- The Paleontological Society
Until recently, our understanding of the earliest history of the fish has been fragmentary in terms of the fossil record and conjectural with respect to many details of phylogeny. Fortunately, significant new information has become available in recent years, most notably from the discoveries of at least three taxa of agnathan fish from the Lower Cambrian Chengjiang Lagerstätte of Yunnan, China (Shu et al., 1999, 2003; Shu, 2003; see also Hou et al., 2002; Hou et al., 2004, p. 192–193; Zhang and Hou, 2004). Two of the taxa (Haikouichthys and Zhangjianichthys) are represented by numerous specimens, but it is noteworthy that amongst the forty-odd Burgess Shale-type occurrences apart from the Chengjiang Lagerstätte, chordates (or indeed cephalochordates and urochordates) are otherwise unknown. The one exception is the Burgess Shale itself, characterized by the rather enigmatic Pikaia gracilens (Conway Morris, 1982, 1998) and the much rarer chordate described herein. Apart from this exceptionally preserved material, the fossil record effectively only begins in the Ordovician (e.g., Sansom et al., 2001, 2005; Sansom and Smith, 2005), in as much putative fish scales from the latest Cambrian (Young et al., 1996) may be better interpreted as arthropodan (see Smith et al., 2001, p. 78). The difficulties of interpreting what is overall an extremely patchy record are further compounded by the fact that the relevance to this early history of the extant agnathan hagfish and lamprey has remained (and indeed to some extent remains) problematic, given the uncertainty as to which of the presumed archaic features have been over-printed by specializations for modes of life that might have had little counterpart in the ancestral forms.
The relative abundance of agnathans from the Chengjiang Lagerstätte, but near total absence from equivalent fossil deposits, raises important and related …