformes.

Ctenothrissiformes is a small order of four genera known from England and Lebanon. The type genus, Ctenothrissa resembles Macristium in its elongate fins, but differs from it in being fairly deep-bodied. All three ctenothrissiform genera had one other significant difference from Macristium - they are known only from fossil deposits laid down in the Cretaceous (Patterson, 1964). If Macristium was indeed a member of the Ctenothrissiformes, it was a living survivor of a group long thought to be extinct. As it turned out, though, it was not to be. The relatively few features cited by Marshall as uniting Macristium and Ctenothrissiformes varied from the superficial (fin shape) to the non-existent (supposed similarities in jaw structure). When Berry and Robins described a third macristiid specimen from the Gulf of Mexico in 1967 as a new species, Macristiella lucens, they were sceptical of Marshall's interpretation.

Specimen of Bathytyphlops marionae. Photo from here.

The resolution of the macristiid mystery came in the early 1970s. A third specimen of Macristium was collected by the ship 'Chain' in the mid-Atlantic, allowing Rosen (1971) to convincingly relate it through various meristic characters such as vertebral count, anal position, etc. to members of what is now the order Aulopiformes, and specifically Bathysauridae. Specimens of "Macristiella" from the Pacific Ocean were identified by Okiyama (1972) as belonging to the genus Bathytyphlops in the Ipnopidae (also Aulopiformes). Finally, Johnson (1974) demonstrated using similar characters as in Regan (1971) that a specimen of Macristium from the Gulf of Mexico was assignable to the adult species Bathysaurus mollis. It is perhaps one of ichthyology's great ironies that Regan, as it turns out, had gotten it right in the first place.

As for the Ctenothrissiformes, it may not be a natural group even with the exclusion of Macristium. As indicated in Rosen (1971), while ctenothrissiforms are seemingly related to the modern acanthomorphs (spiny-finned fishes), the characters uniting them as a group are probably all primitive, and Patterson (1964) demonstrated that the genera show different mixtures of primitive and derived features for acanthomorphs. Rosen suggested a relationship to the Beryciformes, but certain features such as the absence of spines in the fins exclude Ctenothrissiformes from the Acanthomorpha (Patterson, 1964). Recent studies suggest that the "Beryciformes" may be a paraphyletic grade near the base of the acanthomorphs (Li et al., 1999), and perhaps the "Ctenothrissiformes" are themselves a paraphyletic outgroup to Acanthomorpha as a whole.

Part and counterpart fossils of Ctenothrissa from Lebanon. Photo from here.

Postscript: They sure don't write scientific articles like they used to. Hay (1903), writing in the American Naturalist, gave an introduction to the diversity of fossil fishes from the Cretaceous of Lebanon (including Ctenothrissa):

To the palæontologist the earth's crust, in its breadth and thickness, is a burial ground from which he may exhume the remains of the animals and plants that once lived on its surface or in its waters. The words of Bryant, spoken of the races of men, might truthfully be applied to other living things,

                     "All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom."

But there are spots were the carcasses have been sown thicker and have been better preserved than elsewhere; and to such places the scientific birds of prey, who seek for, and must usually be satisfied with, fragmentary bones, and imprints of skeletons, and scattered scales and teeth, are gathered together; and, fed on such booty, they have visions of the swarms of animals, fat, sapid, and comely, that once populated the earth.


Hay, O. P. 1903. Some remarks on the fossil fishes of Mount Lebanon, Syria. American Naturalist 37 (442): 685-695.

Johnson, R. K. 1974. A Macristium larva from the Gulf of Mexico with additional evidence for the synonymy of Macristium with Bathysaurus (Myctophiformes: Bathysauridae). Copeia 1974 (4): 973-977.

Okiyama, M. 1972. Morphology and identification of the young ipnopid, "Macristiella", from the tropical western Pacific. Japanese Journal of Ichthyology 19 (3): 145-153.

Patterson, C. 1964. A review of Mesozoic acanthopterygian fishes, with special reference to those of the English Chalk. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B, Biological Sciences 247 (739): 213-482.

Rosen, D. E. 1971. The Macristiidae, a ctenothrissiform family based on juvenile and larval scopelomorph fishes. American Museum Novitates 2452: 1-22.


  1. Three comments:
    (1) No they don't write scientific papers the way they used to. Similarly in other academic disciplines: comparing today's "Journal of Philosophy" to early 20th century issues is astonishing. "Papers," now, tend to ape the style of (modern) scientific papers, but the articles in the early 20th C often deserve to be called "essays" in the literary sense. ... Something has been gained, something has been lost.

    (2) Another place where metamorphosis can, um, complicate taxonomy is with "amphibians" (= non-amniote tetrapods). I can't name an example, but haven't there been confusions with Palaeozoic amphibia?

    (3) I think I discovered your blog through a link from Darren Naish's. I now read both, religiously. I enjoy both, very much!

  2. I can't name an example, but haven't there been confusions with Palaeozoic amphibia?

    You may be thinking of the fact that many Palaeozoic "amphibians" (in the broad, not-necessarily-phylogenetic sense) have been difficult to place phylogenetically because they are known from larvae and/or neotenous adults. The same problem also applies to modern salamanders, as it happens.

    There are many groups of organisms with distinct juvenile and adult stages for which, because of the difficulty of matching juveniles and adults, a kind of "double taxonomy" has developed with the two stages being classified separately. The most extensive dual nomenclature is probably that for fungi, in which sexually and asexually reproducing forms are treated separately. Even if different stages of organisms treated under dual nomenclature can be matched for a few species, it may still be difficult to resolve the issue. Different adult species might produce the same larvae, for instance (in the case of 'Macristium chavesi', there's reason to believe larvae of at least two Bathysaurus species have been treated under that name), or one adult 'genus' may not correspond to one larval 'genus'.

  3. Many thanks for the congrats and kind words - and keep up the good word.

  4. ... or, good 'work' even. I had a busy night.

  5. Some 60 million years ago, well after the demise of the dinosaurs, a giant relative of today’s boa constrictors, weighing more than a ton and measuring 42 feet long, hunted crocodiles in rain-washed tropical forests in northern ...


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