Studies of vertebrate brain evolution have focused primarily on patterns of gene expression or changes in size and organization of major brain regions. The Mauthner cell, an important reticulospinal neuron that functions in the startle response of many species, provides an opportunity for evolutionary comparisons at the cellular level. Despite broad interspecific similarities in Mauthner cell morphology, the motor patterns and startle behaviors it initiates vary markedly. Response diversity has been hypothesized to result, in part, from differences in the structure and function of the Mauthner cell-associated axon cap. We used light microscopy techniques to compare axon cap morphology across a wide range of species, including all four extant basal actinopterygian orders, representatives of a variety of teleost lineages and lungfishes, and we combined our data with published descriptions of axon cap structure. The ‘composite’ axon cap, observed in teleosts, is an organized conglomeration of glia and fibers of inhibitory and excitatory interneurons. Lungfish, amphibian tadpoles and several basal actinopterygian fishes have ‘simple’ axon caps that appear to lack glia and include few fibers. Several other basal actinopterygian fishes have ‘simple-dense’ caps that include greater numbers of fibers than simple caps, but lack the additional elements and organization of composite caps. Phylogenetic mapping shows that through evolution there are discrete transitions in axon cap morphology occurring at the base of gnathostomes, within basal actinopterygians, and at the base of the teleost radiation. Comparing axon cap evolution to the evolution of startle behavior and motor pattern provides insight into the relationship between Mauthner cell-associated structures and their functions in behavior.
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