Gnathostomes or “jaw-mouths” are vertebrates that have jaws and include both cartilaginous and bony fishes. One of the most significant developments in early vertebrate evolution was the origin of the jaw, which is a hinged structure attached to the cranium that allows an animal to grasp and tear its food. The evolution of jaws allowed early gnathostomes to exploit food resources that were unavailable to jawless fishes.
The clade Chondrichthyes, the cartilaginous fishes, is diverse, consisting of sharks (Figure 15.38), rays, and skates, together with sawfishes and a few dozen species of fishes called chimaeras, or ghost sharks. Chondrichthyes have paired fins and a skeleton made of cartilage. This clade arose approximately
370 million years ago in the middle Devonian. They are thought to have descended from an extinct group that had a skeleton made of bone; thus, the cartilaginous skeleton of Chondrichthyes is a later development. Parts of the shark skeleton are strengthened by granules of calcium carbonate, but this is not the same as bone.
Most cartilaginous fishes live in marine habitats, with a few species living in fresh water for some or all of their lives. Most sharks are carnivores that feed on live prey, either swallowing it whole or using their jaws and teeth to tear it into smaller pieces. Shark teeth likely evolved from the jagged scales that cover their skin. Some species of sharks and rays are suspension feeders that feed on plankton.
Sharks have well-developed sense organs that aid them in locating prey, including a keen sense of smell and electroreception, the latter being perhaps the most sensitive of any animal. Organs called ampullae of Lorenzini allow sharks to detect the electromagnetic fields that are produced by all living things, including their prey. Electroreception has only been observed in aquatic or amphibious animals. Sharks, together with most fishes, also have a sense organ called the lateralline, which is used to detect movement and vibration in the surrounding water, and a sense that is often considered homologous to “hearing” in terrestrial vertebrates. The lateral line is visible as a darker stripe that runs along the length of the fish’s body.
Sharks reproduce sexually and eggs are fertilized internally. Most species are ovoviviparous, that is, the fertilized egg is retained in the oviduct of the mother’s body, and the embryo is nourished by the egg yolk. The eggs hatch in the uterus and young are born alive and fully functional. Some species of sharks are oviparous: They lay eggs that hatch outside of the mother’s body. Embryos are protected by a shark egg case or “mermaid’s purse” that has the consistency of leather. The shark egg case has tentacles that snag in seaweed and give the newborn shark cover. A few species of sharks are viviparous, that is, the young develop within the mother’s body, and she gives live birth.
Rays and skates include more than 500 species and are closely related to sharks. They can be distinguished from sharks by their flattened bodies, pectoral fins that are enlarged and fused to the head, and gill slits on their ventral surface (Figure 15.38). Like sharks, rays and skates have a cartilaginous skeleton. Most species are marine and live on the sea floor, with nearly a worldwide distribution.