New insights into the complex structure and ontogeny of the occipito-vertebral gap in barbeled dragonfishes (Stomiidae, Teleostei)



In all stomiid genera there is an occipito-vertebral gap between the skull and the first vertebra bridged only by the flexible notochord. Morphological studies from the early 20th century suggested that some stomiid genera have 1–10 of the anteriormost centra reduced or entire vertebrae missing in this region. Our study reviews this previous hypothesis. Using a new approach, we show that only in Chauliodus, Eustomias and Leptostomias gladiator vertebral centra are actually lost, with their respective neural arches and parapophyses persisting. We present results from a comparative analysis of the number and insertion sites of the anteriormost myosepta in 26 of the 28 stomiid genera. Generally in teleosts the first three myosepta are associated with the occiput, and the fourth is the first vertebral myoseptum. The insertion site of the fourth myoseptum plays an important role in this analysis, because it provides a landmark for the first vertebra. Lack of association of the fourth myoseptum with a vertebra is thus evidence that the first vertebra is reduced or absent. By counting the occipital and vertebral myosepta the number of reduced vertebrae in Chauliodus, Eustomias and Leptostomias gladiator can be inferred. Proper identification of the spino-occipital nerves provides an additional source of information about vertebral reduction. In all other stomiid genera the extensive occipito- vertebral gap is not a consequence of the reduction of vertebrae, but of an elongation of the notochord. The complex structure and ontogeny of the anterior part of the vertebral column of stomiids are discussed comparatively. J. Morphol. 271:1006–1022, 2010. © 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.