What’s so fishy about human anatomy? A lot! Just look at these gifts from our aquatic ancestors.
Look closely at any mammal, bird, or amphibian embryo—they all look the same. That’s because they all inherited genes from a common, fishy ancestor. During the middle stage of development—called the phylotypic period—a special combination of those genes becomes active, while some get turned off. Those active genes become the blueprints for your body.
Fish can’t talk, but they do have gills—and that’s where our voices come from. Just like fish, human embryos have gill arches (bony loops in the embryo’s neck). In fish, those arches become part of the gill apparatus. But in humans, our genes steer them in a different direction. Those gill arches become the bones of your lower jaw, middle ear, and voice box.
How did gills become part of the ear? Just look at the fossil evidence. The ancient fish Eusthenopteron lived about 370 million years ago. It had a problem, though: A small part of the jawbone—the hyomandibula—poked into its gills. A few million years later, that same pesky bone formed a cavity by the ear of Eusthenopteron’s descendents. There, it started amplifying sound—travel down the fossil record even further, and you’ll see that the bone had become the stape, the part of the ear that helps us hear.
Fish gonads sit near the heart. In human embryos, the gonads form deep in the chest—just like in fish. However, since we’re warm-blooded, these gonads need to go somewhere cool. After 12 weeks, they start to descend, and for men, they break through the body wall and form testicles. But breaking through the body wall leaves behind a weak spot, which is why it’s relatively easy for humans to get hernias.
Fish don’t have fingers, but they do have the gene that makes fingers possible. In the 1980s, scientists discovered a special gene called “sonic hedgehog,” which helps animals form digits. When scientists mutated sonic hedgehog in various animals, the creatures all grew extra fins and fingers (people with polydactylism—that is, six fingers—suffer from a sonic hedgehog overload). A surge in sonic hedgehog helped ancient fish crawl onto land.
You know that groove above your upper lip, just below the nose? That’s the philtrum. It’s there because, as an embryo, your face looked kind of fishy. Your eyes started at the side of your head and your nostrils and lips grew at the top (you looked a little like an eel). After a couple of months, those features migrated: Your eyes squeezed inward while your lips and nose dropped. The transformation left behind a tiny divot above your upper lip, and gave men everywhere a place to grow terrible mustaches.
Want to learn more about your aquatic ancestors? Tune in to Your Inner Fish tonight at 10 pm Eastern/9 pm Central on PBS’s Think Wednesday lineup.