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420 million years ago, life was definitely better down where it was wetter...under the


Dry land was still new and relatively empty.

But in the seas, life had reached a fever pitch of diversity, especially among fish.

The worlds oceans teemed with sharks, primitive ray-finned fishes, hagfish, and even our very

early ancestors, the lobe-finned fish.

With such an abundance of life unfolding from 420 million to 360 million years ago, its

no wonder that the Devonian Period is often called the Age of Fish.

But the fish that the Devonian is perhaps best known for were a little different than

the ones you and I know today.

Back then, some fish were moremedieval.

They wore armor, sometimes made of big plates, and sometimes made of interlocking scales.

And the evolution of armor may seem like an obvious adaptation for protection, especially

in the Devonians crowded seas.

But that armor may actually have served a totally different purpose, one that many animals

still use today -- including you and me.

The earliest armored fish we have fossils of is called Sacabambaspis, a member of the

subclass known as Arandaspida.

This fish lived in the coastal waters of whats now Bolivia, during the Ordovician Period,

some 470 million years ago.

And really, it looked more like a watermelon with a tail than a fish.

It had no jaws, and no dorsal or side fins.

It was only marginally more fish-like than its earlier relatives, hagfish and conodonts,

with which it shared a common ancestor.

But what it lacked in fishiness in the front of its body it made up for with an extravagant

tail, complete with a shark-like fin and a long, scaled rod extending from the tip.

And the most distinctive feature of this fish was, of course, its armor -- a new adaptation

probably made of a primitive bone-like tissue called aspidin, as well as dentine and enameloid,

materials that are very similar to the ones that make up your teeth.

This armor covered the head in big plates, with smaller, joined chevrons running along

the rest of the body.

So Sacabambaspis was the first fish that we know of to acquire this kind of covering, but

it would soon have many imitators.

The period that came next, the Silurian, saw the evolution of armor in many groups of fish,

all around the same time.

One such group was the Heterostracans, whose name meansdifferent scales.”

They, too, looked like small, armored ovals with thick, fleshy tails.

Tolypelepis, for example, swam around Latvia 420 million years ago.

It was only about 8 centimeters long, but its armor was especially beautiful, made of

intricate, ridged, interlocking scales.

Other Heterostracans had fused plates on their heads, with diamond-shaped or elongated scales

covering their tails.

But head plates took on new forms in another group of jawless fish: the Osteostracans,

whose name meansbony shields.”

The armor on these fish was typically just a large, one-piece shield that covered the

head, made of dentine and bone, with smaller linear scales along the body.

These head shields were wider than the rest of the body, and they sometimes tended toward

extravagance, as in the case of Boreaspis, a fish that sported a large spike sprouting

from its face.

Osteostracans also boasted a brand-new feature: fins -- namely, dorsal fins and small, paddle-like

side-fins that gave them greater mobility in the water.

And this is where armored fish start to take an especially interesting turn.

Because, osteostracans are among the few jawless fish to have a bony internal skeleton, or


They didnt have much of one -- their backbones, like those of heterostracans and earlier fish,

was made of cartilage.

But their fins and parts of their skulls were some of the first to be made of bone.

And this brings us to probably the best-known armored fish, the Placoderms.

Placoderm meansplate skin,” and plated they indeed were, with big chunks of bone,

dentine and enameloid armor on their head and bodies.

In some placoderms, the covering got up to 5 centimeters thick.

But placoderms were also unique among armored fish in having a complete, mineralized internal

skeletonmeaning they had both an endoskeleton, like you do, as well as an exoskeleton.

And their endoskeleton and exoskeleton were completely separate!

For example, the skull of a placoderm had an internal braincase made of endoskeletal


Then, as an additional layer outside of that, unconnected, was a thick layer of exoskeletal


And one more big thing that set Placoderms apart from earlier fish was that they were

the first fish to have jaws, giving them the ability to bite, chew, and grind rather than

just scrape or filter feed.

Now, one of the most widespread placoderms was Bothriolepis, which was able to live in

oceanic environments, estuaries, and freshwater settings.

And while this fish had jaws, it didnt have true teeth.

Instead, it had bony plates that it used to grind up its food, like decomposing plant

and animal matter.

Much bigger than Bothriolepis -- and more carnivorous -- was Dunkleosteus, a giant,

predator that could reach up to 9 meters in length, with massive, shearing jaws.

It didnt have teeth, either, but the sharpened sections of bone it used instead could have

produced up to 7400 newtons of force, making it one of the strongest bites of any fish,

living or extinct, and certainly the strongest bite in the world at the time.

So armored fish came in a variety of shapes and sizes during the Silurian and Devonian,

from tiny Heterostracans to massive Placoderms.

But why did these fish evolve armor in the first place?

I mean, its possible that armor evolved as armor: to protect them from other

fish and predators.

And indeed, bite marks on armored bone, and remnants of armored fish found in the feces

of other animals, are common in the fossil record.

There are even fossils of Dunkleosteus that bear the bite marks of other Dunkleosteus.

So, if armor evolved just for protection, it certainly wasnt 100% effective.

But that might not have been its only purpose.

Instead, the evolution of bony armor might have had a whole lot to do with storing vital


See, bone and other bony tissues contain a lot of Calcium and Phosphorous.

You probably know that these minerals help keep bones strong, but theyre also necessary

for a lot of chemical processes in your body, like muscle movement.

Thats right, calciums not just for bones!

You need a certain amount of calcium for your muscles to work, because it makes your muscle

fibers contract.

And Phosphorous is an important part of the little molecule your body uses to store and

transfer energy: Adenosine Triphosphate, or ATP.

So, without phosphorus and calcium, the internal workings of your body - or that of an armored

fish - basically just wouldnt run.

Thats why modern animals -- including you -- use bone as a repository for calcium and


We have special cells that quickly break down bone, sending calcium and phosphorous into

the bloodstream, in a process called bone reabsorption.

When bone tissue is broken down like this, it changes the microscopic structure of the


And scientists have seen signs of those changes in the armor of heterostracans, osteostracans

and placoderms.

So, it seems that these armored fish did use their bony armor for mineral storage.

And this ability may have been one of the key reasons that these fish were so successful,

allowing them to take over all kinds of watery habitats.

Both calcium and phosphorus are present in water, but they occur in much lower concentrations

in fresh water than they do in the ocean.

And heterostracans, osteostracans and placoderms have been found in both salty AND fresh water


So then having big bony shields may have acted like a camels hump for calcium, an

important resource that kept their muscles working at top speed while they explored rivers

and lakes.

And of course, its also possible armor evolved for both reasons -- as a convenient

storage for muscle-moving minerals, and a nice piece of protection to help keep you

from getting chomped on.

So you can credit these ancient fish for acquiring the evolutionary breakthrough that was the

mineralized suit of armor.

But, do we have them to thank for our bony skeletons?

Probably not.

Or at least not directly.

We might be able to trace them back to a common ancestor, though.

The problem is that, like so many things in paleontology, the relationship of armored

fish to other living things isvague.

Most of todays bony fish are ray-finned fishes.

And land-dwelling vertebrates are descended from lobe-finned fishes.

But its not clear how armored fish, especially placoderms, were related to either of these


Some scientists think that, while both ray-finned and lobe-finned fish shared common ancestors

with armored fish, they arent their direct descendants.

Others think that most placoderms specifically share common ancestors with ray-finned and

lobe-finned fishes, but there are some placoderms

that are more closely related to lobe-finned fishes

than to other armored fish.

Its confusing, I am aware, but phylogenetics is hard.

And regardless of where they came from, the thick body armor of these fish didnt make

it through to the other side of the Devonian.

The late Devonian is characterized by one of Earthsbig 5mass extinctions,

with a loss of 50 to 60% of marine genera, including all of the armored fish.

Its not really clear what caused the Devonian extinctions, which occurred in two main bursts.

The end of the Devonian shows signs of a rapid swing from greenhouse to a sudden glaciation

and then back again, a see-sawing of climate that could be responsible for many of the


But scientists arent yet sure why this climate change occurred -- or whether the

cause was actually something else.

Whatever the cause, armor was no protection against the effects of it, and so the armored

fish disappeared.

In their wake, bony fish and cartilaginous fish like sharks and rays took over the oceans.

And the medieval age of fish came to a close.

Thanks for joining me today, and thanks to all of our patrons who help make these videos


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