An ancient ‘shark’ fossil found in China has become humans’ oldest jawed ancestor, predating the previous record by 15 million years 

Living sharks are often portrayed as the apex predators of the marine realm. Palaeontologists have been able to identify fossils of their extinct ancestors that date back hundreds of millions of years to the Palaeozoic period.  

These early ‘sharks,’ known as acanthodians, bristled with spines. In contrast to modern sharks, they developed bony ‘armour’ around their paired fins. 

A recent discovery of a new species of acanthodian from China surprised scientists with its age. The find predates by about 15 million years the earliest acanthodian body fossils and is the oldest undisputed jawed fish. 

Reconstructed from thousands of tiny skeletal fragments, Fanjingshania, named after the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site Fanjingshan, is a bizarre fish with an external bony ‘armour’ and multiple pairs of fin spines that set it apart from living jawed fish, cartilaginous sharks and rays, and bony ray- and lobe-finned fish. 

See also: Africa’s oldest known dinosaur discovered 

Fossil remains

Examination of Fanjingshania by a team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Qujing Normal University, and the University of Birmingham revealed that the species is anatomically close to groups of extinct spiny ‘sharks’ collectively known as acanthodians. Unlike modern sharks, acanthodians have skin ossifications of the shoulder region that occur primitively in jawed fish. 

The fossil remains of Fanjingshania were recovered from bone bed samples of the Rongxi formation at a site in Shiqian county of Guizhou Province, south China. 

These findings present tangible evidence of a diversification of major vertebrate groups tens of millions of years before the beginning of the so called ‘Age of Fishes’ some 420 million years ago. 

The researchers identified features that set apart Fanjingshania from any known vertebrate. It has dermal shoulder girdle plates that fuse as a unit to a number of spines – pectoral, prepectoral and prepelvic.  

Additionally, it was discovered that the ventral and lateral portions of the shoulder plates extend to the posterior edge of the pectoral fin spines.  

The species has distinct trunk scales with crowns composed of a row of tooth-like elements (odontodes) adorned by discontinuous nodose ridges.  

Peculiarly, dentine development is recorded in the scales but is missing in other components of the dermal skeleton such as the fin spines. 

Professor Zhu Min is from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He said: “This is the oldest jawed fish with known anatomy. 

“The new data allowed us to place Fanjingshania in the phylogenetic tree of early vertebrates and gain much needed information about the evolutionary steps leading to the origin of important vertebrate adaptations such as jaws, sensory systems, and paired appendages.” 

Evolutionary tree

From the outset, it was clear to the scientists that Fanjingshania‘s shoulder girdle, with its array of fin spines, is key to pinpointing the new species’ position in the evolutionary tree of early vertebrates.  

They found that a group of acanthodians, known as climatiids, possess the full complement of shoulder spines recognised in Fanjingshania 

What is more, in contrast to normal dermal plate development, the pectoral ossifications of Fanjingshania and the climatiids are fused to modified trunk scales.  

This is seen as a specialisation from the primitive condition of jawed vertebrates where the bony plates grow from a single ossification centre. 

Unexpectedly, the fossil bones of Fanjingshania show evidence of extensive resorption and remodelling that are typically associated with skeletal development in bony fish, including humans. 

A phylogenetic hypothesis for Fanjingshania that uses a numeric matrix derived from observable characters confirmed the researchers’ initial hypothesis that the species represents an early evolutionary branch of primitive chondrichthyans.  

These results have profound implications for our understanding of when jawed fish originated since they align with morphological clock estimates for the age of the common ancestor of cartilaginous and bony fish, dating it to around 455 million years ago, during a period known as the Ordovician. 

These results tell us that the absence of undisputed remains of jawed fish of Ordovician age might be explained by under sampling of sediment sequences of comparable antiquity.  

They also point towards a strong preservation bias against teeth, jaws, and articulated vertebrate fossils in strata coeval with Fanjingshania. 

Dr Ivan J Sansom from the University of Birmingham said: “The new discovery puts into question existing models of vertebrate evolution by significantly condensing the timeframe for the emergence of jawed fish from their closest jawless ancestors.  

“This will have a profound impact on how we assess evolutionary rates in early vertebrates and the relationship between morphological and molecular change in these groups.” 

The findings are published in Nature. 

Image: Life reconstruction of Fanjingshania renovate. 

Credit: Zhang Heming.