Chordate Evolution Section 33-1: A Comprehensive Guide

Last Modified: Published: 2023/05
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Chordates are a diverse group of animals that includes vertebrates and their closest invertebrate relatives. They are characterized by several key features such as a notochord, dorsal nerve cord, pharyngeal slits, and a post-anal tail. In this article, we will delve into the evolution of chordates, focusing on section 33-1.

The Cambrian Explosion

The Cambrian period, which occurred around 540 million years ago, saw the emergence of a wide range of animal phyla, including chordates. The earliest known chordates were jawless fish-like creatures known as Pikaia, which had a notochord but lacked a true backbone. Over time, chordates diversified, giving rise to primitive fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

The Origin of Vertebrates

One of the key events in chordate evolution was the emergence of vertebrates, which are characterized by the presence of a true backbone. This occurred around 500 million years ago, during the Ordovician period. The first vertebrates were jawless fish, such as the lamprey and hagfish.

The Rise of Fish

During the Silurian and Devonian periods, fish underwent a period of rapid diversification, giving rise to a variety of forms such as the placoderms, acanthodians, and cartilaginous fish. The first bony fish, known as osteichthyans, appeared around 420 million years ago and gave rise to the modern-day ray-finned and lobe-finned fish.

The Age of Amphibians

Around 365 million years ago, the first amphibians emerged from bony fish. These early tetrapods, such as Ichthyostega and Acanthostega, had limbs that allowed them to venture onto land. Over time, amphibians diversified, giving rise to a wide range of forms such as salamanders, frogs, and caecilians.

The Rise of Reptiles

During the Carboniferous and Permian periods, reptiles emerged from amphibians. These early reptiles, such as the sail-backed Dimetrodon, were dominant predators on land. Over time, reptiles diversified, giving rise to a variety of forms such as turtles, lizards, snakes, crocodilians, and dinosaurs.

The Age of Dinosaurs

The Jurassic and Cretaceous periods saw the rise of the dinosaurs, which were dominant land animals for over 150 million years. Dinosaurs were incredibly diverse, ranging from small bird-like creatures to massive sauropods and fierce predators like Tyrannosaurus rex.

The Emergence of Birds

Birds evolved from small theropod dinosaurs during the Jurassic period. The first birds, such as Archaeopteryx, had feathers and wings but still retained many dinosaur-like features. Over time, birds diversified, giving rise to the vast array of forms we see today.

The Age of Mammals

Mammals emerged around 200 million years ago, during the Jurassic period. These early mammals were small, shrew-like creatures that lived alongside the dinosaurs. After the extinction of the dinosaurs, mammals underwent a period of rapid diversification, giving rise to a variety of forms such as primates, rodents, carnivores, and ungulates.


Chordate evolution is a fascinating and complex story that spans over 500 million years of Earth's history. From the emergence of the first notochord-bearing creatures to the rise of modern-day vertebrates, chordates have undergone a remarkable journey of diversification and adaptation. By understanding the evolution of chordates, we can gain insights into the origins of our own species and the incredible diversity of life on our planet.



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