Researchers Trace Face’s Evolutionary Transformation

Posted February 12th, 2014 at 6:40 pm (UTC-4)

(National Cancer Institute)

(National Cancer Institute)

When you examine your face in the mirror, do you ever wonder how the most unique and identifying part of your body originated and developed?

Writing in a new study published in Nature, a team of French and Swedish researchers offers new fossil evidence that just might explain why we have protruding noses with two nostrils, rather than one big hole between our eyes.

Using special high-powered X-ray imaging equipment, researchers studied a series of fish fossils that ranged in age from ancient to a bit more recent. In the middle of that series of fossils was the skull of a 410-million-year-old, long-extinct species called Romundina a member of the Placoderm (armored fish) class of fish from the Devonian period – 419.2 to 358.9 million years ago.

Scientists know vertebrates evolved from jawless species into those with jaws. Researchers describe this structural transformation as dramatic, causing the face to effectively turn inside out.

Most of today’s vertebrates have jaws; the only species that don’t are lamprey (eels) and hagfishes.

By placing the Romundina in the middle of their fossil sequence, between more primitive and advanced species, researchers were able to map out the main steps of the transition between jawless and jawed vertebrates.

They noted that as the embryos of jawless vertebrates developed, blocks of tissue grew forward on each side of the brain, where they met in the mid-front of the face and formed a big upper lip that surrounded one centrally located nostril just in front of the eyes.

3D reconstruction of the skull the fish Romundina showing a mixture of facial structures found in both jawless and jawed vertebrates. (Vincent Dupret, Uppsala University/Nature)

3D reconstruction of the skull the fish Romundina showing a mixture of facial structures found in both jawless and jawed vertebrates. (Vincent Dupret, Uppsala University/Nature)

For jawed vertebrates, they found that this same tissue grew forward just under the brain but then pushed its way between the fish’s left and right nasal sacs, which opened to the outside independently of each other.

The researchers say that this particular evolutionary change is why our faces have two nostrils instead of one big hole in the middle like the jawless vertebrates. And, the reason why our nose is located at the front of our face is because the brain of jawed vertebrates also happens to be much longer than the jawless; otherwise our nose would be positioned much further back between our eyes.

Up until they released their findings, the French and Swedish research team said that very little was known about the intermediate steps of the transformation between jawless and jawed vertebrates.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

14 responses to “Researchers Trace Face’s Evolutionary Transformation”

  1. John Kerr says:

    “very little was known about the intermediate steps”, “By placing the Romundina in the middle of their fossil sequence” — more fanciful attempts to push evolution while denying the overwhelming evidence of design by intelligence. Please consider this quote from Michael Behe – “Molecular evolution is not based on scientific authority,” he wrote. “There is no publication in the scientific literature—in prestigious journals, specialty journals, or books—that describes how molecular evolution of any real, complex, biochemical system either did occur or even might have occurred. . . . The assertion of Darwinian molecular evolution is merely bluster.”

    • Daniel M says:

      Thank you John, as a University student I receive daily reinforcement from lecturers that Darwinism is indisputable fact. However, from what I have read I am increasingly of the opinion that the theory of evolution can’t work without including Intelligent design. I think if we are to pursue real science then we should not exclude any possibility.

    • Frank says:

      Actually there IS a publication that shows molecular evolution in e. coli development and spontaneous generation of Citrate metabolism. You can find it, and other relevant publications here:

    • Saros says:

      The most obvious argument against intelligent design is if there’s an intelligent designer, he must have graduated at the bottom of his class.

      Who puts a tree filled with beautiful but deadly fruit, unprotected except by a devious talking snake, in the middle of a beautiful garden, and then leaves to let things happen as they may. Today he would be tried and convicted for criminally negligent manslaughter. “Intelligent Design” pffft. I’d be willing to accept “Buffoonish Design” AT BEST.

  2. John Kerr says:

    Thank you Daniel for at least acknowledging the possibility of Intelligent design. (we were all subject to the mantra of ‘indisputable fact’ but as you are no doubt well aware much of evolutionary theory is in dispute by the proponents themselves unable to agree on the exact mechanism/s. It is also noteworthy that even the ‘great’ men of science such as Newton, Einstein and Galileo were open to the idea of an superior intelligence/God. Sadly much of the so called scientific method today excludes the possibility of a master designer in favor of blind chance.

  3. Stan Davidson says:

    Lolz. Really? Michael Behe who’s own faculty disavows his fringe views is your go to source? Sure, ignore the 99% of scientists and body of work and instead go with the Kenn Ham crowd. America is dying because of intellectual laziness. You are part of the problem.

  4. kcdoodle says:

    Very amusing how the 3-D graphic closely resembles the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    It makes me want to drop science and believe in this “new religion”

  5. Bruce Hall says:

    Have any of you considered that DNA could represent the “intelligent” portion of design [although it could be “accidental” just as well]? It is much more reasonable to consider “intelligence” as the ability to grow and adapt rather than simply an arbitrary assignment of characteristics and abilities.

    So, why have a world where species disappear if the assignment was correct? The devil made them do it? Come on folks, show some intelligence.

  6. Robert says:

    It’s been reported that about one third of Americans do NOT accept evolution, while in western countries it is accepted reality among most citizens.

    Evolution is based on the scientific process whereby theories are presented and left open for challenge from other scientists; this happens at all levels and in all disciplines, down to the microscopic and across animals, plants and microbes. On a simple level, evolution is demonstrated every year when we get a new form of the flu, which is just an old flu with a random genetic change that makes it immune to last year’s vaccine.

    Religion in all it’s form fails to keep up because it does NOT have a scientific discipline, it does NOT allow for questioning and demands absolute FAITH, not in testable facts but in a long history of traditions and documents that cannot be proven. The old testament is a collection of tribal tales dating to the late iron age and which were not even written down for eons. Even the new testament was not written down for over fifty years AFTER the events; today we know it is difficult to get a decent, accurate eye witness report the day after an event. Beyond that, there were many alternative versions of events, in the age of the new testaments, that were deemed unacceptable, banned and destroyed by the male leaders of the early christian church.

  7. Tech says:

    Amazingly such things are said in Hindu Shastras. When I hear about global flooding towards the end of world and human was from a fish, I tend to have more faith in great literatures written in copper plates by Hindu saints in ancient times. Amazing, how they found out these without scientific research. Now, this opens a question in science about what is spirituality?

  8. John Kerr says:

    Who said anything about religion?? The fact remains that design requires a designer. Everything has a maker. The law of ’cause and effect’ cannot be denied. You have heard of Isaac Newton, Einstein, Comenius and Galileo – these men did not deny the possibility of intelligence being responsible for ‘creation- did they? We are not greater than these men are we? But if we could get all the best ‘brains’ in the world together from all science disciplines ; still we could not produce a single blade of grass. When it is all boiled down we are left with two things- Stuff and intelligence. Now could the stuff make the intelligence or the Intelligence make the stuff?? The answer is obvious to those with an open mind.

    • Saros says:

      If a star can form from random gas, galaxies from random stars, and a snowflake can self arrange from freezing water, all lowering the entropy of the overall system, who’s to say a molecule capable of self replication couldn’t also randomly self arrange, and eventually a cell, and so on.