The following web-book contains a series of information pages broadly outlining the diversity of living vertebrates, with a few notes on their fossil relatives. Below is a collage of specimens from UCL's Grant Museum of Zoology illustrating the wide diversity covered in this web-book - from jawless vertebrates, sharks, and ray-finned fishes, to amphibians, reptiles, and mammals.

To download this resource as a single file, see the resource page on JORUM: http://dspace.jorum.ac.uk/xmlui/handle/123456789/17571
Also see the related resource Vertebrate Palaeontology and Evolution here: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/obl4he/vertebratepalaeo/index.html


The first page considers the lampreys - a clade of jawless vertebrates that are thought, based on analysis of their morphology, to be the group that first diverged from the remaining vertebrate clades.

Subsequent pages follow a structure that roughly reflects the evolutionary relationships (or phylogeny) between the higher level vertebrate groups - for example, the turtles, lizards, tuatara, crocodiles, and birds are all reptiles and, as such, their pages are clustered together. This structure need not imply any increase in complexity or morphological "progress" as one descends through the pages - indeed, every taxon discussed in this web-book is extant, meaning that it has some members that are still living, and are therefore also evolving under the selection pressures of their current environment. Rather, the structure reflects the greater focus of this web-book on those four-limbed vertebrates (tetrapods) whose ancestors colonised the terrestrial world in the Devonian swamps of nearly 400 million years ago - in particular the hair-covered, milk-producing mammals.

While the structure of the web-book may not always act as an accurate representation of the evolutionary history of vertebrates, the phylogenetic tree below illustrates how all the major vertebrate clades are thought to be related.

Adapted from Meyer & Zardoya (2003), this is a conservative estimate of vertebrate phylogeny, reflecting the prevailing consensus between morphological and molecular data. Conflict between morphology and molecules is manifest at the unresolved nodes, or polytomies - those nodes that are formed when greater than two branches coalesce.

For example, the most popular view of morphologists is that lampreys represent the closest living relatives of the jawed vertebrates (Gnathostomata), together forming the Vertebrata. This hypothesis excludes hagfishes from the vertebrates on the basis that they do not possess some of the derived morphological features shared by lampreys and gnathostomes - in particular, they lack a vertebral column. Instead, hagfishes are placed as the sister group to the vertebrates, together forming the Craniata (or craniates) - animals possessing a skull, or cranium. This view of craniate evolution makes the living jawless vertebrates, or agnathans, a paraphyletic group. This means that the jawless vertebrates do not form a natural (or monophyletic) grouping, as their most recent common ancestor is not unique to them - it is shared with the jawed vertebrates as well.

In contrast, molecular data tend to group the lampreys and hagfishes to the exclusion of the gnathostomes, making the living agnathans a monophyletic group termed Cyclostomi. Under the cyclostome hypothesis, it is presumed that the common ancestor of the cyclostomes and gnathostomes possessed a vertebral column, which was subsequently lost in the evolution of the hagfishes.

Despite the disparities between morphological and molecular data evident from the cladogram above, the evolutionary history of the vertebrates is fairly well resolved, with many major traditionally identified groupings persisting through recent advances in methods for phylogenetic inference and the advent of molecular systematics. Consequently, this tree should be used as a working guide while exploring the taxa described within the web-book, providing an evolutionary context that highlights the shared ancestry of the different vertebrate lineages, as well as helping to trace some of the evolutionary innovations that gave rise to the many different forms - including the origin of jaws, ossification of the endochondral skeleton, evolution of terrestrially adapted limbs, and the amniotic egg.


Disclaimer: 'Vertebrate Palaeontology and Evolution' was originally designed by UCL staff as an internal teaching resource. The subsequent release of 'Vertebrate Palaeontology and Evolution' as an OER means that any changes to the product received relative to the original content may not reflect the desires of UCL teaching staff, or the original quality of the resource.






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