Claire Corlett

Fish Food, Fish Tanks, and More
When Fish First Breathed Air

When Fish First Breathed Air

385 million years ago, the land was all but
empty. The continents were home to only some sparse
plants and fungi, and a few pioneering arthropods. Life in the oceans, however, was booming. The waters teemed with squid, bony fish, and
sea scorpions. But there was one group of fish that was about
to go its own way. In time, these enterprising fish would undertake
one of the most important journeys in the history of life. They’d follow in the footsteps of the arthropods,
to become the first vertebrates to live on dry ground. But they couldn’t just move onto land. Not yet. First, they had to acquire the ability to
breathe air. The giant leap between fish that breathed
through water and fish that breathed air has been really hard for us to study and understand. That’s partly because the organs that did
the work of breathing — either gills or lungs — don’t fossilize well. But it’s also because, until pretty recently,
there just haven’t been a lot of fossils from that time for us to study. Fish began their transition onto land 400
million years ago, during in the Devonian period. And for a long time, one of the few fossils
that experts had to work with was a fish named Eusthenopteron, originally
found in Quebec in the 1880s. It lived in shallow, estuary waters around
380 million years ago. And like the famous Coelocanth, it was a “lobe-finned
fish.” Instead of having long, delicate fins with
lots of joints in them, like you’d see in a goldfish, its fins were shorter and stronger. These hardy limbs could have helped Eusthenopteron
move itself along in the shallows as it hunted other fish, but its fins probably weren’t
strong enough to let it walk on land. Another major find came about in the 1930s,
when scientists uncovered Ichthyostega, a meter-long creature found in rocks in Greenland
dating back 364 million years. Ichthyostega had a body that was a lot more
salamander-like, including a fully-developed pelvis, strong limbs, and even fingers. But Ichthyostega still probably dragged itself
around with its front legs, a bit like how a mudskipper moves today. And it also had a thick, paddle-like tail
for swimming, which means it likely spent a lot of its time in the water. But perhaps neither of these fossils is as
key to this story as Tiktaalik, a 375 million year old animal found on Ellesmere
Island, Canada in 2006. Tiktaalik had a fishy body, but a head like
a salamander’s, and stiff, leg-like fins that could have supported its weight outside
of the water. And most importantly, it also had bigger primitive
hips, so its hind limbs had something to anchor on to, an important step in becoming a
fully four-legged animal. However, Tiktaalik’s travels on land were
probably still stuck in front-wheel drive. Even though its legs and hips were bigger
than in Eusthenopteron, they weren’t strong enough to bear the strain of walking on land. With traits that seem halfway between a fish,
like Eusthernopteron, and a four-legged animal, like Ichthyostega, Tiktaalik is a textbook
example of a transitional fossil from this time. And despite their differences, all three of
these fossils are considered to be tetrapodomorphs, a group that includes early four-footed animals
and the lobe-finned fish that are closely related to them. Now, one big trick to living on land, of course,
is … breathing. So how did these animals, which had been adapted
for millennia to life underwater, start to breathe air? Well, we know that all three of our friends
— Eusthenopteron, Tiktaalik and Ichthyostega — had gills. Because, even though gills themselves don’t
fossilize very well, the bony arches that support the gills do. And each of these animals had gill arches. But even though they still had gills, that
doesn’t mean they couldn’t breathe air. It turns out that the most important clue
for when fish started breathing air isn’t the absence of gills. Instead, it’s the shape and location of
a little hole in the skull. This hole can still be found in many fish
today. It’s the opening of a tube, called the spiracular
tract, that’s used to bring water in toward the gills. This feature is really handy, because it allows
fish to breathe when their mouths are busy eating. And this little skull hole can tell us a lot
about when tetrapodomorphs first became able to breathe air. All you have to do is compare where it shows
up in fossils, with where it appears in different kinds of modern fish. Now, in most modern fish, the opening to the
tract appears on the sides of the face, near the front of the skull, which puts it pretty
much right on top of the gills. But there are also fish today that breathe
air. And in one of these fish — the bichir from
Africa — the hole is bigger, and sits on the top of its skull, farther back, kind
of like a blowhole. What’s more, the opening also sits at an
angle, not straight up and down. That’s an important clue, because this angle
creates a more direct path for air to travel to the bichir’s lungs. Now, compare all of that with the skull openings
in tetrapodomorphs. In Eusthenopteron, the spiracular tract opens
up near the front of the skull, just like in most water-breathing fish with gills. But, the hole is on the /top/ of the skull,
not the side. In this way, it kind of resembles the bichir,
which uses its head-hole to breathe air from the surface of the water. So Eusthenopteron was maybe breathing air
in addition to water, and since the hole was close to the front of the face, they probably
used their gills to handle both. But! In both Ichthyostega and Tiktaalik, that hole
is much bigger, is closer to the back of the skull, and sits at an angle, just like it
does in the bichir. This means the tract in these ancient animals
was pointing right to where a primitive set of lungs would have been. It’s not the clear-cut evidence that a nice
set of fossilized lungs would be. But having a larger passageway that sits closer
to where the lungs are in today’s lunged fish is a good sign that both Tiktaalik and
Ichthyostega had some sort of primitive lungs. As for where these lungs came from, experts
think they derived from an organ that many modern fish still have today: a swim bladder. Swim bladders are often filled with air, which
fish gulp down to help keep them buoyant. And the ancestors of Tiktaalik and Ichthyostega
probably had them. The thinking is that, among some lobe-finned
fish, the swim bladder became bigger and contained more blood vessels, so it became better at
putting oxygen into the bloodstream. In time, this organ took on a different function,
finding a new use for the air that was already there: breathing. This kind of makes sense if you look at air-breathing
fish today, like the lungfish and bichir. Their swim bladders are split into two, and
so full of blood vessels that they look basically just like our lungs do. But, why would any fish, modern or fossil,
bother with breathing air, when there’s all that lovely water around? Well, during the Devonian, things were … complicated. And all of those complications led to a steady
drop in the amount of oxygen in the oceans. On land, new plant species were diversifying,
which you’d think would be good for oxygen levels. Except, all of these new plants were also
dying on land, and then getting washed into the ocean. All of that organic material fueled huge blooms
of algae, and then bacteria, which in turn sucked up oxygen from the ocean. So by the late Devonian – right when fish
start to transition onto land – oxygen in the air was really low: some estimates go
as low as 13%, compared to almost 21% today. For animals, low oxygen is generally bad. But for organisms that live in the water,
it’s even worse, because oxygen concentrations are always lower in water than they are in
the air. So when Oxygen levels first started to fall
385 million years ago, the benefit of transitioning onto land was pretty clear – no more gasping
for breath in the water. Being able to breathe air made Tiktaalik,
Ichthyostega and maybe even Eusthenopteron more energetic and better able to hunt their
food. And these first air-breathers eventually gave
rise to the true tetrapods — the first vertebrates to live on dry land, full time. Eventually, they lost their gills. And by the time the Devonian Period had ended
and the Carboniferous was underway, they had also lost their spiracular tracts, and started
using a totally different kind of skull-hole for breathing, called nostrils. But those lobe-finned fish that were our ancestors
weren’t the only fish that figured out how to breathe air. Today, there are lungfish, mudskippers, bowfin
and bichir. They’re not direct descendants of the likes
of Tiktaalik. Instead, they each acquired that ability independently,
at different times. It just goes to show you that breathing air
has turned out to be very convenient for a lot of us over time. So remember: For all of the breaths that you’re
taking today, and the way that you’re taking them, you owe your fishy ancestors a debt
of thanks. Thanks for joining me today! And I have big news! Eons is now on Patreon! Patreon is a voluntary subscription service
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100 comments on “When Fish First Breathed Air

  1. No it was like “yo yo wth is this weird thing/I think I’m high agAin. Help! I can’t breathe. O wait this isn’t that bad, actually pretty chill”

  2. I’m gonna be a smartass and say that coelacanths and lobe-finned fish aren’t fish because they aren’t in Actinopterygii.

  3. If you’re explaining the evolution of fins, it’s probably not very useful to use a split tail goldfish as an illustration. The fins of these fish have been severely modified, not by natural selection, but by human breeding.

  4. The title is scientifically inaccurate or intentionally misleading. I know she goes on to explain at half point mark about fish starting to breathe air but the title image suggest another thing entirely.

  5. I'd love a video explaining how and why arthropods moved from sea to land 😛 The first organisms moving around on land surely deserves a video of its own

  6. I’m so glad my school taught me this stuff. It made me so interested in natural history and science. Ofc before that the dinosaurs did most of the motivating 😂

  7. I love her. Such a great narrator. I am absolutly enthralled the whole time.

    Such great information and interesting subject matter

  8. I believe the tides and swamps and/or marshes are associated with "When Fish First Breathed Air" so I wish the Eusthenopteron, Ichthyostega, and Tiktaalik would not be displayed in graphics of deep water in the Devonian.

  9. the fish didn't like the ocean anymore because of the currents pushing them around so they grew stronger limbs, wrists, and lungs and that's how the first terristial animals came to be

  10. it would help for clueless people to add timelines between these transitions….
    because there are people who think evolution is something like what happens in pokemon

  11. Why betta fish, dwarf gourami and etc weren't mentioned? They dont breathe air quite efficiently but enough to be able to live in waters with really low oxygen concentrations 🙁

  12. I wish I had your job! I feel like there’s no way I could go back to school for paleontology 😭😭😭

  13. Thanks….. now I will feel guilty for every time I eat fish… sorry ancestors… I want to enjoy good meals….

  14. What a great presenter! I've been looking for tetrapodamorphs in Pennsylvania with my son for the last 10 years. We even have a post parietal shield (posterior and dorsal part of head) from a descendant of Eusthenopteron which does have the spiracle right where she said it was.

  15. Fish said the ocean is boring let’s leave and explore land and they got sick of it because of “Two Much Water”

  16. If I saw ichthyostega trying to crawl out of the water with that dumb look on its face, I'd be like I see what you did with that swim bladder, it's still a swim bladder, not a land bladder, get back in there, go splash rocks.

  17. Not sure why u illastrates loads of plants 380 million years ago there was only 4 or 5 land plants, no big trees no grass, small spikey bushes and fungi

  18. I always assumed the spiracular track gave way to a new mouth part and the old mouth part turned into the soft pallet and central cerbium or "lizard brain".

  19. Lol I love how you morons actually think you know exactly what was going on three hundred million years ago

  20. I have a mental obstacle and that’s how do these major mutations happen why are they able to stay and seemingly happen to more that individual specimen seemingly at once. Or am I totally off? What am I missing?

  21. I remember a guy telling us about the movie Water World was real we would drown under or above water ….It was probably easier for them to adapt then it would today

  22. They should have mentioned that the bone structure on the tiktaalik's front legs is pretty much the same found today on modern vertebrates hands or paws.

  23. If the swim bladder thing is true, then an organism can have both gills and lungs.

    Somebody force scientists to make mermaids.

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