Variegated lizardfishes Synodus variegatus, copyright Bernard Dupont.

Belongs within: Aulopiformes.

Living larvae and fossil fish
Published 24 January 2009

It was recently discovered 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.

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

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.

Bathysaurus mollis. Photo from here.

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.

Systematics of Synodontoidei
| i. s.: Volcichthys dainellii D’Erasmo 1946P93
|--Bathysaurus [Bathysauridae]SN02
| |--B. ferox Günther 1878SB03
| `--B. mollis Günther 1878SB03
`--+--Pseudotrichonotus [Pseudotrichonotidae]SN02
| `--P. altivelisSN02
| i. s.: Argillichthys toombsi Casier 1966P93
|--+--Harpadon [Harpadontidae, Harpadontinae]SN02
| | |--H. microchir Günther 1878R99
| | |--H. nehereus (Hamilton-Buchanan 1822) [=Osmerus nehereus]M58
| | |--H. squamosusB01
| | `--H. translucens Saville-Kent 1889R99
| `--SauridaSN02
| |--S. argentea Macleay 1881R99
| |--S. argyrophanes [incl. S. japonica]JR10
| |--S. badiJR10
| |--S. davisi (Frost 1925)P93
| |--S. elongata (Temminck & Schlegel 1846)R99
| |--S. filamentosa Ogilby 1910R99
| |--S. flamma Waples 1982R99
| |--S. gracilis (Quoy & Gaimard 1824) [=Saurus gracilis]M58
| |--S. grandisquamis (Günther 1864)R99
| |--S. isarankurai Shindo & Yamada 1972R99
| |--S. longimanus (Norman 1939)R99
| |--S. nebulosa (Cuvier & Valenciennes 1849)R99
| |--S. tumbil (Bloch 1795) [=Salmo tumbil]M58
| `--S. undosquamis (Richardson 1848)R99 [=Saurus undosquammisM58]
`--+--Trachinocephalus myops (Bloch & Schneider 1801)SN02, M58 [=Salmo myopsM58, Saurus myopsM58]
`--Synodus [Synodontinae]SN02
|--S. binotatus (Schultz 1953)MM09
|--S. capricornis (Cressey & Randall 1978)R99
|--S. dermatogenys (Fowler 1912)MM09
|--S. doaki (Russell & Cressey 1979)R99
|--S. foetensA02
|--S. hoshinonisSN02
|--S. indicus (Day 1873)R99
|--S. intermediusAS09
|--S. jaculum (Russell & Cressey 1979)MM09
|--S. japonicus (Houttuyn 1782)M58 (see below for synonymy)
|--S. kaianus (Günther 1880)R99
|--S. luciocepsE96
|--S. macrocephalus (Cressey 1981)R99
|--S. macrops (Tanaka 1917)R99
|--S. oculeus (Cressey 1981)R99
|--S. rubromarmoratus (Russell & Cressey 1979)R99
|--S. sageneus (Waite 1905)R99
|--S. saurus (Linnaeus 1758)SB03
|--S. similis (McCulloch 1921)R99
|--S. tectus (Cressey 1981)R99
|--S. ulaeSN02
`--S. variegatus (Lacepède 1803)R99 [=Saurus variegatusM58]

Synodus japonicus (Houttuyn 1782)M58 [=Cobitis japonicaM58; incl. Saurus mormoririk Thiollière 1857M58, Saurus synodus Cuvier & Valenciennes 1849M58, Synodus synodusM58, Saurus varius Macleay 1883M58, Synodus variusJR10]

*Type species of generic name indicated


[A02] Able, K. W. 2002. Killifishes. Family Fundulidae. In: Collette, B. B., & G. Klein-MacPhee (eds) Bigelow and Schroeder’s Fishes of the Gulf of Maine 3rd ed. pp. 292–297. Smithsonian Institute Press: Washington.

[AS09] Alfaro, M. E., F. Santini, C. Brock, H. Alamillo, A. Dornburg, D. L. Rabosky, G. Carnevale & L. J. Harmon. 2009. Nine exceptional radiations plus high turnover explain species diversity in jawed vertebrates. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 106 (32): 13410–13414.

[B01] Boulenger, G. A. 1901. On some deep-sea fishes collected by Mr. F. W. Townsend in the Sea of Oman. Annals and Magazine of Natural History, series 7, 7: 261–263, pl. 6.

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.

[JR10] Jordan, D. S., & R. E. Richardson. 1910. Check-list of the species of fishes known from the Philippine archipelago. Bureau of Printing: Manila.

[MM09] Moore, G., & S. Morrison. 2009. Fishes of three North West Shelf atolls of Western Australia: Mermaid (Rowley Shoals), Scott and Seringapatam Reefs. Records of the Western Australian Museum Supplement 77: 221–255.

[M58] Munro, I. S. R. 1958. The fishes of the New Guinea region: a check-list of the fishes of New Guinea incorporating records of species collected by the Fisheries Survey Vessel “Fairwind” during the years 1948 to 1950. Papua and New Guinea Agricultural Journal 10 (4): 97–369 (reprinted: 1958. Territory of Papua and New Guinea Fisheries Bulletin no. 1).

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.

[P93] Patterson, C. 1993. Osteichthyes: Teleostei. In: Benton, M. J. (ed.) The Fossil Record 2 pp. 621–656. Chapman & Hall: London.

[P06] Prokofiev, A. M. 2006. Fossil myctophoid fishes (Myctophiformes: Myctophoidei) from Russia and adjacent regions. Journal of Ichthyology 46 (Suppl. 1): S38–S83.

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

[R99] Russell, B. C. 1999. Synodontidae. Lizardfishes (also bombay ducks, sauries). In: Carpenter, K. E., & V. H. Niem (eds) The Living Marine Resources of the Western Central Pacific vol. 3. Batoid fishes, chimaeras and bony fishes part 1 (Elopidae to Linophrynidae) pp. 1928–1945. FAO: Rome.

[SN02] Sato, T., & T. Nakabo. 2002. Paraulopidae and Paraulopus, a new family and genus of aulopiform fishes with revised relationships within the order. Ichthyological Research 49: 25–46.

[SB03] Sousa, L., J. P. Barreiros, M. S. C. Soares, M. Hostim-Silva & R. S. Santos. 2003. Preliminary notes on the reproductive biology of the lizardfish, Synodus saurus (Actinopterygii: Synodontidae) in the Azores. Cybium 27 (1): 41–45.

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