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Jawless Fish


Jawless fish, belonging to the infraphylum Agnatha, are unique among vertebrates due to their lack of jaws. They possess long, cylindrical bodies devoid of paired fins and scales and feature seven or more paired gill pouches. These fish feed by suction, utilizing their round, muscular mouths to attach to and consume their food. Both the larva and the adult stages are found to retain their notochord. Like other fish, they are ectothermic and can regulate their body temperature based on their external surroundings.

Lampreys and hagfishes, collectively called cyclostomes, are the sole surviving members of the agnathans. Cyclostomes are now considered a sister group to jawed vertebrates (gnathostomes).


Jawless fish are easily recognized by their smooth, nearly cylindrical bodies lacking jaws and paired fins (though most have a caudal or dorsal fin). They possess seven or more paired gill pouches and a light-sensitive third or pineal eye.

These vertebrates have a cartilaginous skeleton and a two-chambered heart for pumping oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. They possess a long and uniform gut with no distinct stomach.


These cyclostomes resemble eels in appearance and have well-developed dorsal and caudal fins. Their funnel-like mouths are surrounded by a suctorial disc comprising a row of sharp, horny teeth. They also have well-developed eyes and a single nostril on top of their head.


They are scaleless, soft-skinned agnathans, having a single nostril at the anterior end of their bodies. In most species, the gills open to a common duct, but some open to the surface through separate pores.


The only extant members of Agnatha are the cyclostomes (Superclass Cyclostomi), comprising the lampreys (Order Petromyzontiformes) and the hagfish (Family Myxinidae).

The classification of hagfish has remained controversial because it is uncertain whether this cyclostome is a degenerate type of vertebrate fish or represents a preceding stage in the evolution of the vertebral column. They are traditionally grouped with lampreys under Cyclostomi, the oldest surviving group of vertebrates alongside gnathostomes. 

Lampreys are classified under the class Hyperoartia, but this grouping also remains disputed. Although recently, it has been proposed that the Myxini are more basal among the skull-bearing chordates, lampreys have always been grouped with hagfish and represent one of the oldest divergences of the vertebrate lineage. Some paleontologists suggest that lampreys be placed under Ostracoderms in Cephalaspidomorphi,  Pteraspidomorphi, or Conodonta.

According to an alternative classification scheme, jawed vertebrates are more closely related to lampreys than hagfish, while vertebrates are closer to hagfish and are thus grouped under the proposed clade, Craniata.

The other agnathan subgroups Myllokunmingiida, Conodonta, and Ostracoderms (including Pteraspidomorphi, Thelodonti, Anaspida, and Cephalaspidomorphi) are extinct.

Jawless Fish (Agnatha)


Distribution and Habitat

While Pacific and black hagfish inhabit the waters of the North Pacific Ocean coasts and are mostly restricted to the bottom waters, sea lampreys are native to the Atlantic Ocean. The latter is also found in the Baltic, Adriatic, and Mediterranean seas and often spawns in freshwater environments.


While lampreys consume fish and small mammals, hagfish are scavengers, primarily feeding on decaying animals (carrion).

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Male lampreys dig a nest-like depression in gravel beds of freshwater streams for mating with the females. Multiple eggs, each measuring about 1 mm (0.04 inch) in diameter, are released outside and fertilized externally by the sperm. The fertilized eggs are then lodged in the gravel around the nest. All lampreys die after mating as their cloacas remain open, allowing the entry of a deadly fungus into their intestines that eventually kills them.

The eggs hatch into blind, worm-like ammonocoete larvae, with their mouths overhung by a hood-like upper lip. For about three to four years, the larvae feed on microscopic plants and grow up to 10 cm (about 4 inches) in length, after which they undergo metamorphosis. Their upper lip is modified to the suctorial oral disc, and the eyes are completely developed.

After the completion of metamorphosis, lampreys migrate to the sea, where they attach themselves to the bodies of bony fish using suckers.


References Article last updated on 21st May 2024

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