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Biol Lett. 2010 Aug 23;6(4):509-12. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2009.1033. Epub 2010 Feb 10.

Air-breathing adaptation in a marine Devonian lungfish.

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  • 1Department of Sciences, Museum Victoria, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.


Recent discoveries of tetrapod trackways in 395 Myr old tidal zone deposits of Poland (Niedźwiedzki et al. 2010 Nature 463, 43-48 (doi:10.1038/nature.08623)) indicate that vertebrates had already ventured out of the water and might already have developed some air-breathing capacity by the Middle Devonian. Air-breathing in lungfishes is not considered to be a shared specialization with tetrapods, but evolved independently. Air-breathing in lungfishes has been postulated as starting in Middle Devonian times (ca 385 Ma) in freshwater habitats, based on a set of skeletal characters involved in air-breathing in extant lungfishes. New discoveries described herein of the lungfish Rhinodipterus from marine limestones of Australia identifies the node in dipnoan phylogeny where air-breathing begins, and confirms that lungfishes living in marine habitats had also developed specializations to breathe air by the start of the Late Devonian (ca 375 Ma). While invasion of freshwater habitats from the marine realm was previously suggested to be the prime cause of aerial respiration developing in lungfishes, we believe that global decline in oxygen levels during the Middle Devonian combined with higher metabolic costs is a more likely driver of air-breathing ability, which developed in both marine and freshwater lungfishes and tetrapodomorph fishes such as Gogonasus.

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