How do palaeontological data refine our understanding of adaptive radiation and the evolution of modern biodiversity?

Lead Research Organisation: The Natural History Museum
Department Name: Earth Sciences


Swordfishes, needle-nosed predators of the high seas; flounders, gastronomically familiar and bizarrely asymmetrical bottom dwellers; remoras, literal hangers-on that hitch rides on sharks using a suction cup on their heads: few fishes, or vertebrates, show more strikingly different anatomies or modes of life. Divergent as they are, genetic studies indicate that these fishes, as well as several others with equally curious traits, are all closely related, forming a bough in the tree of life called Carangimorpha. Cases like this, where organisms with shared ancestry branch out over time to assume divergent bodyplans and lifestyles, are known as adaptive radiations. Previous research on this topic has focused on living groups with poor fossil records, like anole lizards or cichlid fishes. However, fossils are the only direct means of timing evolutionary events, and yield unique evidence of anatomies pruned from the tree of life by extinction; as such, they are critical in understanding how modern biodiversity was assembled. Our project seeks to use this exceptional group of fishes as a laboratory to not only understand how their specialisations arose, but also explore the ways in which fossils can be especially useful for answering these questions. Specifically, we will ask: (1) what are the steps leading to the origin of peculiar carangimorph body 'designs'; (2) when in geological time did these changes occur?; and (3) what do fossils tell us about the speed and manner in which these changes took place?

Fossils are critical in answering these questions. For instance, recent discoveries revealed how flatfishes evolved to have both eyes on one side of their head. Finding such transitional forms is typically rare, but the spectacular array of living carangimorphs is complemented by a trove of complete fossils. Modern preparation (involving chemical treatment or methods akin to sandblasting) and imaging (CT scanning) techniques can be used to extract fossils from surrounding rock. We will uncover details of exceptional fossils that document the early stages in the evolution of adaptations of living carangimorphs, including the rapier-like snout of billfishes and the suction disc of remoras.

Fossils cannot speak for themselves and we cannot simply trace evolution by peeling back rock layers. We must discover the relationships of fossils to living species. We will combine palaeontological data with anatomy and DNA data from modern fishes to place fossils in a tree alongside living relatives, allowing us reconstruct the sequence of changes leading to specialized modern bodyplans. Including both fossils and living species is also important because fossils can influence estimated relationships among living species and vice versa.

To build a timeline for major events in carangimorph evolution, we need to find out when in Earth's history each branch in its family tree split off. Fossilization is a rare event, and so even the oldest fossil of a particular branch might be a relatively late arrival. We therefore need to combine our fossil data with an indirect approach known as the molecular clock. If we know the rate at which genetic mutations build up, we can estimate how long ago living species split from each other and produce a 'time tree': a family tree with an absolute time scale.
With all of these components in place, we can address important questions about how fossils impact our understanding of adaptive radiation and the evolution of biodiversity. Our time tree allows us to apply statistical tools for determining the rate at which anatomical features changed over time. This can be used to see whether change was rapid early in evolutionary history or whether it was slow and gradual, and whether rates of evolution varied between marine and freshwater environments. Critically, we will conduct our analyses with and without fossils, allowing us to decide whether studies based only on modern data might be misleading.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit?

Our results will interest academic researchers, policy makers, conservation groups, students studying evolution and ecology, museums with environment- or biodiversity-related outreach programmes, the media, publishers and the general public.

How will users benefit?

See 'Academic Beneficiaries'.

By establishing a 'deep time' view of a group that includes many living species threatened by overfishing, our research illustrates the evolutionary time scales required to generate modern biodiversity, and provides additional motivation for conservation efforts. Additionally, our refined picture of relationships among these fishes will represent a key resource for conservation biologists implementing strategies intended to preserve phylogenetic diversity.

Undergraduates will benefit directly from our research programme. We will also integrate the results of this project into taught courses at Oxford and Yale as well as UCL, Imperial, Cambridge, Leiden, where team members have given guest undergraduate lectures. We will develop small, self-contained 'spin-off' projects that can be advertised to Oxford undergraduates in Earth Sciences (MEarthSci) and Zoology (Final Honours School Project). Such projects could focus on individual specimens and CT datasets, with results prepared for publication with the PI, and Co-I, PDRA, and project partners.

The Oxford University Museum (OUM), and The Natural History Museum (NHM) have outreach and education programs that draw on cutting edge results from associated academics. The PI and Co-Is have collaborative relationships with these museums and will use the results of the project as in talks, exhibitions, and other events such as 'Nature Live' (NHM), 'Friends of the NHM' (NHM), and 'Science Saturdays' (OUM). Museums will also benefit from entry of specimen data into digital databases (NHM KEEmu) and preparation work that adds scientific value to fossils.

We have a strong record of interaction with the media with coverage of research in the international press, radio, and television (see PI Friedman CV). Our work will provide new ideas and results that will feed into these media and publishing activities. We will engage with these users through conventional press releases, plus announcements made via the Oxford Science Blog (, which regularly features research output from PI Friedman.

Our work will benefit the public in terms of UK culture and quality of life. Our target clade of anatomically bizarre but generally familiar fishes provides an excellent opportunity to engage with the general public (including school children) on topics such as global change, evolution, conservation and biodiversity. Second, our focus on exceptional British fossils from the London Clay will highlight the significance of this aspect of the UK's natural heritage. We will engage with the public from the beginning of work via press releases, talks, and outreach through NHM and OUM (see above), as well as contributed columns to the Zoologists' Club newsletter for the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge..

The PDRA will develop a number of transferable skills that can be broadly applied. These include: writing and oral presentation; programming and statistical analysis; molecular and morphological systematics; science communication; advanced imaging techniques.


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Description Critical discoveries made thus far include: -Fossil evidence for the origin of the unusual bodyplan of fishes known as remoras or sharksuckers, which adhere to other marine animals using a suction disc on their head. We have described fossil specimens providing clues about the evolutionary origin of the remarkable remora adhesion disc. -In-progress genetic work that establishes the evolutionary tree for flatfishes. Flatfishes have both their eyes on one side of the head, a remarkable adaptation for their life on the seafloor. However, many genetic studies have suggested that this unusual arrangement evolved multiple times. Using large datasets including over 1000 genes, we demonstrate that flatfish asymmetry evolved only once.
Exploitation Route Please see responses on PI Matt Friedman's portfolio.
Sectors Education,Environment

Description Science Uncovered Evolution of spiny-finned fishes (Acanthomorpha) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Engaged public via discussion on the evolution of the spiny-finned fishes, the Acanthomorpha, focusing particularly on the pufferfishes and dentitions. Over the evening we spoke to a wide range of people and generated discussion and questions by using examples of fossil acanthomorphs and skulls of living species, on how the amazing diversity of these fishes (body form, dentitions, skull morphology) evolved.

Science Uncovered is one of the most successful NHM outreach events, with thousands of people attending. One of the goals is to change people's perceptions of science and scientists; positive feedback and surveys indicate that we are successful in this regard.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013