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Extraordinary ‘missing link’ fossil fish found in China

A spectacular new “missing link” fossil has been unearthed in China. The 419 million year old armoured fish, called Entelognathus, meaning “complete jaw” solves an age-old debate in science. For palaeontologists…

Finding Entelognathus is a revelation comparable to the discovery of Archaeopteryx. Brian Choo

A spectacular new “missing link” fossil has been unearthed in China. The 419 million year old armoured fish, called Entelognathus, meaning “complete jaw” solves an age-old debate in science. For palaeontologists this fish is as big as finding the Higgs-Boson particle because of its immense significance to our understanding of early vertebrate evolution.

This is arguably one of the most exciting fossil discoveries in the past century since Archaeopteryx, the first fossil to bridge the gap between dinosaurs and birds.

Lead author on the study, Zhu Min of the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology in Beijing, said when I spoke to him:

Wow, it is beyond our wildest expectation if we stick to the available phylogenetic scenario. But the fossils provide evidence to force us to have a reconsideration on the hypothesis.

So what is this hypothesis he refers to? For decades there has been heated debate among scientists as to which early back-boned fishes were ancestral to modern fishes. Living jawed fishes fall into two major groups: sharks, rays and chimaerids (chondrichthyans) and true bony fishes (osteichthyans).

This new discovery shows beyond doubt that an extinct group called “placoderms” were actually the ones that gave rise to all modern fishes.

Despite dominating the seas, lake and rivers of the world for more than 70 million years, almost no-one today would know the difference between a placoderm and a pachyderm. Yet placoderms were truly pivotal to our distant deep evolution.

The innovative placoderm. Tim Evanson/Wikimedia Commons

They were innovators - the first creatures to evolve jaws, teeth and paired hind limbs (pelvic fins). They were the first to have three semicircular canals in the ear for improved balance.

Significantly they were also the first vertebrates to develop copulatory behaviour for mating. We must thank the placoderms for inventing the satisfying way we humans procreate.

Enter Entelognathus, an exquisite fossil known from perfect 3-D preserved fossil remains found in Yunnan, China. The results of their study have just been published in the journal Nature.

Entelognathus is special in showing an almost perfect intermediate condition between ancient placoderms and modern bony fishes. At around 50cm long it had bony plates enclosing the head and front of its body, exactly like a placoderm.

But its lower jaw is composed of a complex set of bones, unlike other placoderms whose jaw was made of a single bone.

This pattern of bones in Entelognathus precisely matches those in the lower jaw of early fossil bony fish (osteichthyans). Entelognathus also possessed special bones underneath its lower jaws called gulars, which are today only found in bony fishes.

This fish shows the first appearance of the dentary bone which is found in all bony fishes, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. It is the very same bone in our lower jaw.

The new discovery from China gives us powerful new insights about the building of the human body plan, which began seriously with these ancient fossil fishes.

An Australian coauthor on the paper, Brian Choo, has been working with Zhu in China for the past four years. He told me it’s “a specimen that rips up the textbooks and says to you, ‘Look pal, this is how it really happened’."

The head of Entelognathus. John Long

The term “missing link” is in reality a bit of a misnomer. The term was first used to show how prehistoric human fossils like Peking man (Homo erectus) were good intermediate forms between apes and humans.

These days new discoveries in palaeontology have filled in most of the missing gaps between major animal groups. For example, we have perfect intermediate fossil forms that bridge the gap between between fishes and amphibians (such as Gogonasus), between reptiles and mammals (such as Cynognathus) and between dinosaurs and birds (such as Archaeopteryx).

In reality evolutionary theory predicts that any fossils filling in new data on an evolutionary lineage is just a new hypothesis about its sequence of character evolution. It doesn’t really imply any direct ancestry between any living or fossil species.

For me the really exciting thing about Entelognathus is that even in the 21st century palaeontologists are still making really big discoveries that fill in major missing gaps in our knowledge about the evolution of the modern fauna.

All fossils touted as “missing links” are contentious to some, those minority groups within society who for some or other reason do not believe in evolution. For these people news of Entelognathus will be challenging, but most will simply ignore it as it doesn’t abide with their world view.

Yet all of these disbelievers still rely on evolution in their daily lives, as new vaccines and antibiotics or new crops bred to withstand environmental extremes to feed us, are all advances in science underpinned by evolutionary principals.

So believe it or not, evolution is helping everyone one of us on the planet, every day to live better lives. Thanks Entelognathus, you’re a real hero.

Join the conversation

31 Comments sorted by

  1. Emilie Choukry


    Great article.
    Also I read on twitter @hootesuite we can now tweet into Shanghai so I have tweeted your link over to the Shanghai daily !

  2. Deirdre Whitford


    Strewth! First Voyager leaving the heliosphere, and now THIS, both in the same month! You goddam scientists should ALL give yourselves a PAT ON THE BACK!!!

  3. Don Gibbons


    Congratulations to all involved, including Entelognathus. Yesterday I thought placoderms were extinct, today I learn that it's likely I am one. Wonderful!

  4. Michael Mihajlovic


    Thank you for spreading the word.
    What does this say about all religions and Jesus Christ?

    1. Philip Impey

      Architect+Urban Designer

      In reply to Michael Mihajlovic

      Is that a rhetorical question or are you really interested in a full answer? If so, it can't be answered in the space allowed on this blog but might I suggest reading the following:
      "Beyond Opinion" by Ravi Zacharias (Nelson 2007) and if you don't have the wit or the will to read it from cover to cover, try Chapter 6 written by John Lennox, reader in mathematics at Oxford.
      Science attempts to explain the how, but cannot explain the why.

    2. Michael Mihajlovic


      In reply to Philip Impey

      Hi Philip,
      Can you not condense it into a few salient points - not nrcessarily supported?
      I was just wondering what came first: the world, the garden of eden or the fish? What is your view of evolution: did we evolve from Adam and Eve or the fish?

    3. Philip Impey

      Architect+Urban Designer

      In reply to Michael Mihajlovic

      My world view cannot be condensed into a few salient points. Without wanting to put a label onto it, I find that being simplistic in the questions of "origins" invites ad hominem attacks which will squash any further intellectual argument. One world view isn't something that can be presented "simplistically".Suffice it to say that, while I may not necessarily believe in the literal version of Genesis Ch 1, I similarly am sceptical of Darwinian explanations of our origin. I'm more focussed on the why than the how.Darwin's theory doesn't adhere to scientific process - its not experimentally reproducible, and remains theory- the trouble is, it has now been widely accepted as fact because it gives people a reason to be atheistic in their world view.I am not an atheist because I'm humble enough to admit that, unlike God (and the atheist) , I don't pretend to be all-knowing.

    4. Chris Harper


      In reply to Philip Impey



      Look up the meaning of the word 'theory'.

      Those who say 'Darwinism is just a theory' demonstrate they don't know the meaning of the word, and are using it in a context where a scientist would use the word 'hypothesis'.

      Darwinism is experimentally reproducible. As a scientific theory it is subject to all the Popperian constraints and tests, and passes them with flying colours.

      In dealing with Intelligent Design advocates I have come across your claims in the past. I have never had the slightest problem in demonstrating they are a load of twaddle.

    5. Account Deleted

      logged in via email

      In reply to Philip Impey

      Darwin's theory is experimentally reproducable and has been experimentally reproduced many times over. First year uni students do it all the time, breeding mutated fruit flies. Viruses and bacteria constantly evolve as we subject them to selection pressure from antibiotics and other medicines. Programmers use evolutionary selection to produce better problem solving algorithms and neural networks. I suggest you follow the links in the article to Evolutionary medicine and the history of crop breeding for some more examples.

    6. Michael Mihajlovic


      In reply to Philip Impey

      I do not think anyone is pretending to be all knowing.
      Not many people would agree that anyone is looking for reasons to support a predetermined view. Rather they are observing and attempting to understand the evidence available to them. It is common ground that there appears to be a difference between the empirical evidence of the scientific and religious schools. The religious schools rely heavily on faith and the literal versions (of inspired sages and profits) some of which you yourself do not accept. does that make them factual?

    7. Philip Impey

      Architect+Urban Designer

      In reply to Michael Mihajlovic

      As I said Michael, I knew it wouldn't take long (less than an hour) for the ad hominem comments to appear. Mr Harper proved my point.
      "Twaddle" is defined as a "foolish" statement i.e. something uttered by a fool? Always the case, use the insult when you can't prove a point- how very Dawkinsian-"lets all stop being so damn respectful" and "What's wrong with arrogance if you're right?"(Atkins)
      If you are a believer in scientism- in that every aspect of existence can be scientifically proven, thats fine, but please keep the conversation civil and to the point. With the opinions of the likes of Dawkins, Atkins and Hitchens those of us who see meaning beyond the natural and that which is repeatable and governed by law, will no doubt be further subject to abuse and derision.

    8. Chris Harper


      In reply to Philip Impey

      You said: "Always the case, use the insult when you can't prove a point- how very Dawkinsian"

      Not particularily, I happen to think Dawkins is third rate as a theologian, and he should stick to what he is good at.

      I point out that you initiated the attacks by claiming Darwinism isn't scientific, without providing reasonable justification for this claim, and denigrating the concept of 'theory'.

      I reiterate, your claims about Darwinism I have come across before, on a number of occasions, expressed in pretty much the same way, and all from Intelligent Design proponents. In discussions with the people involved it became clear that they had no idea on what Darwinism is, how it works, or knowledge of the evidence to support it.

      Are you able to justify your claim that Darwinism does not adhere to the scientific process? Can you explain how it fails in this?

    9. Philip Impey

      Architect+Urban Designer

      In reply to Michael Mihajlovic

      Thank you for keeping your discussion civil- I appreciate it. What I was attempting to point out is that science, by its very nature, cannot explain meaning -the history of our civilisation is built on our attempt to find meaning to our existence. As far as I'm aware, science hasn't provided an explanation. I'm not, as some would believe, a fool- I'm a natural skeptic and have an enquiring mind. I am well educated, experienced in my field and know enough about maths, science and the arts…

      Read more
    10. Michael Mihajlovic


      In reply to Philip Impey

      Hi Philip,
      I do not believe anyone can disprove the existence of God. At least not for the time being.
      Many years ago I happenned to attend a course at UNINSW called "The History and Philosophy of Science".
      The course traced the evolution of science and religion. From the earliest times churchmen professed to be the experts on God and the universe. At one stage, they drew a globe and a line across the middle approximately where the equator is. Abobe the line they labled as Earth, below the line they labeled as Heaven and above the globe they drew some clouds and labeled them as Heaven. After that, as new scientific knowledge came into being that was to the contrary, they merely altered their philosophy to agree with the new facts and reaffirmed that they are the experts.

    11. Peter Wilkin

      Australian Realist

      In reply to Philip Impey

      Well actually Philip science began before monotheism. I don't think Archimedes for example was a monotheist, he would probably have been rather sceptical too of the florid Greek pantheon of his day.

      Atheism has been around since before monotheism too. Epicurus et al...

      Monotheism Is a politically driven human invention.

    12. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Michael Mihajlovic

      The unbroken chain of life tells us that we are that fish and that only time and the environment has changed.
      Human beings are terribly self centred and by establishing this connection with that ancestor fish we can expand our contemplation about who we are now and what our inheritance is.
      Did we inherit imagination from this fish, for instance?
      And if we didn't, can we still dream of our past existence in the sea?
      And will it be imagination or inherited memory?
      A man had a dream in which he was a butterfly, when he awoke he thought, "am I a butterfly dreaming I am a man"?
      Perhaps one of those total immersion environments mimicking that ancient ocean,and linked to respond to the common features we share with this ancestor, could be illuminating and entertaining?
      Makes a change from obsessing about life after death to instead contemplate an unbroken chain of life right up to the present.
      Almost religious.

    13. Michael Mihajlovic


      In reply to James Hill

      I could not resist expressing my compliments to you on your insightful and unchallengeable comment.

    14. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Michael Mihajlovic

      Thanks Michael, I remember sitting on a lecture room, as an eighteen year old, looking out at a distant escarpment, which the lecturer, with great authority, had just told us was 180,000,000 years old.
      Put the "time" thing into perspective.
      We have our immediate cultural heritage, for which we all are exhorted to honour our ancestors, and then we have our biological, geological heritage which might be equally as valuable.
      Anyway, thanks Michael, for the compliment, those viewpoints are perhaps the result of exposure to the "information", and so accessible to all.

    15. Deirdre Whitford


      In reply to James Hill

      What an extraordinary contribution to the discussion you have made, James! Please allow me to add my thanks to Michael's, my dear sir!

  5. Dianna Arthur


    Interesting article. That we have found sufficient fossils to piece together as much of evolution as we have is fantastic work by palaeontologists, other related scientists and many patient volunteers who stoically sift through brush, brush, brushing to reveal a fragment of a puzzle.

    My only quibble is with the author, whom I deduced to be male after reading the article but before I checked the author;

    "We must thank the placoderms for inventing the satisfying way we humans procreate"

    I can think of a few physiological improvements - nothing major. however satisfaction would be guaranteed.


  6. Robert Molyneux

    Citizen at Drehmex Sales and Services

    It is a pity the silly phrase "Missing Link" was used in this otherwise fascinating article.

    If you have two creatures A and B, and you discover a third creature, thus A - AB - B you have two links. If you discover two other creatures you have A - AAB - AB - ABB - B and so on.

    Given the nature of how fossils are created (very rarely) and discovered (very rarely) there is a 100% probability that some intermediate creatures will never be discovered.

    So, the more creatures you discover, the more "missing links" exist.

    This is a red flag to excite every Creationist and god-botherer in the known Universe.

    1. Roman Sandstorm

      Ventriloquist's Dummy

      In reply to Robert Molyneux

      Yes, Robert, my hackles were also immediately raised by the "Missing Link" expression.

      Every media report I have read on this exciting discovery has simply recycled that tired (and outdated, meaningless) term.

      To me this demonstrates both extreme laziness, as well as general ignorance, from a journalistic perspective. But worse than this, it gives deniers of science (yet another) fixation to latch on to. We've already seen it in this thread with obvious trolling by ID (or ID-like) proponents. And this is supposedly an intellectual (or at least, to a degree, academic-oriented) forum.

      But the unending promulgation of "Missing Link" on the ABC, Fairfax Media, and on other 'normal' news sites and locations will ultimately, I'm sure, serve to undermine this interesting and exciting breakthrough. Endless 'discussions' about Darwin, and macro and micro evolution, and the complexity of the eye, and all the usual stuff will serve to deflect away from the science.


  7. Alexander Rosser


    Possible fraud?

    Dear Prof. Long

    I recall that after the discovery of archerpteryx variour chinese "entrepreneurs" would assemble fossils from different animals to make a fraudelent "missing link". Some were very good indeed and sold for substantial sums to collectors.

    Let's hope that you and others are not the victims of someting similar.

    btw, I'm not doubting evolution, but when I read "new creature", "fossil" and "China" in the same article my antennae tingle.

    1. Per Ahlberg


      In reply to Alexander Rosser

      Dear Alexander,

      I am the third author on the paper in question. I have worked extensively with the fossil material at the institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing, and have also visited the locality in Yunnan where it was collected. The Entelognathus material (there are several specimens) is unquestionably genuine.

  8. Matt Stevens

    Senior Research Fellow/Statistician/PhD

    Great article, thanks John

  9. Pierre Igot

    logged in via email

    The second last paragraph should read "… by evolutionary principles."