Baucon, A., Ferretti, A., Fioroni, C., Pandolfi, L., Serpagli, E., Piccinini, A., Neto de Carvalho, C., Cachão, M., Linley, T., Muñiz, F., Belaústegui, Z., Jamieson, A., Lo Russo, G., Guerrini, F., Ferrando, S., Priede, I. (2023). The earliest evidence of deep-sea vertebrates. PNAS 120
Vertebrate macroevolution has been punctuated by fundamental habitat transitions from shallow marine origins to terrestrial, freshwater, and aerial environments. Invasion of the deep sea is a less well-known ecological shift because of low fossilization potential and continual loss of abyssal fossil record by ocean floor subduction. Therefore, there has been a lack of convincing evidence of bottom-living vertebrates from pre-Paleogene deep seas. Here, we describe trace fossils from abyssal plain turbidites of the Tethys Ocean, which, combined with nannofossil dating, indicate that fishes have occupied the deep seafloor since at least the Early Cretaceous (Hauterivian–Barremian). These structures are identical to those produced by modern demersal fishes that feed by either scratching the substrate or expose their prey by water flow generated by suction or jetting. The trace fossils suggest activity of at least three fish species exploiting a productive abyssal invertebrate sediment fauna. These observations are consistent with Early Cretaceous vertebrate transition to the deep sea triggered by the availability of new food sources. Our results anticipate the appearance of deep-seafloor fishes in the fossil record by over 80 My while reassessing the mode of vertebrate colonization of the deep sea.