During ontogeny, larval fish have to deal with increasing nutritional and respiratory demands as they grow. As early ontogeny is characterized by an increasing complexity of moving structural elements composing a fish skull, some constraints will have to be met when developing mechanisms, which enable feeding and respiration, arise at a certain developmental stage. This article focuses on the presence/absence of a possible functional response in mouth opening during ontogeny in Clarias gariepinus. Some reflections are given, based on morphological data, as well as related function-analysis data from the literature. Starting shortly after hatching, a total of up to five different mouth opening mechanisms may become functional. Of these, three may remain functional in the adult. As could be expected, the apparatuses that enable these mechanisms show an increase in complexity, as well as a putative improvement in mouth opening capacity. Initially, two consecutive mechanisms may allow a restricted depression of the lower jaw (both passively and actively). Synchronously, two more mechanisms may arise, which involve the coupling of the hyoid depression to the mouth opening. At about 11 mm SL a fifth mechanism becomes established, better known as the opercular mouth opening mechanism. An overlapping chronology of functionality of the different mechanisms, as well as differences in efficiencies, could be an indication of the absence of a true critical period in C. gariepinus (at least in relation to mouth opening), as well as the possible presence of a shift in feeding type. Finally, the coupling of the chronology of the shift in mouth opening mechanisms and several morphological, behavioral, and physiological changes during ontogeny, related to feeding and respiration, make it possible to distinguish five important phases in the early life history of C. gariepinus.
Copyright 2001 Wiley-Liss, Inc.