Claire Corlett

Fish Food, Fish Tanks, and More
When Fish Wore Armor

When Fish Wore Armor


420 million years ago, life was definitely
better down where it was wetter…under the sea. Dry land was still new and relatively empty. But in the seas, life had reached a fever
pitch of diversity, especially among fish. The world’s 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, it’s 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 more… medieval. 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 Devonian’s 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 what’s
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 means “different 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 means “bony 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 endoskeleton. They didn’t 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 means “plate 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 skeleton – meaning 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 bone. Then, as an additional layer outside of that,
unconnected, was a thick layer of exoskeletal bone. 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 didn’t
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 didn’t 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, it’s 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 wasn’t 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 minerals. See, bone and other bony tissues contain a
lot of Calcium and Phosphorous. You probably know that these minerals help
keep bones strong, but they’re also necessary for a lot of chemical processes in your body,
like muscle movement. That’s right, calcium’s 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 wouldn’t run. That’s why modern animals — including you
— use bone as a repository for calcium and phosphorous. 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 bone. 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 environments. So then having big bony shields may have
acted like a camel’s hump for calcium, an important resource that kept their muscles
working at top speed while they explored rivers and lakes. And of course, it’s 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 is … vague. Most of today’s bony fish are ray-finned
fishes. And land-dwelling vertebrates are descended
from lobe-finned fishes. But it’s not clear how armored fish, especially
placoderms, were related to either of these groups. Some scientists think that, while both ray-finned
and lobe-finned fish shared common ancestors with armored fish, they aren’t 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. It’s confusing, I am aware, but phylogenetics
is hard. And regardless of where they came from, the
thick body armor of these fish didn’t make it through to the other side of the Devonian. The late Devonian is characterized by one
of Earth’s “big 5” mass extinctions, with a loss of 50 to 60% of marine genera,
including all of the armored fish. It’s 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 extinctions. But scientists aren’t 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 possible. And we want to thank our first two eontologists,
Duncan Miller and David Rasmussen. Thank you so much for your support! If you’d like to join them, head on over to
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learning more about how our planet works, then go on over to one of our newest sister
channels, Hot Mess, which explores climate science, the effects of climate change, and
how we can create a better future for our planet and ourselves. Now, what do you want to know about the history
of life on Earth? Let me know in the comments! And if you haven’t already, be sure to go
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100 comments on “When Fish Wore Armor

  1. Speaking of fish, do a video on how some fish can breathe air! Such as the lungfish, some loaches and anabatoids (through their labyrinth organ) !

  2. Remember nothing evolved "FOR" anything. Evolution has always been random mutations with no purpose. Most mutations are lethal, but some end up being useful and then that animal is sometimes able to reproduce and the mutation makes it into future generations.

  3. Tbh, live in the water is now better. You can swim on the surface and avoid sharks. As a shark on the surface you'll be hunted.

  4. Didn't you play Pokemon? Pyschic Pokemon can destroy a Pokemon with Max defense and no s.defense. just like greenhouse effect it's not physically attacking but it's using pyschic.

  5. Under the Sea under the Sea we got no troubles life is the bubbles under the sea everything is trying to kill you take it from me

  6. Something smells fishy…ok, I’m out of here…I sea that no one have seen my puns XD I’m also amazed that a lot of the fish had a plate armour instead of…fish scale armour…XD

  7. Wait but there is still a specie of armoured fish alive rn right? That one fish dude that was found couple of yours ago.

  8. I just realized, Placoderms and Turtles are kind of convergent. Both have an exoskeleton and both use a sharpened bony plate to bite instead of teeth. Dunkleosteus especially reminds me of a snapping turtle.

  9. Might the evolution of jaws, ironically, led to the slow downfall of using plates as armor? Against jawless fish, thick armored plates would be great at keeping them from gnawing on soft tissues, but with jaws, eventually you might run into something with a big enough bite to crack through your armor. And armor, of course, is heavy. Perhaps, like modern MBTs, there was a shift away from absolute defense during the extinction, and one towards better mobility, relying on the internal structure more to anchor powerful muscles, and less on the external structure to block.

  10. Again great video if I haven't mentioned it before but the one stupid thing that I never got on these armor fish is how did they get them from one generation to another? I mean if the parents fish did not have any Amour on it then how the heck did the kids get it? I know stupid question I'm sorry

  11. The Pennsylvania State Museum in Harrisburg has a large Placoderm skull in the hallway next to the gift shop. Really wicked looking………

  12. The sudden swing of temperatures to ice age and then warmer waters may be from the dramatic and undocumented wobble of the earth’s axis beyond what is expected.

  13. Armor was likely an advantage among earlier fish due to parasite organisms like lampreys and hagfish. Later fish countered parasitic creatures with lateral lines and better muscle efficiency which would have given them greater sensitivity and faster reactions. These fish went on to out compete the primitive placoderms.

  14. I would like to know more about fossil imprints . I live in West Central ARK. I find Devonian era fossils and lots of trace fossils.

  15. WOW 😯 this is so amazing 😉 !!! Thank you for sharing this great information !!! 👍👍👍👍👍❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️💋💋💋💋💋😍😍😍😍😍🥰🥰🥰🥰🥰😊😊😊😊😊😃😃😃😃😃

  16. Sacabambaspis is a great name for a band…. or as a youtube swear word…..usage:"Man! your political views are a big sacabambaspis!"

  17. They said that the placaderms probably died out at the end of the Devonian period, and supposedly they don't have any live descendents. But I can't help but wonder if they are related to sea turtles?

  18. scientists: discovers new species
    turns on caps lock
    Smashes head on one side of keyboard while pressing a and u keys every now and then

  19. So before the Pleistocene was the last time there was sea ice/glacial period that random Devonian cold snap? Seems like ice is just rare

  20. Why would there be the evolution of heavy body armor before the evolution of jaws?! That would be like the shield being invented before the sword!!!🤔

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