The ray-finned fishes are so called because their fins are webs of skin supported by bony or horny spines ("rays"), as opposed to the fleshy, lobed fins that characterize the class Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish). These actinopterygian fin rays attach directly to the proximal or basal skeletal elements, the radials, which represent the link or connection between these fins and the internal skeleton (e.g., pelvic and pectoral girdles).
Numerically, actinopterygians are the dominant class of vertebrates, comprising nearly 99% of the over 30,000 species of fish. They are ubiquitous throughout freshwater and marine environments from the deep sea to the highest mountain streams. Extant species can range in size from Paedocypris, at 8 mm (0.3 in), to the massive ocean sunfish, at 2,300 kg (5,070 lb), and the long-bodied oarfish, at 11 m (36 ft).
Ray-finned fishes occur in many variant forms. The main features of a typical ray-finned fish are shown in the adjacent diagram.
Ray-finned fishes have many different types of scales; but all teleosts, the most advanced actinopterygii, have leptoid scales. The outer part of these scales fan out with bony ridges while the inner part is crossed with fibrous connective tissue. Leptoid scales are thinner and more transparent than other types of scales, and lack the hardened enamel or dentine-like layers found in the scales of many other fish. Unlike ganoid scales, which are found in non-teleost actinopterygii, new scales are added in concentric layers as the fish grows.
In nearly all ray-finned fish, the sexes are separate, and in most species the females spawn eggs that are fertilized externally, typically with the male inseminating the eggs after they are laid. Development then proceeds with a free-swimming larval stage. However other patterns of ontogeny exist, with one of the commonest being sequential hermaphroditism. In most cases this involves protogyny, fish starting life as females and converting to males at some stage, triggered by some internal or external factor. Protandry, where a fish converts from male to female, is much less common than protogyny.
Most families use external rather than internal fertilization. Of the oviparous teleosts, most (79%) do not provide parental care.Viviparity, ovoviviparity, or some form of parental care for eggs, whether by the male, the female, or both parents is seen in a significant fraction (21%) of the 422 teleost families; no care is likely the ancestral condition. Viviparity is relatively rare and is found in about 6% of teleost species; male care is far more common than female care. Male territoriality "preadapts" a species for evolving male parental care.
There are a few examples of fish that self-fertilise. The mangrove rivulus is an amphibious, simultaneous hermaphrodite, producing both eggs and spawn and having internal fertilisation. This mode of reproduction may be related to the fish's habit of spending long periods out of water in the mangrove forests it inhabits. Males are occasionally produced at temperatures below 19 °C (66 °F) and can fertilise eggs that are then spawned by the female. This maintains genetic variability in a species that is otherwise highly inbred.
Actinopterygians are divided into the subclasses Chondrostei and Neopterygii. The Neopterygii, in turn, are divided into the infraclasses Holostei and Teleostei. During the Mesozoic and Cenozoic the teleosts in particular diversified widely, and as a result, 96% of all known fish species are teleosts. The cladogram shows the major groups of actinopterygians and their relationship to the terrestrial vertebrates (tetrapods) that evolved from a related group of fish. Approximate dates are from Near et al., 2012.
The polypterids (bichirs and reedfish) are the sister lineage of all other actinopterygians, the Acipenseriformes (sturgeons and paddlefishes) are the sister lineage of Neopterygii, and Holostei (bowfin and gars) are the sister lineage of teleosts. The Elopomorpha (eels and tarpons) appear to be the most basal teleosts.
Chondrostei(cartilage bone) are primarily cartilaginous fish showing some ossification. Earlier definition of Chondrostei is now known to be paraphyletic meaning that this subclass does not contain all the descendants of their common ancestor. There were 52 species divided among two orders, the Acipenseriformes (sturgeons and paddlefishes) and the Polypteriformes (reedfishes and bichirs). Reedfish and birchirs are now separated from the Chondrostei into their own sister lineage, the Cladistia. It is thought that the chondrosteans evolved from bony fish but lost the bony hardening of their cartilaginous skeletons, resulting in a lightening of the frame. Elderly chondrosteans show beginnings of ossification of the skeleton, suggesting that this process is delayed rather than lost in these fish. This group had once been classified with the sharks: the similarities are obvious, as not only do the chondrosteans mostly lack bone, but the structure of the jaw is more akin to that of sharks than other bony fish, and both lack scales (excluding the Polypteriforms). Additional shared features include spiracles and, in sturgeons, a heterocercal tail (the vertebrae extend into the larger lobe of the caudal fin). However the fossil record suggests that these fish have more in common with the Teleostei than their external appearance might suggest.
Neopterygii(new fins) appeared somewhere in the Late Permian, before the time of the dinosaurs. There are only few changes during their evolution from the earlier actinopterygians. They are a very successful group of fishes, because they can move more rapidly than their ancestors. Their scales and skeletons began to lighten during their evolution, and their jaws became more powerful and efficient. While electroreception and the ampullae of Lorenzini is present in all other groups of fish, with the exception of hagfish, Neopterygii has lost this sense, though it later re-evolved within Gymnotiformes and catfishes, who possess nonhomologous teleost ampullae.
Skeleton of the angler fish, Lophius piscatorius. The first spine of the dorsal fin of the anglerfish is modified so it functions like a fishing rod with a lure