Sarcopterygian Fishes, the “Lobe-Fins”

Part of the Fascinating Life Sciences book series (FLS)


Sarcopterygian fishes, the “lobe-fins”, are today represented by two species of coelacanth and six lungfishes. Lungfish are the closest living group to the tetrapods, the first four-footed terrestrial vertebrates and all of their descendants. However, when extinct groups are taken into account, the evolutionary history and relationships of the Sarcopterygii become much more complex. In addition to lungfishes and the coelacanth, this chapter will introduce you to groups now known exclusively from fossils such as “dagger-toothed” onychodonts and porolepiforms named so for the special pores in their scales. Furthermore, the fish-tetrapod transition occurred gradually with many stem-tetrapods (finned tetrapods) progressively acquiring characters that would later become fixed features of terrestrial vertebrates. Primitive sarcopterygians have skulls that are divided in two halves, a feature still observable in the coelacanth today but lost in lungfishes and tetrapods. Lobe-finned fishes have teeth made of dentine and enamel; early members also possessed a tissue called cosmine covering their skulls and scales. A large variety of dentitions are visible across the Sarcopterygii, such as the fearsome tooth whorls in onychodonts and porolepiforms, crushing tooth plates in lungfishes or dagger-like fangs in tetrapodomorphs. The first appearance of an inner ear bone (stapes), an internal nostril (choana) and separation of the skull and shoulder girdle to form a neck occurred within this group. The earliest tetrapodomorphs retained fins and were still fully aquatic and are known from the Early Devonian onwards.


Sarcopterygii Lungfish Coelacanth Stem-tetrapod Tetrapodomorph Onychodont Porolepiform 



Firstly I wish to thank John Long, Brian Choo and Min Zhu for their generous supply of images included in this chapter and Jing Lu for her helpful comments on the text of an earlier draft. I would also like to thank the editors, Janine Ziermann, Raul Diaz Jr, and Rui Diogo for the invitation to contribute this chapter. Two helpful reviews from John Long and Sébastian Olive improved the quality of the text.



A group of stem-chondrichthyans known as “spiny sharks” with bony spines preceding all their fins


A group of sarcopterygian fish commonly known as coelacanths


One of the major groups of bony fishes, comprising the vast majority of extant fish species, also known as “ray-finned fishes”

Adductor mandibulae/mandibular/muscle

The major jaw muscles


To spend a long period in torpor during hot or dry conditions (similar to hibernation)


A group of vertebrates that can lay eggs with an amnion (a membrane that covers the embryo), this group includes all reptiles, birds and mammals

Ampullae of Lorenzini

Special electroreceptive sense organs (jelly-filled pores) found commonly in cartilaginous fish (e.g., sharks, rays and chimaeras)

Articular bone

A bone that is part of the lower jaw in most vertebrates

Autostyly/autostylic jaw

A type of jaw suspension whereby the upper jaw is connected directly to the cranium

Basicranial muscle

Large muscles that span the intracranial joint and attach underneath the braincase that is activated during feeding


Also known as the “neurocranium”, this is the inner part of the skull that encases the brain


Meaning related to the gills


A geological period that occurred 299–359 million years ago


A type of connective tissue found in the body, it can be mineralized and form part of the skeleton, but it is not as hard as bone, but far stiffer than muscle


The geological era that occurred from 23 million years ago to the present


A unique internal nostril found in tetrapodomorphs which opens from the nasal sac into the roof of the mouth


A group of fish with their skeletons made primarily of cartilage rather than bone (e.g., sharks, rays and chimaeras)


A taxonomic rank in biological classification (e.g., Mammalia)


Division of the cells in the early embryo


Independent evolution of similar features in different lineages


A muscle found in coelacanths that elevates the palatoquadrate


A bone forming part of the lower jaw


A hard tissue present on the scales and dermal bones in primitive sarcopterygians that is composed of a mixture of enamel and dentine


A subdivision of the skull (that together with the mandible comprises the skull)

Cranial ribs

Paired structures that attach to the base of the braincase in some lungfishes, distinct from the pleural ribs


A geological period that occurred 66–145 million years ago


Bony struts supporting the skull roof in primitive lungfishes, allowing large spaces for attachment of jaw muscles


A special type of dentition found in porolepiforms whereby their fangs show a infolding of enamel and dentine


The main dermal bone of the lower jaw


A type of dentition seen in some early lungfishes whereby their buccal cavity is covered with a shagreen of small denticles (e.g., Griphognathus)


A calcified tissue of the body, one of the major components of teeth


A type of dentition seen in some early lungfishes whereby large areas within their buccal cavity are covered in very hard but usually smooth hypermineralised dentine patches


Arrangement or condition of teeth

Depressor mandibulae

A muscle used to open the jaw (in lungfishes)

Dermal skull

The skull roof, or roofing bones of the skull derived from dermal bone


A geological period that occurred 359–419 million years ago


A group of sarcopterygian fish commonly known as lungfishes


Feeding by crushing prey, usually hard-shelled animals


The biological ability to perceive electrical stimuli


A group of advanced stem-tetrapods such as Tiktaalik


The hardest type of calcified tissue of the body, one of the major components of teeth


Internal cast of a hollow object, such as the cavity inside the skull


Dorsal trunk body muscles


The front portion of the skull


Living or recent, not extinct


Paired median skull roof bones at the front of the skull in tetrapod-related taxa


A bony tissue homologous to enamel that is found in actinopterygians


An early phase of embryonic development


A muscle opening jaw found in the lungfish Neoceratodus


A muscle opening jaw found in the lepidosirenid lungfishes


The full genetic material of an organism


Jawed vertebrates

Gogo Formation

A geological formation and famous Devonian fossil site in North Western Australia


Shared ancestry between structures in different taxa


A bone derived from the second gill arch in fish, used during feeding and respiration


One of the jaw attachment bones in fishes that become incorporated into the inner ear of tetrapods


Ventral trunk body muscles


Highly mineralized


Meaning located below the gills

In vivo

Within a living organism

Inner ear

The portion of the ear located within the skull


A muscle used to help raise the jaw and hyoid in lungfishes


A muscle used to help raise the jaw and hyoid in lungfishes

Intracranial joint

The joint separating two divisions of the skull in early sarcopterygians and still present in the coelacanth




Teeth with a complex pattern of infolding of dentine and enamel found in some tetrapods

Lateral line

A sense organ of fishes running the length of their body to detect vibration and movement in the surrounding water


A member of the lepidosirenid family of lungfishes (Lepidosiren and Protopterus, but not Neoceratodus)

Levator hyoideus

A muscle used to help raise the jaw and hyoid in lungfishes

Lip retractor

Muscles used to control the lips in lepidosirenid lungfishes


A taxonomic group that includes all modern (crown group) amphibians but excludes stem members


Lower jaw


An upper jaw bone

Mesozoic Era

A geological Era that occurred 66–252 million years ago


A biological process whereby an animal’s body undergoes conspicuous change and development after birth


A cladistic term used to characterise a clade of organisms that share derived characters (synapomoprhies)

Neural crest

A temporary group of cells that give rise to a diverse range of cells in the body, unique to vertebrates


A group of extinct basal sarcopterygian fish related to Coelacanths

Opercular bones

A bony flap covering the gills in fishes


Meaning bony/bones


The “bony fishes” are a superclass that includes all Actinopterygii and Sarcopterygii


A paraphyletic assemblage of finned stem-tetrapods from the Devonian Period (e.g., Eusthenopteron)


The rear portion of the skull


Live-bearing, embryos develop inside eggs that remain within the mother’s body


The retention of juvenile traits into adulthood, or “juvenilisation”, a type of heterochrony

Palaeozoic Era

A geological Era that occurred 252–541 million years ago


Endoskeletal part of the upper jaw


A median (often with teeth) bone of the palate in fishes

Parietal shield

A set of dermal bones covering the dorsal surface of the anterior half of the skull


Paired skull bones that enclose the pineal region in fishes and tetrapods

Pectoral girdle

Shoulder girdle


The geological period that occurred 252–299 million years ago

Phylogenetic position/phylogeny

Inferred evolutionary relationships among taxa based on differences and similarities in their physical or genetic characteristics


An extinct group of fishes that were dominant during the Devonian with thick plated “armour” covering their bodies


Referring to the body, especially around the chest cavity


A group of extinct sarcopterygian fishes closely related to lungfishes


All parts of the skeleton apart from the skull


Paired median skull roof bones situated towards the rear


An upper jaw bone situated in front of the maxilla


A dermal cheekbone situated in front of the operculum


The area of a skull situated in front of the eyes (orbits)


A bone in the skull that contributes to the jaw joint


A cheekbone found in some fishes

Rectus cervicis

A muscle used to open the jaw (in lungfishes)


A monophyletic group of stem-tetrapods that reached huge sizes during the Palaeozoic

Rostral organ

A large sensory organ in the snout of coelacanths

Rostral tubuli

Network of small, bony tubules throughout the snout in some sarcopterygian fishes


One of the major groups of bony fishes that include lungfish, coelacanths and tetrapods, also known as “lobe-finned fishes”


A geological period that occurred 419–444 million years ago

Sister taxa/group

The closest relatives of another taxon/group in a phylogenetic tree

Skull roof

The roofing bones of the skull derived from dermal bone

Spiracular openings/slits

Openings on the top of the skull in some fishes and tetrapods, thought to be involved in accessory air breathing


A cheekbone found in some fishes


A bone of the inner ear found in tetrapods

Stem group

A phylogenetic term meaning members of a total group that are excluded from the crown group


A type of fibrous joint between bones of the skull

Tandem jaw joint

A specialised jaw arrangement found in coelacanths whereby the lower jaw is attached via two joints on each side of the head


Live predominantly on land (rather than in water)


Meaning “four-footed-like” and this includes finned and limbed forms that are more closely related to living tetrapods than to living lungfishes


“Four-footed” vertebrates with digit-bearing limbs and all of their descendants

Tooth whorl

A distinctive type of dentition found in some sarcopterygian fishes


Those lungfishes with tooth plates rather than denticulated or dentine-plated dentition


Pertaining to position or region


A group of amphibians that includes salamanders


Carrying blood within the body, part of the circulatory system


All animals with a backbone (including fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals)


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Biological Sciences, College of Science and EngineeringFlinders UniversityAdelaideAustralia

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