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Osteological systems of the skeleton of the head

 The skeleton of the head of a teleostean differs from the one in sarcopterygians (tetrapods and lobe-finned fishes, see classification) by the huge number of individualised bones. In sarcopterygians, there are multiple fusions between the bones.

Despite these differences, the head skeleton in both  groups is composed of two distinct parts :

- the neurocranium, which surrounds and protects the encephalon,
- the splanchnocranium, which comprises the bony elements surrounding the anterior part of the digestive tract.

Several bones of the splanchnocranium are attached to the neurocranium with ligaments.

In teleosteans, the appendicular skeleton  of the pectoral fins is associated to the neurocranium. In acanthomorphs, the skeleton of the other pair of fins (pelvic fins) is attached to the pectoral girdle.

These pages dedicated to the osteology of the head of the bluefin tuna present the bony elements, as discovered during an osteological dissection. In the present page are presented the various osteological systems of the skeleton of the head in an other scombrid species : the common mackerel, Scomber scombrus.

Morpho-anatomical lexicon


Head skeleton of a common mackerel  (Scomber scombrus, Scombridae)

Appendicular skeleton

The appendicular skeleton of teleosteans is composed by the pectoral (or scapular)  girdle and the pelvic girdle. Both sport paired fins and are, directly or not, in relation with the neurocranium.

A primary girdle of enchondral origin, and a secondary girdle of dermal origin form the pectoral girdle. This secondary girdle connects the endoskeleton of  the pectoral fin to the neurocranium. 

splanchnocrâne de maquereau  

Appendicular skeleton of a common mackerel (Scomber scombrus, Scombridae), left lateral view.
The dotted line shows the shape of the neurocranium, modified from G. Lecointre.
In the different tables of this page, paired bones, present symetrically on both side (right and left), are listed in the plural, while unpaired bones are in the singular.



Pectoral girdle


6. coracoids
7. scapulars
58. radials I-IV


4. extrascapulars
5. suprascapulars (= post-temporals)
8. supracleithra (= hypercleithra)
9. metacleithra
10. post-cleithra
11. cleithra

Pelvic girdle

13. pelvic bones
59. radials I-IV

Pectoral and pelvic fins

12. lepidotrichs (= bony rays)


The splanchnocranium is composed by a succession of bony arches. In teleosteans, the two anteriormost bony arches are modified ; respectively the first one, the mandibular arch, forms the jaws and the second one, the hyoid arch bears the opercular bones and attaches posteriorly the jaws to the neurocranium . The five following arches form the skeleton  bearing the gills. splanchnocrâne de maquereau

Splanchnocranium of a common mackerel (Scomber scombrus, Scombridae), left lateral view. (A) Superficial layer, (B) Intern layer.
The dotted line shows the shape of the neurocranium, modified from G. Lecointre.

Mandibular arch

Upper jaw

(built around palato-pterygo-quadrate cartilage)

18. autopalatines
19. dermopalatines
20. metapterygoids
21. ectopterygoids
22. entopterygoids
23. quadrates
24. maxillae

25. premaxillae

Lower jaw

(built around Meckel's cartilage)

26. articulars
27. angulars
28. Meckel's cartilages
29. dentaries

Hyoid arch

30. hyomandibulae

31. symplectics
32. interhyals

33. epihyals (e) – ceratohyals (e) – hypohyals

34. branchiostegal rays

35. basihyal (unpaired)
36. urohyal (unpaired)

Opercular bones

(linked to hyoid arch)

14. preoperculars
15. operculars
16. sub-operculars
17. inter-operculars

Gill arches

37-1 to 3. pharyngobranchials I to III
38-1 to 4. epibranchials I to IV
39-1 to 5. ceratobranchialsx I to V
40-1 to 3. hypobranchials I to III
41-1 to 3. basibranchials I toà III

Surface sensory canals bones

These bones are dermal bones bearing sensory canals. Despite their close proximity to the bones of the neurocranium, they do not belong to it. Some of them are included in other osteological systems (n° 4 and 5 in the appendicular skeleton and n°14 in the splanchnocranium).os de surface à canaux sensoriels, chez le maquereau

Superficial sensory canals  bones of a common mackerel (Scomber scombrus, Scombridae), left lateral view.
The dotted line shows the shape of the neurocranium, modified from G. Lecointre.


2. lachrymals

3. infraorbitals and postorbitals
4. extra-scapulars (bones of the pectoral girdle (appendicular skeleton))
5. suprascapulars  (bones of the pectoral girdle (appendicular skeleton))
14. preoperculars (opercular bones (splanchnocranium))


The neurocranium is composed by a dermal endoskeleton -also called osteocranium -, here coloured in red and pink, and an enchondral endoskeleton - also called chondrocranium -, here coloured in blue hues. This choice of colours is a reference to the « cleared and stained » technique.

neurocrâne de maquereau
Neurocranium of a common mackerel (Scomber scombrus, Scombridae), left lateral view.
(A) dorsal view, (B) lateral view, (C) occipital view.
The dotted line shows the shape of the neurocranium, modified from G. Lecointre.

Dermal endoskeleton

Sensory canals bones attached to the neurocranium

42. frontal (unpaired, but resulting of the fusion of both frontals)
[53. pterotics (bones of mixte origin, coloured in blue here to help lisibylity)]

Dermal bones attached to the neurocranium

43. parietals
44. vomer (unpaired)
45. parasphenoid (unpaired)
46. basisphenoid (unpaired)

Enchondral endoskeleton

Ethmoid region

47. mesethmoid (unpaired)
48. lateral ethmoids

Orbito-temporal region

49. pleurosphenoids

Otic region

50. sphenotics
51. prootics
52. epiotics
53. pterotics
54. opisthotics (= intercalars)

Occipital region

55. basioccipital (unpaired)
56. exoccipitals
57. supraoccipital (unpaired)

The ethmoid region is the anteriormost part of the neurocranium. Externally, it corresponds to the snout.

The orbito-temporal region corresponds to the area surronding the eyeballs and the orbits.

The otic region contains otoliths and the part of the encephalon ("the brain") involved in the analysis of information about equilibrium and position of the body in space.

The occipital region is holed by the foramen magnum large, through which the medulla enters and exits the neurocranium. The first vertebra is strongly imbricated on the posterior part of the neurocranium. It fixes the head to the vertebral column.