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Earliest Vertebrates

Vertebrates comprise all species of animals within the subphylum Vertebrata (chordates with backbones).

Vertebrates represent the overwhelming majority of the phylum Chordata, with currently about 69,276 species described. Vertebrates include the jawless fish and the jawed vertebrates, which include the cartilaginous fishes (sharks, rays, and ratfish) and the bony fishes.


A bony fish clade known as the lobe-finned fishes is included with tetrapods, which are further divided into amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Extant vertebrates range in size from the frog species Paedophryne amauensis, at as little as 7.7 mm (0.30 in), to the blue whale, at up to 33 m (108 ft). Vertebrates make up less than five percent of all described animal species; the rest are invertebrates, which lack vertebral columns.


FIRST VERTEBRATES

The early vertebrate Haikouichthys

Vertebrates originated about 525 million years ago during the Cambrian explosion, which saw the rise in organism diversity. The earliest known vertebrate is believed to be the Myllokunmingia. Another early vertebrate is Haikouichthys ercaicunensis. Unlike the other fauna that dominated the Cambrian, these groups had the basic vertebrate body plan: a notochord, rudimentary vertebrae, and a well-defined head and tail.All of these early vertebrates lacked jaws in the common sense and relied on filter feeding close to the seabed. A vertebrate group of uncertain phylogeny, small-eel-like conodonts, are known from microfossils of their paired tooth segments from the late Cambrian to the end of the Triassic.


FROM FISH TO AMPHIBIANS

Acanthostega, a fish-like early labyrinthodont.

The first jawed vertebrates appeared in the latest Ordovician and became common in the Devonian, often known as the "Age of Fishes". The two groups of bony fishes, the actinopterygii and sarcopterygii, evolved and became common. The Devonian also saw the demise of virtually all jawless fishes, save for lampreys and hagfish, as well as the Placodermi, a group of armoured fish that dominated the entirety of that period since the late Silurian. The Devonian also saw the rise of the first labyrinthodonts, which was a transitional form between fishes and amphibians.


MESOZOIC VERTEBRATES

Amniotes branched from labyrinthodonts in the subsequent Carboniferous period. The Parareptilia and synapsid amniotes were common during the late Paleozoic, while diapsids became dominant during the Mesozoic. In the sea, the bony fishes became dominant; the birds, a derived form of dinosaurs, evolved in the Jurassic.

The demise of the non-avian dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous allowed for the expansion of mammals, which had evolved from the therapsids, a group of synapsid amniotes, during the late Triassic Period.


AFTER THE MESOZOIC

The Cenozoic world has seen great diversification of bony fishes, frogs, birds and mammals.


Over half of all living vertebrate species (about 32,000 species) are fish (non-tetrapod craniates), a diverse set of lineages that inhabit all the world's aquatic ecosystems, from snow minnows (Cypriniformes) in Himalayan lakes at elevations over 4,600 metres (15,100 feet) to flatfishes (order Pleuronectiformes) in the Challenger Deep, the deepest ocean trench at about 11,000 metres (36,000 feet). Fishes of myriad varieties are the main predators in most of the world's water bodies, both freshwater and marine. The rest of the vertebrate species are tetrapods, a single lineage that includes amphibians (with roughly 7,000 species); mammals (with approximately 5,500 species); and reptiles and birds (with about 20,000 species divided evenly between the two classes). Tetrapods comprise the dominant megafauna of most terrestrial environments and also include many partially or fully aquatic groups (e.g., sea snakes, penguins, cetaceans).



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