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The nearshore cradle of early vertebrate diversification

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Science  26 Oct 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6413, pp. 460-464
DOI: 10.1126/science.aar3689

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Shallow-water diversification

Most of what we know about the relationship between diversification and environment in ancient marine environments has come from invertebrates. The influence of habitat on vertebrate diversification thus remains a persistent question. Sallan et al. studied fossil vertebrates spanning the mid-Paleozoic, including both jawed and jawless fish (see the Perspective by Pimiento). They found that diversification occurred primarily in nearshore environments, with diversified forms later colonizing deeper marine or freshwater habitats. Furthermore, more robust forms remained in the nearshore, whereas more gracile forms moved to deeper waters. This split is similar to current relationships between form and environment in aquatic habitats.

Science, this issue p. 460; see also p. 402

Abstract

Ancestral vertebrate habitats are subject to controversy and obscured by limited, often contradictory paleontological data. We assembled fossil vertebrate occurrence and habitat datasets spanning the middle Paleozoic (480 million to 360 million years ago) and found that early vertebrate clades, both jawed and jawless, originated in restricted, shallow intertidal-subtidal environments. Nearshore divergences gave rise to body plans with different dispersal abilities: Robust fishes shifted shoreward, whereas gracile groups moved seaward. Fresh waters were invaded repeatedly, but movement to deeper waters was contingent upon form and short-lived until the later Devonian. Our results contrast with the onshore-offshore trends, reef-centered diversification, and mid-shelf clustering observed for benthic invertebrates. Nearshore origins for vertebrates may be linked to the demands of their mobility and may have influenced the structure of their early fossil record and diversification.

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