Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a description of fossilized lamprey larvae that date back to the Lower Cretaceous — at least 125 million years ago. They’re the oldest identified fossils displaying the creature in stages of pre-metamorphosis and metamorphosis. The paper entitled ‘Discovery of fossil lamprey larva from the Lower Cretaceous reveals its three-phased life cycle’ can be found here.
“Among animals with backbones, everything, including us, evolved from jawless fishes,” said Desui Miao, University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute collection manager, who co-authored today’s PNAS paper. “To understand the whole arc of vertebrate evolution, we need to know these animals. The biology of the lamprey holds a molecular clock to date when many evolutionary events occurred.”
According to the KU researcher and fellow authors Meemann Chang, Feixiang Wu and Jiangyong Zhang of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, the larval fossils show the life cycle of the lamprey “emerged essentially in its present mode no later than the Early Cretaceous.”
This cycle consists of a long-lasting larval stage, a metamorphosis and a comparatively brief adulthood with a markedly different anatomy, according to the PNAS paper. The larvae come from the fossil lamprey species Mesomyzon mangae.
“Our larvae look modern,” Miao said. “The developmental stage is almost identical to today’s lamprey. Before this, we didn’t know how long lampreys have developed via metamorphosis. Now, we know it goes back 125 million years at least. In other words, lampreys haven’t changed much — and that’s very interesting.”
Then, like today, lampreys lived in both freshwater and saltwater. At the larval stage, they’d have dwelled in the sand or mud and drawn nutrients from micro-organisms in the water. Then, as mature lampreys, some of them would have subsisted by fastening themselves to host organisms and swigging their blood — often killing their host in the end.