The development of osmoregulatory and gas exchange organs was studied in larval yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) from 2 to 25 days post-hatching (2.9-24.5 mm standard length, SL). Cutaneous and branchial ionocytes were identified using Na+/K+-ATPase immunostaining and scanning electron microscopy. Cutaneous ionocyte abundance significantly increased with SL, but a reduction in ionocyte size and density resulted in a significant decrease in relative ionocyte area. Cutaneous ionocytes in preflexion larvae had a wide apical opening with extended microvilli; however, microvilli retracted into an apical pit from flexion onward. Lamellae in the gill and pseudobranch were first detected ~ 3.3 mm SL. Ionocytes were always present on the gill arch, first appeared in the filaments and lamellae of the pseudobranch at 3.4 mm SL, and later in gill filaments at 4.2 mm SL, but were never observed in the gill lamellae. Unlike the cutaneous ionocytes, gill and pseudobranch ionocytes had a wide apical opening with extended microvilli throughout larval development. The interlamellar fusion, a specialized gill structure binding the lamellae of ram-ventilating fish, began forming by ~ 24.5 mm SL and contained ionocytes, a localization never before reported. Ionocytes were retained on the lamellar fusions and also found on the filament fusions of larger sub-adult yellowfin tuna; however, sub-adult gill ionocytes had apical pits. These results indicate a shift in gas exchange and NaCl secretion from the skin to branchial organs around the flexion stage, and reveal novel aspects of ionocyte localization and morphology in ram-ventilating fishes.
Keywords: Chloride cell; Fish larvae; Gill morphology; Ionocyte; Mitochondrion-rich cell; Osmoregulation.