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The Greatest Step in Vertebrate History: A Paleobiological Review of the Fish‐Tetrapod Transition

John A. Long and Malcolm S. Gordon
Physiological and Biochemical Zoology: Ecological and Evolutionary Approaches
Vol. 77, No. 5 (September/October 2004), pp. 700-719
DOI: 10.1086/425183
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/425183
Page Count: 20
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The Greatest Step in Vertebrate History: A Paleobiological Review of the Fish‐Tetrapod Transition
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Abstract

Abstract Recent discoveries of previously unknown fossil forms have dramatically transformed understanding of many aspects of the fish‐tetrapod transition. Newer paleobiological approaches have also contributed to changed views of which animals were involved and when, where, and how the transition occurred. This review summarizes major advances made and reevaluates alternative interpretations of important parts of the evidence. We begin with general issues and concepts, including limitations of the Paleozoic fossil record. We summarize important features of paleoclimates, paleoenvironments, paleobiogeography, and taphonomy. We then review the history of Devonian tetrapods and their closest stem group ancestors within the sarcopterygian fishes. It is now widely accepted that the first tetrapods arose from advanced tetrapodomorph stock (the elpistostegalids) in the Late Devonian, probably in Euramerica. However, truly terrestrial forms did not emerge until much later, in geographically far‐flung regions, in the Lower Carboniferous. The complete transition occurred over about 25 million years; definitive emergences onto land took place during the most recent 5 million years. The sequence of character acquisition during the transition can be seen as a five‐step process involving: (1) higher osteichthyan (tetrapodomorph) diversification in the Middle Devonian (beginning about 380 million years ago [mya]), (2) the emergence of “prototetrapods” (e.g., Elginerpeton) in the Frasnian stage (about 372 mya), (3) the appearance of aquatic tetrapods (e.g., Acanthostega) sometime in the early to mid‐Famennian (about 360 mya), (4) the appearance of “eutetrapods” (e.g., Tulerpeton) at the very end of the Devonian period (about 358 mya), and (5) the first truly terrestrial tetrapods (e.g., Pederpes) in the Lower Carboniferous (about 340 mya). We discuss each of these steps with respect to inferred functional utility of acquired character sets. Dissociated heterochrony is seen as the most likely process for the evolutionarily rapid morphological transformations required. Developmental biological processes, including paedomorphosis, played important roles. We conclude with a discussion of phylogenetic interpretations of the evidence.

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