Background. Yunnanolepidoids constitute either the basal-most consecutive segments or the most primitive clade of antiarchs, a highly diversified jawed vertebrate group from the Silurian and Early Devonian periods. Although the general morphology of yunnanolepidoids is well established, their endocranial features remain largely unclear, thus hindering our further understanding of antiarch evolution, and early gnathostome evolution. Phymolepis cuifengshanensis, a yunnanolepidoid from the Early Devonian of southwestern China, is re-described in detail to reveal the information on endocranial anatomy and additional morphological data of head and trunk shields.
Methods. We scanned the material of P. cuifengshanensis using high-resolution computed tomography a nd generated virtual restorations to show the internal morphology of its dermal shield. The dorsal aspect of endocranium in P. cuifengshanensis was therefore inferred. The phylogenetic analysis of antiarchs was conducted based on a revised and expanded dataset that incorporates ten new cranial characters.
Results. The lateroventral fossa of trunk shield and Chang’s apparatus arethree-dimensionally restored in P. cuifengshanensis. The canal that is positioned just anterior to the internal cavity of Chang’s apparatus, probably corresponds to the rostrocaudal canal of euantiarchs. The endocranial morphology of P. cuifengshanensis corroborates a general pattern for yunnanolepidoids with additional characters distinguishing them from sinolepids and euantiarchs, such as a developed cranio-spinal process, an elongated endolymphatic duct, and a long occipital portion.
Discussion. In light of new data from Phymolepis and Yunnanolepis, we summarized the morphology on the visceral surface of head shield in antiarchs, and formulated additional ten characters for the phylogenetic analysis. These cranial characters exhibit a high degree of morphological disparity between major subgroups of antiarchs, and highlight the endocranial character evolution in antiarchs.