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Article: Electroreception in early vertebrates: survey, evidence and new information

Palaeontology Cover Image - Volume 61 Part 3
Publication: Palaeontology
Volume: 61
Part: 3
Publication Date: May 2018
Page(s): 325 358
Author(s): Benedict King, Yuzhi Hu, and John A. Long
Addition Information

How to Cite

KING, B., HU, Y., LONG, J.A. 2018. Electroreception in early vertebrates: survey, evidence and new information. Palaeontology, 61, 3, 325-358. DOI: 10.1111/pala.12346

Author Information

  • Benedict King - College of Science & Engineering Flinders University PO Box 2100 Adelaide SA 5001 Australia
  • Yuzhi Hu - Department of Applied Mathematics Research School of Physics & Engineering Australian National University Oliphant Building 60 Canberra ACT 2601 Australia
  • Yuzhi Hu - Research School of Earth Sciences Australian National University Building 142 Mills Road Canberra ACT 2601 Australia
  • John A. Long - College of Science & Engineering Flinders University PO Box 2100 Adelaide SA 5001 Australia

Publication History

  • Issue published online: 19 April 2018
  • Manuscript Accepted: 22 November 2017
  • Manuscript Received: 19 September 2017

Funded By

Flinders University Elaine Martin travel
Australian Research Council. Grant Number: DP 14014161

Online Version Hosted By

Wiley Online Library (Free Access)
Get Article: Wiley Online Library [Free Access]


Electroreception is widespread in living vertebrates, and is often considered to be a primitive vertebrate character. However, the early evolution of electroreception remains unclear. A variety of structures in early vertebrate fossils have been put forward as potential electroreceptors, but these need to be reassessed in light of the now substantial literature on electroreceptors in living vertebrates. Here we review the evidence for all putative electroreceptors in early vertebrates, and provide new information from CT scans. In the jawless osteostracans, the pore canal system in the dermal skeleton and the lateral and dorsal fields do not resemble electroreceptors in living species. Nevertheless, the presence of a recurrent ramus of the anterior lateral line nerve in osteostracans suggests that electroreceptors were present, by comparison with lampreys. In placoderms, cutaneous sense organs on arthrodire cheek plates are possible electroreceptors. CT data shows that the orientation of these pits is anomalous for electroreceptors, and intimately associated with bone growth. A newly identified type of cheek pit, for which the term ‘Young's apparatus’ is introduced, is known from only two arthrodire specimens. It is closely associated with the underlying jaw joint, but its precise function is unknown. In osteichthyans, the ‘pore group’ clusters of early sarcopterygians may have housed electroreceptors. CT data from Devonian lungfish support this interpretation, showing internal morphology consistent with electroreceptors, and innervation via the rostral tubuli underlying the dermal bone of the snout. The early osteichthyan Ligulalepis has pit structures which may be electroreceptors, and were possibly innervated by lateral line nerves. Specialized electroreceptor systems, including elaborated ‘pore group’ pits in Devonian lungfish and rostral organs in the earliest coelacanths, show that electroreception may have had an important role in niche specialization in early vertebrates. Finally, fossil data does not support the hypothesis that vertebrate hard tissues initially evolved to shield electroreceptors.

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