Morphology of a picky eater: A novel mechanism underlies premaxillary protrusion and retraction within cyprinodontiforms

L. Patricia Hernandez, Lara A. Ferry-Graham, Alice C. Gibb

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Upper jaw protrusion is hypothesized to improve feeding performance in teleost fishes by enhancing suction production and stealth of the feeding event. However, many cyprinodontiform fishes (mid-water feeders, such as mosquitofish, killifish, swordtails, mollies and pupfish) use upper jaw protrusion for "picking" prey out of the water column or off the substrate; this feeding mode may require improved jaw dexterity, but does not necessarily require increased stealth and/or suction production. We describe functional aspects of the bones, muscles and ligaments of the anterior jaws in three cyprinodontiform genera: Fundulus (Fundulidae), Gambusia and Poecilia (Poeciliidae). All three genera possess a premaxillomandibular ligament that connects the premaxilla of the upper jaw to the mandible. The architecture of this ligament is markedly different from the upper-lower jaw connections previously described for basal atherinomorphs or other teleosts, and this loose ligamentous connection allows for more pronounced premaxillary protrusion in this group relative to closely related outgroup taxa. Within poeciliids, a novel insertion of the second division of the adductor mandibulae (A2) onto the premaxilla has also evolved, which allows this jaw adductor to actively retract the premaxilla during mouth closing. This movement is in contrast with most other teleosts, where the upper jaw is retracted passively via pressure applied by the adduction of the lower jaw. We postulate that this mechanism of premaxillary protrusion mediates the cyprinodontiforms' ability to selectively pick specific food items from the water column, surface or bottom, as a picking-based feeding mechanism requires controlled and coordinated "forceps-like" movements of the upper and lower jaws. This mechanism is further refined in some poeciliids, where direct muscular control of the premaxillae may facilitate picking and/or scraping material from the substrate.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)442-454
Number of pages13
Issue number6
StatePublished - Oct 1 2008


  • Adductor mandibulae
  • Cyprinodontiformes
  • Feeding mechanism
  • Poeciliidae
  • Premaxilla

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology


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