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Cartilaginous fishes
Temporal range: 430–0  Ma [1] [2]
Late Silurian to Present
Example of cartilaginous fishes: Elasmobranchii at the top of the image and Holocephali at the bottom of the image.
Scientific classification Red Pencil Icon.png
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Infraphylum: Gnathostomata
Clade: Eugnathostomata
Class: Chondrichthyes
Huxley, 1880
Living subclasses and orders

Chondrichthyes ( /kɒnˈdrɪkθi.z/ ; from Ancient Greek χόνδρος (khóndros) 'cartilage',and ἰχθύς (ikhthús) 'fish') is a class that contains the cartilaginous fishes that have skeletons primarily composed of cartilage. They can be contrasted with the Osteichthyes or bony fishes, which have skeletons primarily composed of bone tissue. Chondrichthyes are jawed vertebrates with paired fins, paired nares, scales, and a heart with its chambers in series. Extant chondrichthyes range in size from the 10 cm (3.9 in) finless sleeper ray to the 10 m (32 ft) whale shark.


The class is divided into two subclasses: Elasmobranchii (sharks, rays, skates, and sawfish) and Holocephali (chimaeras, sometimes called ghost sharks, which are sometimes separated into their own class).

Within the infraphylum Gnathostomata, cartilaginous fishes are distinct from all other jawed vertebrates.



The skeleton is cartilaginous. The notochord is gradually replaced by a vertebral column during development, except in Holocephali, where the notochord stays intact. In some deepwater sharks, the column is reduced. [3]

As they do not have bone marrow, red blood cells are produced in the spleen and the epigonal organ (special tissue around the gonads, which is also thought to play a role in the immune system). They are also produced in the Leydig's organ, which is only found in certain cartilaginous fishes. The subclass Holocephali, which is a very specialized group, lacks both the Leydig's and epigonal organs.


Apart from electric rays, which have a thick and flabby body, with soft, loose skin, chondrichthyans have tough skin covered with dermal teeth (again, Holocephali is an exception, as the teeth are lost in adults, only kept on the clasping organ seen on the caudal ventral surface of the male), also called placoid scales (or dermal denticles), making it feel like sandpaper. In most species, all dermal denticles are oriented in one direction, making the skin feel very smooth if rubbed in one direction and very rough if rubbed in the other.

Originally, the pectoral and pelvic girdles, which do not contain any dermal elements, did not connect. In later forms, each pair of fins became ventrally connected in the middle when scapulocoracoid and puboischiadic bars evolved. In rays, the pectoral fins are connected to the head and are very flexible.

One of the primary characteristics present in most sharks is the heterocercal tail, which aids in locomotion. [4]

Body covering

Chondrichthyans have tooth-like scales called dermal denticles or placoid scales. Denticles usually provide protection, and in most cases, streamlining. Mucous glands exist in some species, as well.

It is assumed that their oral teeth evolved from dermal denticles that migrated into the mouth, but it could be the other way around, as the teleost bony fish Denticeps clupeoides has most of its head covered by dermal teeth (as does, probably, Atherion elymus , another bony fish). This is most likely a secondary evolved characteristic, which means there is not necessarily a connection between the teeth and the original dermal scales.

The old placoderms did not have teeth at all, but had sharp bony plates in their mouth. Thus, it is unknown whether the dermal or oral teeth evolved first. It has even been suggested[ by whom? ] that the original bony plates of all vertebrates are now gone and that the present scales are just modified teeth, even if both the teeth and body armor had a common origin a long time ago. However, there is currently no evidence of this.

Respiratory system

All chondrichthyans breathe through five to seven pairs of gills, depending on the species. In general, pelagic species must keep swimming to keep oxygenated water moving through their gills, whilst demersal species can actively pump water in through their spiracles and out through their gills. However, this is only a general rule and many species differ.

A spiracle is a small hole found behind each eye. These can be tiny and circular, such as found on the nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum), to extended and slit-like, such as found on the wobbegongs (Orectolobidae). Many larger, pelagic species, such as the mackerel sharks (Lamnidae) and the thresher sharks (Alopiidae), no longer possess them.

Nervous system

Regions of a Chondrichthyes brain colored and labeled on dissected skate. The rostral end of the skate is to the right. Skate Brain Regions.png
Regions of a Chondrichthyes brain colored and labeled on dissected skate. The rostral end of the skate is to the right.

In chondrichthyans, the nervous system is composed of a small brain, 8-10 pairs of cranial nerves, and a spinal chord with spinal nerves. [5] They have several sensory organs which provide information to be processed. Ampullae of Lorenzini are a network of small jelly filled pores called electroreceptors which help the fish sense electric fields in water. This aids in finding prey, navigation, and sensing temperature. The Lateral line system has modified epithelial cells located externally which sense motion, vibration, and pressure in the water around them. Most species have large well-developed eyes. Also, they have very powerful nostrils and olfactory organs. Their inner ears consist of 3 large semicircular canals which aid in balance and orientation. Their sound detecting apparatus has limited range and is typically more powerful at lower frequencies. Some species have electric organs which can be used for defense and predation. They have relatively simple brains with the forebrain not greatly enlarged. The structure and formation of myelin in their nervous systems are nearly identical to that of tetrapods, which has led evolutionary biologists to believe that Chondrichthyes were a cornerstone group in the evolutionary timeline of myelin development. [6]

Immune system

Like all other jawed vertebrates, members of Chondrichthyes have an adaptive immune system. [7]


Fertilization is internal. Development is usually live birth (ovoviviparous species) but can be through eggs (oviparous). Some rare species are viviparous. There is no parental care after birth; however, some chondrichthyans do guard their eggs.

Capture-induced premature birth and abortion (collectively called capture-induced parturition) occurs frequently in sharks/rays when fished. [8] Capture-induced parturition is often mistaken for natural birth by recreational fishers and is rarely considered in commercial fisheries management despite being shown to occur in at least 12% of live bearing sharks and rays (88 species to date). [8]


The class Chondrichthyes has two subclasses: the subclass Elasmobranchii (sharks, rays, skates, and sawfish) and the subclass Holocephali (chimaeras). To see the full list of the species, click here.

Subclasses of cartilaginous fishes
Elasmobranchii White shark (Duane Raver).png
Myliobatis aquila sasraja.jpg
Elasmobranchii is a subclass that includes the sharks and the rays and skates. Members of the elasmobranchii have no swim bladders, five to seven pairs of gill clefts opening individually to the exterior, rigid dorsal fins, and small placoid scales. The teeth are in several series; the upper jaw is not fused to the cranium, and the lower jaw is articulated with the upper. The eyes have a tapetum lucidum. The inner margin of each pelvic fin in the male fish is grooved to constitute a clasper for the transmission of sperm. These fish are widely distributed in tropical and temperate waters. [9]
Holocephali Chimaera monstrosa1.jpg Holocephali (complete-heads) is a subclass of which the order Chimaeriformes is the only surviving group. This group includes the rat fishes (e.g., Chimaera ), rabbit-fishes (e.g., Hydrolagus ) and elephant-fishes ( Callorhynchus ). Today, they preserve some features of elasmobranch life in Paleaozoic times, though in other respects they are aberrant. They live close to the bottom and feed on molluscs and other invertebrates. The tail is long and thin and they move by sweeping movements of the large pectoral fins. There is an erectile spine in front of the dorsal fin, sometimes poisonous. There is no stomach (that is, the gut is simplified and the 'stomach' is merged with the intestine), and the mouth is a small aperture surrounded by lips, giving the head a parrot-like appearance.

The fossil record of the Holocephali starts in the Devonian period. The record is extensive, but most fossils are teeth, and the body forms of numerous species are not known, or at best poorly understood.

Extant orders of cartilaginous fishes
GroupOrderImageCommon nameAuthorityFamiliesGeneraSpeciesNote
Total CR IUCN 3 1.svg EN IUCN 3 1.svg VU IUCN 3 1.svg
Carcharhiniformes Sphyrna mokarran at georgia.jpg ground
Compagno, 1977851>27071021
Heterodontiformes Hornhai (Heterodontus francisci).JPG bullhead
L. S. Berg, 1940119
Lamniformes White shark.jpg mackerel
L. S. Berg, 19587
+2 extinct
Orectolobiformes Whale shark Georgia aquarium.jpg carpet
Applegate, 1972713437
Hexanchiformes Hexanchus griseus Gervais.jpg frilled
cow sharks
de Buen, 19262
+3 extinct
+11 extinct
+33 extinct
Pristiophoriformes Pristiophorus japonicus cropped.jpg sawsharks L. S. Berg, 1958126
Squaliformes Spiny dogfish.jpg dogfish
Goodrich, 190972312616
Squatiniformes Squatina angelus - Gervais.jpg angel
Buen, 19261124345
Rays Myliobatiformes Myliobatis aquila sasraja.jpg stingrays
Compagno, 1973102922311633
Rhinopristiformes Sawfish genova.jpg sawfishes 125-75-7
Rajiformes Amblyraja hyperborea1.jpg skates
L. S. Berg, 1940536>27041226
Torpediniformes Torpedo torpedo corsica2.jpg electric
de Buen, 19262126929
Holocephali Chimaeriformes Chimaera mon.JPG chimaera Obruchev, 19533
+2 extinct
+3 extinct
+17 extinct


Radiation of cartilaginous fishes, based on Michael Benton, 2005. Evolution of cartilaginous fishes.png
Radiation of cartilaginous fishes, based on Michael Benton, 2005.

Cartilaginous fish are considered to have evolved from acanthodians.The discovery of Entelognathus and several examinations of acanthodian characteristics indicate that bony fish evolved directly from placoderm like ancestors, while acanthodians represent a paraphyletic assemblage leading to Chondrichthyes. Some characteristics previously thought to be exclusive to acanthodians are also present in basal cartilaginous fish. [13] In particular, new phylogenetic studies find cartilaginous fish to be well nested among acanthodians, with Doliodus and Tamiobatis being the closest relatives to Chondrichthyes. [14] Recent studies vindicate this, as Doliodus had a mosaic of chondrichthyan and acanthodian traits. [15] A lower Silurian taxon, Fanjingshania renovata [16] , assigned to Climatiiformes [16] is the oldest chondrichthyan with known anatomical features.

Dating back to the Middle and Late Ordovician Period, many isolated scales, made of dentine and bone, have a structure and growth form that is chondrichthyan-like. They may be the remains of stem-chondrichthyans, but their classification remains uncertain. [17] [18] [19]

The earliest unequivocal fossils of cartilaginous fishes first appeared in the fossil record by about 430 million years ago, during the middle Wenlock Epoch of the Silurian period. [20] The radiation of elasmobranches in the chart on the right is divided into the taxa: Cladoselache , Eugeneodontiformes, Symmoriida, Xenacanthiformes, Ctenacanthiformes, Hybodontiformes, Galeomorphi, Squaliformes and Batoidea.

By the start of the Early Devonian, 419 million years ago, jawed fishes had divided into three distinct groups: the now extinct placoderms (a paraphyletic assemblage of ancient armoured fishes), the bony fishes, and the clade that includes spiny sharks and early cartilaginous fish. The modern bony fishes, class Osteichthyes, appeared in the late Silurian or early Devonian, about 416 million years ago. The first abundant genus of shark, Cladoselache , appeared in the oceans during the Devonian Period. The first Cartilaginous fishes evolved from Doliodus -like spiny shark ancestors.

Extinct orders of cartilaginous fishes
GroupOrderImageCommon nameAuthorityFamiliesGeneraSpeciesNote
Holocephali †Orodontiformes Orodus sp1DB.jpg
†Petalodontiformes Belantsea montana.JPG
†Iniopterygiformes Iniopteryxrushlaui.JPG
†Symmoriida Stethacanthus BW.jpg [21]
†Eugeneodontida Helicoprion reccon.png [22]
Position uncertain
Chondrenchelys problematica.jpg
†Menaspiformes MenaspidDB17.jpg
Other †Squatinactiformes Squatinactis NT small.jpg
Early Shark.jpg
†Xenacanthiformes Triodus1db.jpg
†Hybodontiformes Hybodus model.jpg


Subphylum  Vertebrata  └─Infraphylum Gnathostomata       ├─Placodermiextinct (armored gnathostomes)       └ Eugnathostomata  (true jawed vertebrates)          ├─Acanthodii (stem cartilaginous fish)          └─Chondrichthyes (true cartilaginous fish)              ├─Holocephali (chimaeras + several extinct clades)              └Elasmobranchii (shark and rays)                 ├─Selachii (true sharks)                 └─Batoidea (rays and relatives)


See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gnathostomata</span> Infraphylum of vertebrates

Gnathostomata are the jawed vertebrates. Gnathostome diversity comprises roughly 60,000 species, which accounts for 99% of all living vertebrates, including humans. In addition to opposing jaws, living gnathostomes have true teeth, paired appendages, the elastomeric protein of elastin, and a horizontal semicircular canal of the inner ear, along with physiological and cellular anatomical characters such as the myelin sheaths of neurons, and an adaptive immune system that has the discrete lymphoid organs of spleen and thymus, and uses V(D)J recombination to create antigen recognition sites, rather than using genetic recombination in the variable lymphocyte receptor gene.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chimaera</span> Cartilaginous fish in the order Chimaeriformes

Chimaeras are cartilaginous fish in the order Chimaeriformes, known informally as ghost sharks, rat fish, spookfish, or rabbit fish; the last three names are not to be confused with rattails, Opisthoproctidae, or Siganidae, respectively.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Elasmobranchii</span> Subclass of fishes

Elasmobranchii is a subclass of Chondrichthyes or cartilaginous fish, including sharks, rays, skates, and sawfish. Members of this subclass are characterised by having five to seven pairs of gill clefts opening individually to the exterior, rigid dorsal fins and small placoid scales on the skin. The teeth are in several series; the upper jaw is not fused to the cranium, and the lower jaw is articulated with the upper. The details of this jaw anatomy vary between species, and help distinguish the different elasmobranch clades. The pelvic fins in males are modified to create claspers for the transfer of sperm. There is no swim bladder; instead, these fish maintain buoyancy with large livers rich in oil.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Acanthodii</span> Class of fishes (fossil)

Acanthodii or acanthodians is an extinct class of gnathostomes, typically considered a paraphyletic group. They are currently considered to represent a grade of various fish lineages leading up to the extant Chondrichthyes, which includes living sharks, rays, and chimaeras. Acanthodians possess a mosaic of features shared with both osteichthyans and chondrichthyans. In general body shape, they were similar to modern sharks, but their epidermis was covered with tiny rhomboid platelets like the scales of holosteians. Paraphyletic groupings are problematic, as one can not talk precisely about their phylogenic relationships, their characteristic traits and literal extinction. A lower Silurian species, Fanjingshania renovata, attributed to Climatiiformes is the oldest chondrichthyan with known anatomical features.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Holocephali</span> Subclass of cartilagenous fish

Holocephali, sometimes given the term Euchondrocephali, is a subclass of cartilaginous fish in the class Chondrichthyes. The earliest fossils are of teeth and come from the Devonian period. Little is known about these primitive forms, and the only surviving group in the subclass is the order Chimaeriformes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Placodermi</span> Class of fishes (fossil)

Placodermi is a class of armoured prehistoric fish, known from fossils, which lived from the Silurian to the end of the Devonian period. Their head and thorax were covered by articulated armoured plates and the rest of the body was scaled or naked, depending on the species. Placoderms were among the first jawed fish; their jaws likely evolved from the first of their gill arches.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Teleostomi</span> Clade of jawed vertebrates

Teleostomi is an obsolete clade of jawed vertebrates that supposedly includes the tetrapods, bony fish, and the wholly extinct acanthodian fish. Key characters of this group include an operculum and a single pair of respiratory openings, features which were lost or modified in some later representatives. The teleostomes include all jawed vertebrates except the chondrichthyans and the extinct class Placodermi.


Cladoselache is an extinct genus of shark-like chondrichthyan from the Late Devonian (Famennian) of North America. Growing to several meters in length, it is considered to have been a fast-moving and fairly agile marine predator due to its streamlined body and deeply forked tail. Cladoselache is one of the best known of the early chondrichthyans in part due to an abundance of well preserved fossils, discovered in the Cleveland Shale on the south shore of Lake Erie. In addition to the skeleton, the fossils were so well preserved that they included traces of skin, muscle fibers, and internal organs, such as the kidneys.

<i>Stethacanthus</i> Extinct genus of cartilaginous fishes

Stethacanthus is an extinct genus of shark-like holocephalians which lived from the Late Devonian to Late Carboniferous epoch, dying out around 298.9 million years ago. Fossils have been found in Asia, Europe and North America.

<i>Acanthodes</i> Genus of cartilaginous fishes

Acanthodes is an extinct genus of spiny shark. Fossils have been found in Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia. Acanthodes was most common in the Carboniferous and Early Permian. A few putative species have been reported from Devonian strata, but their referral to the genus may not be valid.

<i>Psarolepis</i> Extinct genus of fishes

Psarolepis is a genus of extinct bony fish which lived around 397 to 418 million years ago. Fossils of Psarolepis have been found mainly in South China and described by paleontologist Xiaobo Yu in 1998. It is not known certainly in which group Psarolepis belongs, but paleontologists agree that it probably is a basal genus and seems to be close to the common ancestor of lobe-finned and ray-finned fishes. In 2001, paleontologist John A. Long compared Psarolepis with onychodontiform fishes and refer to their relationships.

Andreolepis is an extinct genus of prehistoric fish, which lived around 420 million years ago. It was described by Walter Gross in 1968 based on scales found in the Hemse Formation in Gotland, Sweden. It is placed in the monogeneric family Andreolepididae and is generally regarded as a primitive member of the class Actinopterygii based on its ganoid scale structure; however some new research regards it as a stem group of osteichthyans.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fish scale</span> Rigid covering growing atop a fishs skin

A fish scale is a small rigid plate that grows out of the skin of a fish. The skin of most jawed fishes is covered with these protective scales, which can also provide effective camouflage through the use of reflection and colouration, as well as possible hydrodynamic advantages. The term scale derives from the Old French escale, meaning a shell pod or husk.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fish jaw</span>

Most bony fishes have two sets of jaws made mainly of bone. The primary oral jaws open and close the mouth, and a second set of pharyngeal jaws are positioned at the back of the throat. The oral jaws are used to capture and manipulate prey by biting and crushing. The pharyngeal jaws, so-called because they are positioned within the pharynx, are used to further process the food and move it from the mouth to the stomach.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Evolution of fish</span> Origin and diversification of fish through geologic time

The evolution of fish began about 530 million years ago during the Cambrian explosion. It was during this time that the early chordates developed the skull and the vertebral column, leading to the first craniates and vertebrates. The first fish lineages belong to the Agnatha, or jawless fish. Early examples include Haikouichthys. During the late Cambrian, eel-like jawless fish called the conodonts, and small mostly armoured fish known as ostracoderms, first appeared. Most jawless fish are now extinct; but the extant lampreys may approximate ancient pre-jawed fish. Lampreys belong to the Cyclostomata, which includes the extant hagfish, and this group may have split early on from other agnathans.

<i>Entelognathus</i> Placoderm fish from the late Ludlow epoch of the Silurian period

Entelognathus primordialis is a maxillate placoderm from the late Silurian of Qujing, Yunnan, 419 million years ago.

Gogoselachus is an extinct genus of cartilaginous fish known from the late Devonian of Australia. It is one of the earliest well-preserved Devonian chondrichthyans, as much more of the fish than just teeth and scales were preserved. This rare preservation reveals some unique discoveries about the evolution of the cartilage that was inside later cartilaginous fish such as sharks, rays, and chimaeras.

This list of fossil fishes described in 2017 is a list of new taxa of jawless vertebrates, placoderms, acanthodians, fossil cartilaginous fishes, bony fishes and other fishes of every kind that are scheduled to be described during the year 2017, as well as other significant discoveries and events related to paleontology of fishes that are scheduled to occur in the year 2017. The list only includes taxa at the level of genus or species.

This list of fossil fish research presented in 2022 is a list of new taxa of jawless vertebrates, placoderms, acanthodians, fossil cartilaginous fishes, bony fishes, and other fishes that were described during the year, as well as other significant discoveries and events related to paleoichthyology that occurred in 2022.


Bianchengichthys is an extinct genus of maxillate placoderm fish from the late Silurian Period. Its fossils have been recovered from Yunnan Province, China, and it is represented by only one species: Bianchengichthys micros.


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Further reading