Humans emerged due to 'mass fish extinction'

Humans may owe their place on the planet to a mass extinction of fish 360 million years ago, it was claimed.

The cataclysmic event reset the evolutionary starting point for all vertebrates living today, said US scientists.

If it had not occurred, humans and their ancestors may not have evolved - or could have evolved very differently.

Key features shared by all modern mammals, birds and reptiles - such as five-digit limbs - originated when life re-emerged after the mass extinction, the experts believe.

"Everything was hit, the extinction was global," said researcher Lauren Sallan from the University of Chicago. "It reset vertebrate diversity in every single environment, both freshwater and marine, and created a completely different world."

The Devonian Period, which stretched from 416 to 359 million years ago, is also known as the Age of Fishes.

A broad array of species filled the oceans, rivers and lakes, but most were unlike any alive today.

Armoured placoderms, such as monstrous 30-foot carnivore Dunkeosteus, and lobe-finned fishes similar to modern lungfish dominated the waters. Ray-finned fishes, sharks and four-limbed tetrapods were in the minority.

But the picture changed abruptly with the traumatic Hangenberg extinction.

"There's some sort of pinch at the end of the Devonian," said Professor Michael Coates, from the University of Chicago. "It's as if the roles persist, but the players change: the cast is transformed dramatically.

"Something happened that almost wiped the slate clean and, of the few stragglers that made it through, a handful then re-radiate spectacularly."

New fossil finds and analytical techniques brought to light the full impact of the Hangenberg event, said the scientists. The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What happened to trigger the mass extinction remains an unsolved mystery.

Other scientists found evidence of substantial glacier formation at the end of the Devonian which would have dramatically affected sea levels.

The first appearance of forest-like environments may also have produced atmospheric changes with catastrophic consequences for life.

"It is a pivotal episode that shaped modern vertebrate biodiversity," said Prof Coates. "We are only now beginning to place that important event in the history of life and the history of the planet, which we weren't able to do before."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test