Brachydectes

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”.

Lethiscus

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.)

Archegosaurus

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!)

Diabloroter

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

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
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGthtRZl8B0


The flying paleognath bird Lithornis, from “When Birds Stopped Flying
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3h05ajJw0o


The ground sloth Nematherium, from “How Sloths Went From the Seas to the Trees
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pt9tBtQoAHo

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.

Almost-Living Fossils Month #13 – Some Long Salamanders

A group of salamanders called batrachosauroidids first appeared in the fossil record at the very end of the Jurassic, about 145 million years ago, originating in Europe and quickly spreading to North America. Long snake-like bodies and reduced vestigial limbs gave these amphibians a very similar appearance to modern amphiumas or sirens, but they weren’t actually very closely related to each other – instead, the batrachosauroidids’ closest living relatives are thought to be mudpuppies and the blind cave-dwelling olm.

They were probably fully aquatic, living in wetlands with slow-moving currents, and the structure of their jaws suggest they were active predators that would have fed on other smaller animals in the water.

After surviving the end-Cretaceous mass extinction fairly well, with fossils of a couple of species known from both sides of the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, the batrachosauroidids continued on for most of the Cenozoic. They seem to have disappeared from Europe first, with the last known record in the mid-Eocene (~40 mya), but they persisted in North America for at least another 25 million years, well into the Miocene.

One of the last known members of the group was Batrachosauroides dissimulans from the mid-Miocene of Florida and Texas, USA (~16-13 mya). It was also one of the largest of the batrachosauroidids, similar in size to modern amphiumas at around 1m long (3′3″).

Past that point in time there’s no further evidence of batrachosauroidids, although due to the rather poor fossil record of salamanders it’s possible they may have survived for a while longer – but since amphiumas and sirens began to develop larger body sizes from the Late Miocene onwards, it’s likely that they were evolving to fill the ecological niches left vacant by the extinction of the last batrachosauroidids.

Almost-Living Fossils Month #07 – Scaly Amphibians

Although there are just three main types of modern amphibians alive today – the frogs, salamanders, and caecilians, collectively known as “lissamphibians” – they weren’t always the only ones.

A fourth major lineage called albanerpetontids originated in the Middle Jurassic, about 166 million years ago. They’re usually thought to be slightly closer related to frogs-and-salamanders than to caecilians, but they also might not quite be true lissamphibians and instead belong just outside the group as evolutionary “cousins”. It’s a little complicated since we’re still not actually sure which group of ancient amphibians the lissamphibians even evolved from.

Resembling tiny salamanders, usually only around 5cm long (2″), albanerpetontid fossils have been found in North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. In some places their remains are actually quite common, suggesting they were one of the more numerous small vertebrates in their ecosystems. They’re thought to have lived mostly in leaf litter, similarly to some small modern lizards like ground skinks, wriggling and burrowing through the loose material and preying on small invertebrates.

Their most notable feature was their body being covered in a mosaic of small scales – although unlike reptile scales these were bony structures formed under a layer of skin, structurally much more like fish scales, and they probably weren’t particularly visible in life. They also had very flexible necks for amphibians, with a convergently mammal-like joint between their skull and vertebrae.

After surviving the end-Cretaceous extinction alongside their lissamphibian relatives the albanerpetontids ended up mostly restricted to just Europe, but they seem to have continued on there for pretty much the entire Cenozoic.

Albanerpeton pannonicus here was one of the very last known members of the group, living just 2.5 million years ago in the late Pliocene and early Pleistocene. Despite the albanerpetontids’ 160-million-year history and having made it through multiple mass extinctions, it seems to have been the cooling Ice Age climate that finally sent these scaly little amphibians into extinction.