Oldest Fish Fossil Found in South Africa

In South Africa a 360 million year old fossil of a lamprey has been discovered. This could be the ancestor to many of todays jawed and bony fish.

The newly found fossil of a prehistoric lamprey has a shark-like cartilage backbone, made of collagen, much like humans. The fossil has just one long dorsal fin, compared to lampreys of today, which are multi dorsal-finned.

Eel lampreys possess a funnel-like sucking mouth, helping it bore into the flesh of other fish to suck their blood.

Prehistoric lampreys did not have jaws, but boasted a mouth packed with 14 horny spiked teeth, much like the modern lamprey (19 teeth). The difference is that it was a lot smaller, which makes modern lampreys “small-mouthed,” compared to their ancestors.

The lamprey and the hagfish appear to be the only survivors of what is believed to be the first family of vertebrates, which according to some paleontology experts developed into jawed, bony fish.

The jawed fish, most likely descending from the jawless lamprey and other fish-like creatures of that time, appeared half a billion years ago, taking another evolutionary path.

Other lamprey fossils have been found, but the fact that they are boneless means that such fossils are extremely rare. This recent find is not only the oldest, but also the most complete.

Pretty nifty.

FILED UNDER: Africa, Science & Technology,
Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.


  1. madmatt says:

    But the world is only 6000 years old…however can you explain this to your readers?

  2. Anderson says:

    God cleverly put that fossil there to damn those who put their trust in the media, rather than in the Holy Scripture.

  3. Steve Verdon says:

    But the world is only 6000 years old…however can you explain this to your readers?

    You mean like Anderson? Well he seems to have come up with a novel interpretation.

  4. Anderson says:

    Repent, Steve!

  5. floyd says:

    *well i guess i can stop saving that one in my fridge , which i thought was the real record!*

  6. Steven Plunk says:

    I see some of the more liberal guests making fun of OTB readers who are Christians. Lovely. Of course no one has yet posted anything to confirm their suspicions. I guess a little presumption mixed with intolerance makes it all the more funny.

    For the record, so as not to be seen as unedumacated, I believe the world is very, very old.

  7. Anderson says:

    I see some of the more liberal guests making fun of OTB readers who are Christians.

    Really? What guests are those? I’m a Christian, and all I see are some comments making fun of people who are stupid (or, charitably, “ignorant”).

    Or do you define “Christian” as “one who believes the world was made in 4004 B.C.”? “One who disbelieves the theory of evolution by natural selection”?

    Definitions like those are insulting to Christians.

  8. Tano says:

    Some minor problematical points:

    1. The fossil is 360 million years old. The first jawed fishes emerged in the Silurian, over 400 million years ago. Therefore this fossil cannot be of a species ancestral to modern jawed fishes. Nor of bony fishes, which are a sublineage of jawed fishes. Rather, this is a fossil from “up the lamprey lineage”, well after it diverged from the lineage that became jawed vertebrates.

    2. The article refers to “eel lampreys” which is an unfortunate term, using “eel” to convey the sense that it is long and cylindrical. Eels, however, are a group of bony fish well up the evolutionary tree from lampreys, so no close relationship should be inferred.

    3. To be picky, lampreys and hagfish are not really part of the same “family” of early vertebrates. As best as can be determined, hagfish arose as one branch of early vertebrates, whereas the lamprey lineage diverged somewhat later. The fact that both groups survive today, and lack jaws caused many systematists to group them together, but the sense now is that they do not have a common ancestor unique to themselves.

  9. floyd says:

    anderson;i somehow missed the charity in your remark.