Compared to some of our most striking fish species, the human race has only been alive, let alone angling, for the blink of an eye. But what is the UK’s oldest fish? Dom Garnett and Dr Mark Everard investigate...
The pike’s prehistoric looks alone are a clue to most anglers that this fish has been with us for millions of years. But how long, exactly? The lean, arrow-shaped design and camouflage of the fish have made it something of an enduring “design classic”. To put a figure on that, the Esocidae family of pike is 60 to 65 million years old, going by evidence found in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. Esox lucius, the fish we know best, has probably been around for at least 20 million years.
Delve into saltwater, and fish become even more ancient in their ancestry than their freshwater cousins. Sharks date back to the Silurian age of over 400 million years ago, before the dinosaurs and even trees! You might call these creatures the ultimate survivors, having lived through at least five mass-extinction events! It’s thought that a broad diet and the ability to live at all depths helped them. The design was super-efficient so, as the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
As for the creatures we know, as early as 200 million years ago sharks were taking on a “modern” look with flexible, protruding jaws and gills.
With three species found in Britain’s rivers, lampreys are our oldest surviving fish-like animal by some distance. With only a single nostril, no jaws, no bones and no paired fins, they are a living connection to a distant era of evolution, prior to just about anything we’d recognise today as a fish.
TROUT, SALMON & ANCIENT GAME FISH
When it comes to ancient lineage, our game fish represent some striking examples of both continuity and adaptation. Being able to migrate from fresh to saltwater is a key survival strategy – but then, so is retreating to extreme depths where conditions remain little changed in aeons, in the case of “glacial relics” like Arctic char and other “whitefish” including powan, pollan and vendace.
Atlantic salmon are thought to have become a distinct species as far back as 35 million years. As for trout, our browns have the same ancestors as the North American rainbow trout, and it’s thought that they became separate groups of species some 15-20 million years ago.
FISH V HUMANITY...A TIMELINE
Respect due to fish – they’ve been around a heck of a lot longer than we have!
530 million BC
The first fish-like animals evolve in the Cambrian Period. These early creatures have skulls and backbones, but as yet no jaws! Lampreys and hagfish among the closest relatives of fish from this mind-bendingly distant age. This is still some distance from the Big Bang of 13.7 billion years earlier.
385 million BC
Fish get a leg up! Something strange happens, with some species growing leg-like appendages to conquer land. They’ll eventually become mammals. No, we haven’t been drinking: ALL of us evolved from fish. Cristiano Ronaldo, Mary Berry, Bob Nudd: their distant relatives were cold-blooded sea creatures. Bizarrely, there are fish called coelacanths that resemble direct throwbacks to this era, with long, limb-like fins!
340 million BC
The sturgeon family, another of our most ancient fish, appears on the scene. These adaptable creatures thrive between coastal and freshwater systems, although the arrival of humans will threaten their distant future.
250 million BC
At the end of the Permian era, a mass extinction event wipes out 96 per cent of marine life on earth. As nature’s toughest customers, some shark species come through.
110 million BC
In freshwater systems, another ancient breed, the first sticklebacks, come to the party. With its bony plates and dorsal spikes, it’s another fish that will hang around for quite a while!
60 million BC
The Esocidae family of pike appear in what will become Northern Europe and America. Their lean profile and long, toothy jaws are a winning blueprint that will change little.
5-10 million BC
Common carp arrive. Although derived from a far older group of fish, it’s only at around 5 to 10 million BC that the species that we know today in the carp family, such as common carp and goldfish, emerge as distinct species. It will still be a long time before Danny Fairbrass turns up.
9,000 to 1.5 million BC
The first humans and their ancestors. The earliest humanoids, Homo erectus, were found in Africa some 1.5 million years ago. However, our own species, Homo sapiens, has only existed for 200,000 years. Human ‘civilisations’, with features such as water management, written language and city settlements only developed about 9,000 years ago in Mesopotamia (now Iraq).
Having thrived and diversified across countless unforgiving environments and mass extinctions, fish populations face their biggest threat so far – modern-day humanity.