Strange Symmetries #08: A Different Diplocaulus

With its bizarre boomerang-shaped skull, Diplocaulus is probably the most iconic ancient amphibian. (It even inspired the design of the pokémon Dragapult!) It was part of the lepospondyls, a diverse collection of early tetrapods mainly found in Europe and North America between the Early Carboniferous and the mid-Permian, about 350-270 million years ago.

But one species hung on a bit longer into the late Permian, about 259-254 million years ago, and this late-surviving lepospondyl was perhaps the oddest of them all.

Diplocaulus minimus was the only lepospondyl known from the supercontinent of Gondwana, found in what is now Morocco in northern Africa. About 70cm long, around half of which was its long tail, it had the distinctive elongated skull of a diplocaulid – but in a bizarrely asymmetrical shape.

The left prong of its skull was long and tapering, but the right was shorter and more rounded. This doesn’t seem to have been due to individual deformity or distortion of the fossil material, since more than one skull has been found with the same features, but the reason for such a striking amount of asymmetry in this species is unknown.

Diplocaulids’ head shapes are thought to have acted as hydrofoils, providing lift while they were swimming. Perhaps Diplocaulus minimus‘ much more wonky skull means this species wasn’t relying on that hydrodynamic function as much as its relatives, and something else was going on with its ecology.

…Although, that weird head does bear a surprising resemblance to a proposed asymmetric “flying wing” aircraft design from the 1950s, so it might have worked better for underwater flight than it seems at first glance.


Platycepsion wilksoni was a temnospondyl amphibian that lived during the early-to-mid Triassic (~251-242 million years ago) in what is now New South Wales, Australia.

A single partial skeleton discovered in the 1880s is the only known record of this species, and represents a juvenile that would have been around 15-20cm long (6-8″). We don’t know exactly what it would have looked like as an adult, but it was probably quite similar to other closely-related members of the brachyopid family – mostly-aquatic salamander-like animals with short but wide toothy jaws, eyes set towards the front of the head, small limbs, and paddle-like tails.

A recent re-analysis of the Platycepsion specimen found evidence of soft-tissue preservation of external gills, showing that it wasn’t just a juvenile but a true larva, a sort of temnospondyl “tadpole”.

Distinct larval stages have been found in a few other types of temnospondyls, but this is the first definite example from the stereospondyls, a major Mesozoic lineage that survived all the way into the Early Cretaceous.


The lysorophians were a group of Carboniferous and Permian tetrapods with highly elongated bodies and tiny limbs, usually thought to be part of the lepospondyl amphibians – but some recent studies have instead placed them and some of their close relatives as possibly being very early members of the reptile branch of amniotes.

Brachydectes newberryi here is one of the best-known lysorophians, represented by a good amount of fossil material compared to many of its relatives. Living in the Midwestern United States during the late Carboniferous and early Permian, around 310-290 million years ago, it had a proportionally tiny head and reached lengths of around 60-70cm (2′-2’4″).

Its wide shovel-shaped snout and thickened reinforced bones around its braincase suggest it was adapted for headfirst digging, and some specimens have actually been found preserved inside their burrows. The roof of its skull also developed extensive “sculpturing” as individuals aged, with juveniles having smooth bone surfaces and larger adults having a distinct rough bumpy texture.

So I’ve depicted it here with a speculative keratinous “head shield”.


Ever since the earliest tetrapods crawled onto land and developed limbs and digits, some lineages have just… decided the whole “legs” thing was overrated and lost them entirely.

And the earliest known group to do this were the aïstopods. These highly elongated amphibian-like animals had specialized lightly-built skulls with large jaw muscles, and they may have filled a similar ecological niche to modern snakes, hunting small terrestrial invertebrates.

Lethiscus stocki was one of the first members of this snake-like group, living in Scotland during the Early Carboniferous about 340 million years ago. Growing to at least 50cm long (~20″), it was already a very specialized animal despite its basal position among the aïstopods, with eyes set far forward on its face and no trace of vestigial limbs.

CT scans of its skull have shown some surprisingly fish-like anatomy, especially in its braincase, features that were lost very early in tetrapod evolution. This suggests that aïstopods weren’t part of the lepospondyl amphibians like previously thought, but actually originated much much earlier in the tetrapod evolutionary tree – potentially placing them somewhere among the “fishapods” between Ichthyostega and Crassigyrinus.

Temnospondyl Toes

The evolutionary origins of modern amphibians are still a bit murky, but one of the most likely possibilities is that they evolved from a group of temnospondyls known as amphibamiformes. (Or, at least, that frogs-and-salamanders evolved from them. Caecilians might be a different type of temnospondyl.)

And a recent discovery adds a little bit more evidence to that hypothesis.

A new specimen from the 309-million-year-old Late Carboniferous Mazon Creek fossil deposits in Illinois, USA, shows some soft-tissue impressions around the body of a terrestrial amphibamiform* — most notably showing its toes, with chunky rounded fleshy pads at the end like those seen in many modern amphibians.

Fossil trackways already suggested that some terrestrial temnospondyls had chunky toes, but up until now all known soft-tissue impressions only showed the slender tapering toes of aquatic forms. This is the first direct fossil evidence of toe pads, and hints that a lot of modern amphibians’ soft-tissue features may have actually had a very ancient origin.

(*A more precise identification couldn’t be made, but it shows some similarities to both Doleserpeton and Pasawioops.)


There’s something fishy about Archegosaurus decheni.

Living in the Czech Republic and Germany during the Early Permian, about 299-295 million years ago, this temnospondyl amphibian was a tropical freshwater predator occupying a similar ecological niche to modern crocodilians.

Hundreds of fossils have been found of this species, from 15cm long larvae (6″) all the way up to 1.5m long adults (5′), so we’ve got a very good idea of its life history and anatomy. Larvae had external gills and shorter blunter skulls, and as they matured they developed internal gills and lungs, and their snouts elongated into more crocodile-like shapes. Every life stage was fully aquatic, with very limited ability to venture onto land, and gut contents show their favored prey was Acanthodes fish.

But despite how much Archegosaurus looked like a salamander-croc, a detailed study of its physiology has estimated that its metabolism and body functions were actually much more similar to those of air-breathing fish like bichirs and lungfish than any modern amphibian.

This suggests that its whole evolutionary lineage had retained a lot of physiological traits from their earlier fish-like tetrapod ancestors, and many other early aquatic temnospondyls may also have been much less amphibian-like than we usually think of them.

(And since one hypothesis places modern caecilians as the descendants of this fishy lineage of amphibians, they may even still have living representatives around today!)


The exact evolutionary relationships between the earliest amphibians and amniotes is rather murky, and the recently-discovered Diabloroter bolti here is a member of a group in the middle of this uncertain classification.

It was part of a lineage known as the recumbirostrans – small burrowing aquatic salamander-like creatures, many of which had elongated bodies and short tails. Although traditionally considered to be lepospondyl “amphibians”, more recent studies have suggested that these animals might instead have been very early true amniotes related to early reptiles.

Measuring only about 6cm long (2.4″), Diabloroter is known from a single fossil  from Illinois, USA, dating to the Late Carboniferous about 309-307 million years ago. Its anatomy indicates it was probably a herbivore – making it one of the earliest known plant-eating tetrapods – with teeth adapted for scraping at algae-covered surfaces and a rather rotund body that would have housed a large gut region.

It also had fairly well-developed limbs, which were probably used for burrowing like many of its close recumbirostran relatives, but may also suggest it spent a lot of time walking around on land.


Sclerothorax hypselonotus was a temnospondyl amphibian that lived in Germany during the Early Triassic, around 251-247 million years ago.

Measuring about 1.2m long (3′11″), it had some unusual features for a temnospondyl – a very rectangular skull with a wide blunt snout, and elongated spines on its vertebrae that gave its body a sort of “hump-backed” shape.

It was part of a lineage of temnospondyls called capitosaurs, which mostly occupied the same sort of aquatic predator niche as modern crocodiles – but unlike its close relatives Sclerothorax’s well-developed spine and limbs suggest it spent much more time walking around on land.

(And while there was another temnospondyl known to have similar extended vertebrae – the sail-backed Platyhystrix – the two weren’t actually closely related to each other.)

Eons Roundup

This year I’ve been lucky enough to have some of my work featured in several PBS Eons videos – and I even recently got the opportunity to do some custom images for them! Since I didn’t show any of these off at the time, here they are now:

The basal temnospondyl amphibian Iberospondylus, from “When Giant Amphibians Reigned

The flying paleognath bird Lithornis, from “When Birds Stopped Flying

The ground sloth Nematherium, from “How Sloths Went From the Seas to the Trees

Happy new year, everybody!

Almost-Living Fossils Month #25 –  Europe’s Fully Aquatic Frogs

The palaeobatrachids were a group of frogs, part of a fairly “primitive” lineage that also includes the living pipids. They first appeared in the fossil record about 70 million years ago in the Late Cretaceous, but may have actually originated much earlier, perhaps as far back as the Late Jurassic (~145 mya).

These frogs lived mainly in Europe, with a few possible remains also known from North America in the Cretaceous. They were fully aquatic, spending their entire lives in water, and fully-grown adults looked similar to modern Xenopus clawed frogs, with slightly flattened egg-shaped bodies, upwards-facing eyes, and long fingers and toes.

Some fossils preserve soft-tissue impressions, showing internal organs such as unusual bag-shaped lungs. Eggs and juveniles have also been found, and while most species’ tadpoles usually reached lengths of around 6cm (2.4″), a few were comparatively gigantic, growing to over twice that size.

The end-Cretaceous extinction (~66 mya) had little overall effect on the palaeobatrachids, and they continued to thrive in the warm wet environments of Europe during the early Cenozoic. But as climates in Western Europe gradually became drier and cooler starting in the Early Oligocene (~33 mya) they mostly disappeared from that region and instead shifted east towards Central and Eastern Europe, ranging as far as Russia.

By the Late Pliocene (~3 mya) they were struggling to cope with the ongoing cooling and drying, and the onset of the Pleistocene glaciations made things even worse for them.

Palaeobatrachus langhae was probably the last species of these frogs, known from the Early Pliocene to the mid-Pleistocene (~5 mya – 500,000 years ago). Growing to about 10cm long (4″), it lived in some of the final refuges of the palaeobatrachids in Eastern Europe, inhabiting inland temperate areas where winter temperatures weren’t too harsh.

Unfortunately the palaeobatrachids didn’t quite manage to make it through the Ice Age, ending up trapped by their fairly specialized habitat preferences. During repeated glacial periods the temperatures became too cold for them, freezing the water they depended on, but the warmer climates to the south were also too dry for them to migrate into – and with nowhere to go, they finally went completely extinct just half a million years ago.