Sunday, April 20, 2014

Jawless armored fish from the Ordovician: the Astraspids and Eriptychiids

My reconstruction of Astraspis desiderata.

The Astraspids and Eriptychiids form other groups of jawless armored fish restricted to the Ordovician. They are the earliest known definite vertebrates from North America. Like the Arandaspids, they apparently all went extinct at the end of the period. Unlike the Arandaspids, their head shield carapace is made of hundreds of very small and separate bony pieces called tesserae. They have polygonal shape surmounted by tubercles of various morphologies. Their ornamentation and shape are different depending on their position in the carapace, so that a tesserae from the dorsal plate can be distinguished from one from the ventral plate. Two genera are known, Astraspis and Eriptychius, both originally described from the same location, the Late Ordovician (~ 455 MYA) Harding Sandstone, near Cañon City in Colorado, United States, and in the same 1892 paper authored by Charles D. Walcott, the discoverer of the famous Burgess Shale. It is still unclear how these two genera are related and they were often placed in two separate families, Astraspidae and Eriptychiidae or even orders, Astraspida and Eriptychiida. The microstructure of Eriptychius’s tesserae placed them closer to the Heterostraci than Astraspis.

Astraspis desiderata is the better known species with at least three mostly complete and articulated specimens. It had 8 branchial openings on its sides with well developed eyes in the front. The tail is made of large rhomboid scales. Astraspis desiderata measured about 20 cm in length. A seemingly  larger species, Pycnaspis splendens has been described in 1958 by Swedish paleontologist Tor Ørvig from the Harding Sandstone of Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming, United States but this one is now considered to be synonymous with Astraspis desiderata. Isolated tesserae attributed to Astraspis have been found throughout North America, in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Ontario, Quebec and Oklahoma

Eriptychius americanus was only known from isolated and highly ornamented tesserae. The situation changed dramatically in 1967 with the discovery of an articulated specimen consisting of the front part of the dorsal shield (Denison, 1967). A second species, Eriptychius orvigi, honoring Ørvig and from the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming, with seemingly thicker tesserae, was erected in the same paper, but is now considered to be synonymous with E. americanus.

Just like the Arandaspids, the Astraspids and Eriptychiids did not have any paired fins and would have been rather poor swimmers. They were probably living at the bottom of the sea floor in a sublittoral environment.

Sansom, I. J., Smith, M. P., Smith, M. M., & Turner, P. (1997). Astraspis-the anatomy and histology of an Ordovician fish. Palaeontology, 40(3), 625–643.
Elliott, D. K. (1987). A Reassessment of Astraspis desiderata, the Oldest North American Vertebrate. Science (New York, N.Y.), 237(4811), 190–2.
Bryant, W. (1936). A study of the oldest known vertebrates, Astraspis and Eriptychius. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 76(4), 409–427.
Denison, R. (1967). Ordovician vertebrates from western United States. Fieldiana: Geology, 16(6), 131–192.