Gnathostomes: Jawed Fishes

Gnathostomes, or “jaw-mouths,” are vertebrates that possess true jaws—a milestone in the evolution of the vertebrates. In fact, one of the most significant developments in early vertebrate evolution was the development of the jaw: a hinged structure attached to the cranium that allows an animal to grasp and tear its food. Jaws were probably derived from the first pair of gill arches supporting the gills of jawless fishes.

Early gnathostomes also possessed two sets of paired fins, allowing the fishes to maneuver accurately. Pectoral fins are typically located on the anterior body, and pelvic fins on the posterior. Evolution of the jaw and paired fins permitted gnathostomes to expand their food options from the scavenging and suspension feeding of jawless fishes to active predation. The ability of gnathostomes to exploit new nutrient sources probably contributed to their replacing most jawless fishes during the Devonian period. Two early groups of gnathostomes were the acanthodians and placoderms (Figure), which arose in the late Silurian period and are now extinct. Most modern fishes are gnathostomes that belong to the clades Chondrichthyes and Osteichthyes (which include the class Actinoptertygii and class Sarcopterygii).

The illustration shows a large fish with a very wide mouth.
A placoderm. Dunkleosteus was an enormous placoderm from the Devonian period, 380 to 360 million years ago. It measured up to 10 meters in length and weighed up to 3.6 tons. Its head and neck were armored with heavy bony plates. Although Dunkleosteus had no true teeth, the edge of the jaw was armed with sharp bony blades. (credit: Nobu Tamura)

Class Chondrichthyes: Cartilaginous Fishes

The class Chondrichthyes (about 1,000 species) is a morphologically diverse clade, consisting of subclass Elasmobranchii (sharks [Figure], rays, and skates, together with the obscure and critically endangered sawfishes), and a few dozen species of fishes called chimaeras, or “ghost sharks” in the subclass Holocephali. Chondrichthyes are jawed fishes that possess paired fins and a skeleton made of cartilage. This clade arose approximately 370 million years ago in the early or middle Devonian. They are thought to be descended from the placoderms, which had endoskeletons made of bone; thus, the lighter cartilaginous skeleton of Chondrichthyes is a secondarily derived evolutionary development. Parts of shark skeleton are strengthened by granules of calcium carbonate, but this is not the same as bone.

Most cartilaginous fishes live in marine habitats, with a few species living in fresh water for a part or all of their lives. Most sharks are carnivores that feed on live prey, either swallowing it whole or using their jaws and teeth to tear it into smaller pieces. Sharks have abrasive skin covered with tooth-like scales called placoid scales. Shark teeth probably evolved from rows of these scales lining the mouth. A few species of sharks and rays, like the enormous whale shark (Figure), are suspension feeders that feed on plankton. The sawfishes have an extended rostrum that looks like a double-edged saw. The rostrum is covered with electrosensitive pores that allow the sawfish to detect slight movements of prey hiding in the muddy sea floor. The teeth in the rostrum are actually modified tooth-like structures called denticles, similar to scales.

The photo shows a shark with a wide snout.
Shark. Hammerhead sharks tend to school during the day and hunt prey at night. (credit: Masashi Sugawara)

Sharks have well-developed sense organs that aid them in locating prey, including a keen sense of smell and the ability to detect electromagnetic fields. Electroreceptors called ampullae of Lorenzini allow sharks to detect the electromagnetic fields that are produced by all living things, including their prey. (Electroreception has only been observed in aquatic or amphibious animals and sharks have perhaps the most sensitive electroreceptors of any animal.) Sharks, together with most fishes and aquatic and larval amphibians, also have a row of sensory structures called the lateral line, which is used to detect movement and vibration in the surrounding water, and is often considered to be functionally similar to the sense of “hearing” in terrestrial vertebrates. The lateral line is visible as a darker stripe that runs along the length of a fish’s body. Sharks have no mechanism for maintaining neutral buoyancy and must swim continuously to stay suspended in the water. Some must also swim in order to ventilate their gills but others have muscular pumps in their mouths to keep water flowing over the gills.

The image displays a whale shark swimming in the Georgia Aquarium.
Whale shark in the Georgia Aquarium. Whale sharks are filter-feeders and can grow to be over 10 meters long. Whale sharks, like most other sharks, are ovoviviparous. (credit: modified from Zac Wolf [Own work] [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sharks reproduce sexually, and eggs are fertilized internally. Most species are ovoviviparous: The fertilized egg is retained in the oviduct of the mother’s body and the embryo is nourished by the egg yolk. The eggs hatch in the uterus, and young are born alive and fully functional. Some species of sharks are oviparous: They lay eggs that hatch outside of the mother’s body. Embryos are protected by a shark egg case or “mermaid’s purse” (Figure) that has the consistency of leather. The shark egg case has tentacles that snag in seaweed and give the newborn shark cover. A few species of sharks, e.g., tiger sharks and hammerheads, are viviparous: the yolk sac that initially contains the egg yolk and transfers its nutrients to the growing embryo becomes attached to the oviduct of the female, and nutrients are transferred directly from the mother to the growing embryo. In both viviparous and ovoviviparous sharks, gas exchange uses this yolk sac transport.

The photo shows long, thin shark embryos encase in egg cases.
Shark egg cases. Shark embryos are clearly visible through these transparent egg cases. The round structure is the yolk that nourishes the growing embryo. (credit: Jek Bacarisas)

In general, the Chondrichthyes have a fusiform or dorsoventrally flattened body, a heterocercal caudal fin or tail (unequally sized fin lobes, with the tail vertebrae extending into the larger upper lobe) paired pectoral and pelvic fins (in males these may be modified as claspers), exposed gill slits (elasmobranch), and an intestine with a spiral valve that condenses the length of the intestine. They also have three pairs of semicircular canals, and excellent senses of smell, vibration, vision, and electroreception. A very large lobed liver produces squalene oil (a lightweight biochemical precursor to steroids) that serves to aid in buoyancy (because with a specific gravity of 0.855, it is lighter than that of water).

Rays and skates comprise more than 500 species. They are closely related to sharks but can be distinguished from sharks by their flattened bodies, pectoral fins that are enlarged and fused to the head, and gill slits on their ventral surface (Figure). Like sharks, rays and skates have a cartilaginous skeleton. Most species are marine and live on the sea floor, with nearly a worldwide distribution.

Unlike the stereotypical sharks and rays, the Holocephali (chimaeras or ratfish) have a diphycercal tail (equally sized fin lobes, with the tail vertebrae located between them), lack scales (lost secondarily in evolution), and have teeth modified as grinding plates that are used to feed on mollusks and other invertebrates (Figureb). Unlike sharks with elasmobranch or naked gills, chimaeras have four pairs of gills covered by an operculum. Many species have a pearly iridescence and are extremely pretty.

The photo shows a stingray with a long, thin body and a circular head, resting on the sandy bottom.
Cartilaginous fish. (a) Stingray. This stingray blends into the sandy bottom of the ocean floor. A spotted ratfish (b) Hydrolagus colliei credit a "Sailn1"/Flickr; (credit: a "Sailn1"/Flickr b: Linda Snook / MBNMS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.)

Osteichthyes: Bony Fishes

Members of the clade Osteichthyes, also called bony fishes, are characterized by a bony skeleton. The vast majority of present-day fishes belong to this group, which consists of approximately 30,000 species, making it the largest class of vertebrates in existence today.

Nearly all bony fishes have an ossified skeleton with specialized bone cells (osteocytes) that produce and maintain a calcium phosphate matrix. This characteristic has been reversed only in a few groups of Osteichthyes, such as sturgeons and paddlefish, which have primarily cartilaginous skeletons. The skin of bony fishes is often covered by overlapping scales, and glands in the skin secrete mucus that reduces drag when swimming and aids the fish in osmoregulation. Like sharks, bony fishes have a lateral line system that detects vibrations in water.

All bony fishes use gills to breathe. Water is drawn over gills that are located in chambers covered and ventilated by a protective, muscular flap called the operculum. Many bony fishes also have a swim bladder, a gas-filled organ derived as a pouch from the gut. The swim bladder helps to control the buoyancy of the fish. In most bony fish, the gases of the swim bladder are exchanged directly with the blood. The swim bladder is believed to be homologous to the lungs of lungfish and the lungs of land vertebrates.

Bony fishes are further divided into two extant clades: Class Actinopterygii (ray-finned fishes) and Class Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fishes).

Actinopterygii (Figurea), the ray-finned fishes, include many familiar fishes—tuna, bass, trout, and salmon among others—and represent about half of all vertebrate species. Ray-finned fishes are named for the fan of slender bones that supports their fins.

In contrast, the fins of Sarcopterygii (Figureb) are fleshy and lobed, supported by bones that are similar in type and arrangement to the bones in the limbs of early tetrapods. The few extant members of this clade include several species of lungfishes and the less familiar coelacanths, which were thought to be extinct until living specimens were discovered between Africa and Madagascar. Currently, two species of coelocanths have been described.

The illustration compares a bright red salmon (a) and a blue coelacanth (b), both of which are similar in shape and have fins.
Osteichthyes. The (a) sockeye salmon and (b) coelacanth are both bony fishes of the Osteichthyes clade. The coelacanth, sometimes called a lobe-finned fish, was thought to have gone extinct in the Late Cretaceous period, 100 million years ago, until one was discovered in 1938 near the Comoros Islands between Africa and Madagascar. (credit a: modification of work by Timothy Knepp, USFWS; credit b: modification of work by Robbie Cada)