A shark goes for a walk

Nice bit of convergent evolution on display here when you compare this shark with the fish that evolved into all us four-limbed landlubbing tetrapods. Our own fish ancestors, though, were lobed finned with bone skeletons (like coelacanths, or an even better example, lungfish). Mudskippers, a walking ray-finned fish, are another bony fish though unlike either early tetrapods or this epaulette shark, it uses only its pectoral fins and not the pectoral and pelvic fins. Mudskippers pull themselves around by their front limbs. Tetrapods and epaulette sharks walk. Or proto-walk. They use all four limbs. Watching this little epaulette shark is eerily like watching a monitor lizard. It’s hard to think of anything strictly terrestrial that moves like a mudskipper. Yet it is conjectured that most early tetrapods like Tiktaalik lived much like mudskippers, and not much like this epaulette shark. Go further back a few million years into tetrapod evolutionary history and you can find lobed fish, such as Panderichthys, that probably lived lives much like our walking shark. Unlike mudskippers and we tetrapods, however, sharks are famously boneless. They leave lousy fossils, mostly teeth. Some really terrifying teeth, too. Megalodon has left its thirteen inch incisors scattered in fossil beds world wide.

But this shark here is maybe three feet long and quite harmless, and I watch and rewatch him perambulating across the Coral Sea floor cartilaginously, a nifty trick, but severely limiting if one is thinking about evolving into a land animal. Without the buoyancy of water, one needs the support of a bony skeleton. Gravity is a bitch. But one also needs a bony skeleton to evolve fins into limbs that all of us tetrapods use for legs, arms, feet, hands, fingers, toes, and wings (and sometimes back into fins). The jointedness of bones seems to open up a wide range of mutation possibilities–and evolution is all about mutations–that cartilage just does not seem to have. Sharks and us have been on dramatically divergent evolutionary paths since we last shared a common ancestor well over four hundred million years ago. And shark evolution, though impressive enough in its sleekness, is vastly less varied than that of those of us who spring from the homelier lobed finned fishes (and less varied than the bony ray-finned fishes, which make up well over 99% of all fish species but never left the water). Aside from our perambulating friend here, all sharks (and their cousins, the rays) swim, while nearly all of the tetrapods (i.e., four limbed creatures who live on land) walk. But the same mutational capacity that enabled the first tetrapods’ pectoral and pelvic fins to evolve into a dizzying variety of limbs continues to enable tetrapods to evolve amazing adaptations with their limbs. Vertebrate flight has evolved three times (pterosaurs, birds, bats) while frogs and kangaroos hop and snakes and legless lizards slither limblessly. There are lizards and a number of mammals who glide. Pangolins go totally post-tetrapodal and curl up into an armored ball and hurl themselves down hillsides (the sort of thing that does not show up in cladistics.) A few tetrapods have even gone back to the ocean for good to swim again, the front limbs evolving again to pectoral fins, the backs legs disappearing entirely, as if four hundred million years of terrestrial evolution had all been some terrible mistake.

Yet the simple advantages of walking along rather than swimming over a shallow sea bottom (watch the video at about 25 seconds when the shark stops to peer into a cavity, looking or smelling for possible prey) apparently led this shark along a trail of mutation that eventually allows the thing to walk with ease. And it is extremely unusual for a shark. The range of design among sharks and rays is very minimal. Very few sharks don’t look very similar to other sharks. Rays look like rays. A Greenland shark is notorious for being so old and creepy and strange looking. But it looks very similar to almost all other sharks. An aquarium with nothing but sharks would be a pretty dull looking aquarium. They look a lot alike, they act a lot alike. Then we see a video of a epaulette shark walking along the ocean floor like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

A prowler of tidal zones, an epaulette shark can survive for hours in extremely low oxygen pools. It cannot breathe air, though, as mudskippers and lungfish do and our own water’s edge ancestors once did. Rather this shark has evolved a way to reduce blood flow in critical periods to all but the brain and heart. Handy, but a no go as a terrestrial adaptation. One needs to breathe air to make it on land. So this remarkable shark is no more like us than we are like it. It’s a marine animal who sometimes can stay on the edge of land for a couple hours, just as we are terrestrial animals who sometimes can swim with the fish for short periods.

But it was the combination of using fins to lift and carry across surfaces (i.e., walking) where swimming was difficult or impossible, with getting oxygen from the air via lungs (i.e., breathing) instead of taking oxygen from the water via gills, that made vertebrate land animals possible. (Insects were already there–doubtless tetrapods were eating them–but they had evolved from marine invertebrates, and our last common ancestor was somewhere deep in the Pre-Cambrian). There are over 30,000 species of tetrapods today–7,500 amphibian, 10,000 reptile, 10,000 bird and over 5,500 mammal species–and all remarkably seem to have come from one species of lobed finned fish that managed to combine both fin walking and air breathing, and had an unusual capacity for mutation in pectoral and pelvic fins. There was a wide range of these mutated fins at first–as many as eight digits on each fin–before the final five toes/fingers was arrived at. (Perhaps the occasional six toed kitten or baby are a mutational echo of that.) There seem to have been many species that could do so and apparently the lush and swampy Devonian shore line was rich enough in food and varied enough in niches a half billion years ago to allow evolution to run riot. But apparently only one of those species led to all the four footed or two footed and two armed or winged creatures breathing air today, including us. And while this beautiful little epaulette shark has nothing to do with any of our own evolution since the Devonian, as it is only very distantly related to any of us tetrapods, watching it trundle across the ocean floor does give a brief glimpse of what our own origins looked like nearly half a billion years ago.

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