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Fossil fish tells tales of live birth in the Devonian

A fossil find reveals that an extinct group of fish from the Devonian period actually gave birth to their young — a characteristic thought to belong only to more advanced animals and a discovery which pushes back the record of bearing live young by 200 million years.

In Nature this week a team of Australian scientists unveils a 380-million-year-old specimen of a fish embryo connected by the umbilical cord to its mother. This fascinating fossil, a new species in itself, reveals advanced reproductive biology comparable to that of some modern sharks and rays.

The find represents a new species of placoderm preserved in the act of giving birth. Now long extinct, the placoderms were a large and diverse group of fishes thought to be the most primitive vertebrates with jaws. They belong to ptyctodontids, a group of fish which have already provided the oldest definite evidence of vertebrate copulation.

The research team was led by John Long from Museum Victoria and includes colleagues from The Australian National University, Monash University, and The University of Western Australia.

The scientists describe the single female specimen as remarkably well preserved. It was found in the Late Devonian Gogo Formation near Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia. The fossil has been named Materpiscis attenboroughi in honor of Sir David Attenborough who first drew attention to the Gogo fish sites in the 1979 television series Life on Earth.

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