Acanthodians (acanthodii)

Rhadinacanthus longispinus (model by P.H. de Buisonjé)

These mostly small fish first appeared in the Silurian period. They were very diverse in the Devonian and disappeared at the end of the Permian Period. They can be distinguished from the other fishes by their bony, often ornamented spines supporting the fin webs and their very tiny, bony scales. Nowadays more and more evidence is found that they are very closely related to real sharks.

Some acanthodians have spines that were not supporting a fin web. They may have been there just to make them less attractive for predators.

The acanthodians have a shagreen of many tiny, bony scales, often no more than 0.5 mm in length. The outer surface of the scale (the scale crown) is sometimes flat but more often an ornamented structure which makes species identification possible. Also, due to the unique ornamentation of the scale crowns of these scales, they can be used to correlate between different sedimentary units in Scotland and even elsewhere in Europe. The histology (scales sliced very thin and looked under a microscope) of these scales also shows unique structures to identify individual species. As the individual acanthodian species become extinct quite quickly, they can be used to relatively date the rocks they are in as well.

Most of the acanthodians were probably filter feeders although examples are found having well developed jaws with teeth.

In Scotland recently several new acanthodian species have been published.

Two species been also identified from Orkney namely Cheiracanthus peachi (den Blaauwen et al. 2019) from Westray and Fallodentus davidsoni (Newman et al. 2021) from Rousay (in sediments together with Osteolepis panderi). Since we were only able to collect incomplete specimens from Orkney, we only mention these species here. The published description is mostly based on articulated specimens from Caithness.

New information on Mesacanthus peachi and Mesacanthus pusillus will be published in 2023 by Newman et al. with the new genus name Orcadacanthus replacing Mesacanthus.

Acanthodian Scale morphology and histology

Most acanthodians have rows of tiny rhombic scales, sometimes overlapping. The scale crown is often composed of mesodentine or dentine and shows an ornamentation that is species specific. The scales grown on all sides and in sections the growth zones often show well. See for more information Burrow 2021 Handbook of Paleoichthyology 2021.
Below are shown some examples of the morphology and histology of the different species listed above. We first show the scale in close up then on a scanning electron microscope picture and after that a histological thin section

Cheiracanthus latus (not present on Orkney)

Cheiracanthus peachi

Fallodentus davidsoni

Orcadacanthus pusillus formerly Mesacanthus peachi (to be published in 2023)


  • Burrow, C.J. 2001. Late Silurian to Middle Devonian acanthodians of eastern Australia. Ph D thesis, University of Queensland
  • Burrow, C.J., Newman, M.J., Davidson, R.G. and Den Blaauwen, J.L. 2011. Sclerotic plates or circumorbital bones in early jawed fishes? Palaeontology, 54(1):207–214.
  • Burrow, C.J., den Blaauwen, J.L., Newman, M.J. and Davidson, R.G. 2016. The diplacanthid fishes (Acanthodii, Diplacanthiformes, Diplacanthidae) from the Middle Devonian of Scotland. Palaeontologia Electronica, 19.1.10A, 1–83.
  • Burrow, C., den Blaauwen, J. and Newman, M. 2020. A redescription of the three longest known species of the acanthodian Cheiracanthus from the Middle Devonian of Scotland. Palaeontologia Electronica, 23 (1): a15, 1–43.
  • Burrow, C.J., Newman, M.J. and den Blaauwen, J.L. 2021. Cheiracanthid acanthodians from the lower fossil fish-bearing horizons (Eifelian, Middle Devonian) of the Orcadian Basin, Scotland. Scottish Journal of Geology, 57, 1–14.
  • Burrow, C., 2021. Acanthodii, Stem Chondrichthyes, Handbook of Paleoichthyology. Volume 5. Verlag Dr. Friedrich Pfeil. Munchen 2021
  • Burrow, C.J. and den Blaauwen, J.L.2022. Endoskeletal tissues of acanthodians (stem Chondrichthyes). In Pradel, A., Janvier, P. and Denton, J.S.S. (eds.), Ancient Fishes and their Living Relatives: a Tribute to John G. Maisey. Verlag Dr Friedrich Pfeil, Munich.
  • Dearden, R. 2019. The anatomy and evolution of “acanthodian” stem-chondrichthyans. Unpublished PhD thesis, Department of the Life Sciences, Imperial College, London, UK.
  • Den Blaauwen, J.L., Newman, M.J. and Burrow, C.J. 2019. A new cheiracanthid acanthodian from the Middle Devonian (Givetian) Orcadian Basin of Scotland and its biostratigraphic and biogeographical significance Scottisch Journal of Geology, 55, 166–177.
  • Egerton, P. 1860. British Fossils; Acanthodes peachi, Acanthodes mitchelli, Climatius scutiger and Diplacanthus gracilis. Mem. Geol. Surv. Dex. X, 57-71, 59, pl. VI-IX.
  • Gagnier, P.-Y. 1996. Acanthodii, p. 149–164. In Schultze, H.-P. and Cloutier, R. (eds.),
  • Hanke, G.F. 2001. Comparison of an early Devonian acanthodian and putative chondrichthyan assemblage using both isolated and articulated remains from the Mackenzie Mountains, with a cladistic analysis of early gnathostomes. PhD Thesis, University of Alberta, Edmonton.
  • Hanke, G.F. 2008. Promesacanthus eppleri gen., n. sp., a mesacanthid (Acanthodii, Acanthodiformes) from the Lower Devonian of northern Canada. Geodiversitas, 30(2):287–302.
  • Hanke, G.F., and Davis, S.P. 2008. Redescription of the acanthodian Gladiobranchus probaton Bernacsek & Dineley, 1977, and comments on diplacanthid relationships. Geodiversitas, 30(2):303–330.
  • Hanke, G.F., and Wilson, M.V.H. 2010. The putative stem-group chondrichthyans Kathemacanthus and Seretolepis from the Lower Devonian MOTH locality, Mackenzie Mountains, Canada, p. 159–182. In Elliott, D.K., Maisey, J.G., Yu, X., and Miao, D. (eds.), Morphology, Phylogeny and Paleobiogeography of Fossil Fishes. Verlag Dr. Friedrich Pfeil München.
  • Lyarskaya, L. 1975. New data about acanthodians from the Middle Baltic, p. 227–232 (In Russian). In Grigyalis, A.A. (ed.), Fauna and Stratigraphy of Palaeozoic and Mesozoic of Baltic and Byelorussia. Mintis, Vilnius.
  • Miles, R.S. 1973a. Articulated acanthodian fishes from the Old Red Sandstone of England, with a review of the structure and evolution of the acanthodian shoulder-girdle. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History), Geology, 24(2):113–213.
  • Miles, R.S. 1973b. Relationships of acanthodians, p. 63–103. In Greenwood, P.H., Miles, R.S., and Patterson, C. (eds.),1974, Interrelationships of Fishes. Linnean Society, 536 pp, London.
  • Miles, R.S. 1966. The acanthodian fishes of the Devonian Plattenkalk of the Paffrath Trough in the Rhineland. Arkiv för Zoologi, 18(9):147–194.
  • Miles, R.S. 1970. Remarks on the vertebral column and caudal fin of acanthodian fishes. Lethaia, 3:343–362.
  • Miles, R.S. 1973. Articulated acanthodian fishes from the Old Red Sandstone of England, with a review of the structure and evolution of the acanthodian shoulder-girdle. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History), Geology, 24(2):113–213.
  • Newman M.J., den Blaauwen J.L., Burrow C.J., Jones R., Davidson, R.G., 2023, The Middle Devonian acanthodian Orcadacanthus pusillus gen. from the Orcadian Basin of Scotland (to be published in 2023)
  • Paton, R.L. 1976. A catalogue of fossil vertebrates in the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh. Part Five. Acanthodii. Royal Scottish Museum Information Series, Geology, 6:1–40.
  • Pinakhina, D.V. 2018. A new cheiracanthid acanthodian species from the Aruküla Regional Stage (Middle Devonian, Givetian) of the Eastern Main Devonian Field. Paleontological Journal, 52(1):42–48.
  • Pinakhina, D.V. and Marss, T. 2018. The Middle Devonian acanthodian assemblage of the Karksi outcrop in Estonia. Estonian Journal of Earth Sciences, 67(1):96–111.
  • Plax, D.P. 2015. Stratigraphic ichthyofauna assemblages of the Devonian deposits in the east and southeast of Belarus. Lithosphera, 42(1):20–44.
  • Plax, D. P. & Newman, M. J., 2021 New information on Middle Devonian Belarus acanthodians and interregional biostratigraphy. Acta Geologica Polonica, 71, 393-414.
  • Traquair, R. H. 1892. Description of a selachian spine found by Mr W. Tait Kinnear on the Old Red Sandstone of Caithness. Transactions of the Edinburgh Geological Society, 6, 207-208.
  • Valiukevicius, J.J. 1985. Acanthodians from the Narva Regional Stage of the Main Devonian Field. Mokslas, Vilnius. (In Russian with English summary)
  • Valiukevicius, J.J., and Karatajute-Talimaa, V.N. 1986. Acanthodian scale assemblage from the base of the Middle Devonian of the Baltic and Byelorussia, p. 110–122 (in Russian). In Brangulis, A.P. (ed.), Biofacies and Fauna of the Silurian and Devonian Basins of the Baltic region. Zinatne, Riga.
  • Valiukevicius, J.J. 1988. New acanthodians from the Middle Devonian of the Baltic and Byelorussia. Palaeontological Journal, 2:80–86.
  • Valiukevicius, J. 1994. Acanthodian zonal sequence of Early and Middle Devonian in the Baltic Basin. Geologija, 17:115–125.
  • Valiukevicius, J.J. 1998. Acanthodians and zonal stratigraphy of Lower and Middle Devonian in East Baltic and Byelorussia. Palaeontographica A, 248:1–53.
  • Valiukevicius, J.J. 2000. Acanthodian biostratigraphy and interrregional correlations of the Devonian of the Baltic States, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Courier Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg, 223:271–289.
  • Valiukevicius, J. 2002. Early and Middle Devonian acanthodian associations of Lithuania with respect to the lithofacies. Litosfera, 6:30–39.
  • Valiukevicius, J., Talimaa, V. and Kruchek, S. 1995. Complexes of vertebrate microremains and correlation of terrigenous Devonian deposits of Belarus’ and adjacent territories. Ichthyolith Issues Special Publication, 1:53–59.
  • Watson, D.M.S. 1937. The acanthodian fishes. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (B), 228:49–146.
  • Young, G.C., and Burrow, C.J. 2004. Diplacanthid acanthodians from the Aztec Siltstone (late Middle Devonian) of southern Victoria Land, Antarctica. Fossils and Strata, 50:23–43.
  • Young, V. T. 1995. Micro-remains from Early and Middle Devonian acanthodian fishes from the U.K. and their biostratigraphic possibilities. Ichthyolith Issues Special Publication, 1:65–68.
  • Young, V.T. 1997. Early Palaeozoic acanthodians in the collection of the Natural History Museum, London. Ichthyolith Issues Special Publication, 3:46–50.