The Artful Amoeba

The Artful Amoeba

A Blog About the Weird Wonderfulness of Life on Earth

150 Million Years of Fish Evolution in One Handy Figure


Have you ever wished you could have the entire 150 million years of spiny-rayed fish evolution in convenient poster form? Well, wait no longer. Your happy day is here! Trust me . . . this is one poster featuring mullets you will not be embarrassed to display.

(Click to enlarge. Click twice, actually)

From Near et al., 2013. Please visit for source and copyrights. Permission not needed for non-commercial or educational use.

Plus, you can use it as a way to explore diversity and procrastinate. Not feeling like work? Simply glance over and . . . morwongs?! How did I never know such things existed? Maybe I'll just have a quick ... [2 hours pass]

In this figure, you can see how all the spiny-finned fish (acanthomorphs) -- more than 18,000 species of them, which represent nearly one-third of living vertebrates -- are related to one another. To accomplish this, the scientists inferred the relationships from the sequences of 10 genes from 520 spiny-rayed fin fish representing most of their families. They combined this data with that of 37 fossil "age constraints" used as reality checks on the actual timing of evolutionary shifts.

So that you can savor appropriately, it's worth noting that this section of the vertebrate family tree has evidently given scientists significant difficulty, for the team who created it write in July in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that this group of fish has long "remained the last frontier" in drawing the family tree of living vertebrates and that it has presented "one of the most unyielding problems in vertebrate phylogenetics". Blood. . . sweat. . . probably tears went into the creation of this image. Which makes its arrival all the more a moment to appreciate.

These prickly-finned fish include most of the fishes you think of as fish, with several major exceptions including sharks, sturgeon, trout, and salmon. They include fish that live in high mountain lakes and at the bottom of ocean trenches, fish flat as a pancake and puffy (though not fluffy) as a pillow. As advertised, they all have characteristic sharp, bony spines in their fins that any angler can tell you that you must mind when removing a squirming, slippery, and likely panicked fish from the hook.

The scientists found that the group likely evolved in the Early Cretaceous, about 150 million years ago. It's a bit weird to think about what that means -- that the tropical reefs of the Age of Dinosaurs -- and all fish-containing ages prior -- contained none of the tropical reef fish we recognize today (but what wonders did they contain?).

In the past, scientists wondered what circumstances or events led this group to evolve so much. Some suggested coral reefs were the cradle of the group's diversity. But in the PNAS study, the five lineages within the group that diversified the most are found in four very different habitats: freshwater (cichlids), open ocean (tuna and friends), cold temperate seafloor (snailfishes), and coral reefs (blennies and gobies). This seemingly confounds any simple explanation for the massive success of the group.

The scientists also found that this group of fish didn't seem to diversify much in response to the End-Cretaceous Mass Extinction. You can see this in the figure above. The dashed circle is when the Really Big Rock Hit Planet Earth. There doesn't seem to be a big burst of evolution in its aftermath -- that is, a whole lot of new lineages created all at once, perhaps to fill niches vacated by the Really Big Rock. Although it's well established that many groups of snakes, lizards, birds, and mammals diversified significantly in response to the asteroid strike (although some major groups of these animals did not), it appears that this giant piscine group of vertebrates remained relatively unaffected by what was for many terrestrial vertebrates an Earth-shattering opportunity.


Near T.J., Dornburg A., Eytan R.I., Keck B.P., Smith W.L., Kuhn K.L., Moore J.A., Price S.A., Burbrink F.T. & Friedman M. & (2013). Phylogeny and tempo of diversification in the superradiation of spiny-rayed fishes, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110 (31) 12738-12743. DOI:

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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