Jawless Fishes: Superclass Agnatha

Jawless fishes (Agnatha) are craniates representing an ancient vertebrate lineage that arose over 550 million years ago. In the past, hagfishes and lampreys were sometimes recognized as separate clades within the Agnatha, primarily because lampreys were regarded as true vertebrates, whereas hagfishes were not. However, recent molecular data, both from rRNA and mtDNA, as well as embryological data, provide strong support for the hypothesis that living agnathans—previously called cyclostomes—are monophyletic, and thus share recent common ancestry. The discussion below, for convenience, separates the modern “cyclostomes” into the class Myxini and class Petromyzontida. The defining features of the living jawless fishes are the lack of jaws and lack of paired lateral appendages (fins). They also lack internal ossification and scales, although these are not defining features of the clade.

Some of the earliest jawless fishes were the armored ostracoderms (which translates to “shell-skin”): vertebrate fishes encased in bony armor—unlike present-day jawless fishes, which lack bone in their scales. Some ostracoderms, also unlike living jawless fishes, may have had paired fins. We should note, however, that the “ostracoderms” represent an assemblage of heavily armored extinct jawless fishes that may not form a natural evolutionary group. Fossils of the genus Haikouichthys from China, with an age of about 530 million years, show many typical vertebrate characteristics including paired eyes, auditory capsules, and rudimentary vertebrae.

Class Myxini: Hagfishes

The class Myxini includes at least 70 species of hagfishes—eel-like scavengers that live on the ocean floor and feed on living or dead invertebrates, fishes, and marine mammals (Figure). Although they are almost completely blind, sensory barbels around the mouth help them locate food by smell and touch. They feed using keratinized teeth on a movable cartilaginous plate in the mouth, which rasp pieces of flesh from their prey. These feeding structures allow the gills to be used exclusively for respiration, not for filter feeding as in the urochordates and cephalochordates. Hagfishes are entirely marine and are found in oceans around the world, except for the polar regions. Unique slime glands beneath the skin release a milky mucus (through surface pores) that upon contact with water becomes incredibly slippery, making the animal almost impossible to hold. This slippery mucus thus allows the hagfish to escape from the grip of predators. Hagfish can also twist their bodies into a knot, which provides additional leverage to feed. Sometimes hagfish enter the bodies of dead animals and eat carcasses from the inside out! Interestingly, they do not have a stomach!

The photo shows wormlike hagfish clustered in a muddy hole.
Hagfish. Pacific hagfish are scavengers that live on the ocean floor. (credit: Linda Snook, NOAA/CBNMS)

Hagfishes have a cartilaginous skull, as well as a fibrous and cartilaginous skeleton, but the major supportive structure is the notochord that runs the length of the body. In hagfishes, the notochord is not replaced by the vertebral column, as it is in true vertebrates, and thus they may (morphologically) represent a sister group to the true vertebrates, making them the most basal clade among the skull-bearing chordates.

Class Petromyzontida: Lampreys

The class Petromyzontida includes approximately 40 species of lampreys, which are superficially similar to hagfishes in size and shape. However, lampreys possess extrinsic eye muscles, at least two semicircular canals, and a true cerebellum, as well as simple vertebral elements, called arcualia—cartilaginous structures arranged above the notochord. These features are also shared with the gnathostomes—vertebrates with jawed mouths and paired appendages (see below). Lampreys also have a dorsal tubular nerve cord with a well-differentiated brain, a small cerebellum, and 10 pairs of nerves. The classification of lampreys is still debated, but they clearly represent one of the oldest divergences of the vertebrate lineage. Lampreys lack paired appendages, as do the hagfishes, although they have one or two fleshy dorsal fins. As adults, lampreys are characterized by a rasping tongue within a toothed, funnel-like sucking mouth. Many species have a parasitic stage of their life cycle during which they are fish ectoparasites (some call them predators because they attack and eventually fall off) (Figure).

The photo shows leech-like sea lampreys latched onto a large fish.
Lamprey. These parasitic sea lampreys, Petromyzon marinus, attach by suction to their lake trout host, and use their rough tongues to rasp away flesh in order to feed on the trout’s blood. (credit: USGS)

Lampreys live primarily in coastal and freshwater environments, and have a worldwide distribution, except for the tropics and polar regions. Some species are marine, but all species spawn in fresh water. Interestingly, northern lampreys in the family Petromyzontidae, have the highest number of chromosomes (164 to 174) among the vertebrates. Eggs are fertilized externally, and the larvae (called ammocoetes) differ greatly from the adult form, closely resembling the adult cephalocordate amphioxus. After spending three to 15 years as suspension feeders in rivers and streams, they attain sexual maturity. Shortly afterward, the adults swim upstream, reproduce, and die within days.