The Fish-Tetrapod Transition

20 Oct, 2022 570 Biology

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the greatest changes in the history of life on Earth. Around 400 million years ago some of our ancestors, the fish, started to become a little more like humans. At the swampy margins between land and water, some fish were turning their fins into limbs, their swim bladders into lungs and developed necks and eventually they became tetrapods, the group to which we and all animals with backbones and limbs belong. After millions of years of this transition, these tetrapod descendants of fish were now ready to leave the water for a new life of walking on land, and with that came an explosion in the diversity of life on Earth.

Play on BBC Sounds website


  • Emily Rayfield No other episodes
    Professor of Palaeobiology at the University of Bristol
  • Michael Coates No other episodes
    Chair and Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago
  • Steve Brusatte 3 episodes
    Professor of Palaeontology and Evolution at the University of Edinburgh

Reading list

  • The Rise of Amphibians: 365 Million Years of Evolution
    R. Carroll (The John Hopkins University Press, 2009) Google Books →
  • Gaining Ground: The Origin and Evolution of Tetrapods
    Jennifer Clack (Indiana University Press, 2012) Google Books →
  • Elpistostege and the origin of the vertebrate hand
    R. Cloutier et al
  • The Devonian tetrapod Acanthostega gunnari Jarvik: postcranial anatomy, basal tetrapod interrelationships and patterns of skeletal evolution
    M. Coates
  • Ever Since Owen: Changing Perspectives on the Early Evolution of Tetrapods
    M. Coates, M. Ruta and M. Friedman
  • Otherlands
    T. Halliday (Allen Lane, 2022) Google Books →
  • The Devonian tetrapod Ichthyostega
    E. Jarvik Google Books →
  • Massive increase in visual range preceded the origin of terrestrial vertebrates
    M. MacIver, L. Schmitz, U. Mugan, T. D. Murphy and C. Mobley
  • In the shade of the oldest forest
    B. Meyer-Berthaud and A.-L. Decombeix
  • End-Devonian extinction and a bottleneck in the early evolution of modern jawed vertebrates
    L. C. Sallan and M. I. Coates
  • Amphibian Evolution: The Life of Early Land Vertebrates
    R. R. Schoch (Wiley-Blackwell, 2014) Google Books →
  • Your Inner Fish: The amazing discovery of our 375-million-year-old ancestor
    Neil Shubin (Penguin, 2009) Google Books →
  • At the Water's Edge: Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back To The Sea
    Carl Zimmer (Touchstone, 1999) Google Books →

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Programme ID: m001d56q

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Auto-category: 576.8 (Evolutionary biology)

Hello (First sentence from this episode) Hello, around 400 million years ago, some of our ancestors, the fish, started to become a little more like us.