Gaiasia jennyae was a tetrapodomorph – an amphibian-like relative of early tetrapods – that lived about 280 million years ago during the early Permian in what is now Namibia.

Although it’s only known from incomplete skull and vertebral column material it probably looked quite similar to the colosteids, a closely-related group of tetrapodomorphs with elongated bodies and small limbs. If it had the same sort of body proportions as these relatives it would have been huge, the largest known stem-tetrapod at potentially around 4m long (~13′).

It had a wide flat head with a short boxy snout, and large interlocking fangs on the roof of its mouth and at the front of its lower jaw. It would have been fully aquatic and probably not a particularly fast swimmer, instead likely being an ambush predator using suction from rapidly opening its jaws to pull prey into its mouth before clamping down with its fangs.

It’s also notable for living considerably later than most other stem-tetrapods, and in an unexpected part of the world. While its close relatives are all known from the tropics of the Carboniferous, Gaiasia was in a location that was much closer to the South Pole during the early Permian (~55° S), inhabiting an immense freshwater lake in a rift valley with a cold-temperate climate.

Its presence in this habitat may suggest that other stem-tetrapod lineages survived and thrived in high latitudes for much longer than previously thought, while the true tetrapods were all diversifying nearer the equator – or it might represent a Paleozoic equivalent of Koolasuchus, an isolated straggler lurking in a cold refugium.

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Crassigyrinus scoticus was an early tetrapod from the early Carboniferous Period, known from ancient coal swamps of Scotland, Nova Scotia, and West Virginia between about 350 and 330 million years ago.

Around 2m long (6’6″), it had an elongated streamlined body with tiny vestigial-looking forelimbs, and a pelvis that wasn’t well-connected to its spine – features that suggest it had re-evolved a fully aquatic lifestyle at a time when its other early tetrapod relatives were specializing more and more for life on land.

Fossils of its skull are all rather crushed, and traditionally its head shape has been reconstructed as unusually tall and narrow. But a more recent study using CT scanning has instead come up with a wider flatter shape more in line with other early tetrapods.

Its mouth also had a very wide gape and a strong bite, and it may have occupied an ecological role similar to that of modern crocodilians, lurking in wait to ambush passing prey.


Whatcheeria deltae here was an early tetrapod from the Early Carboniferous, about 340 million years ago, descended from the earlier fish-like forms and closely related to the ancestors of modern amphibians and amniotes.

Hundreds of fossils of this species have been found in Iowa, USA. Most represent juveniles, but rare larger specimens suggest fully-grown adults reached at least 2m long (6’6″).

Its large chunky limbs and flat feet seem to have been well-adapted for walking, with body proportions similar to later temnospondyl amphibians. But its cartilaginous ankles and the presence of lateral lines on its skull suggest it was still primarily aquatic, possibly walking along on the bottom of the ancient lakes, rivers, and swamps it inhabited.

It also had an unusually long neck and oddly-shaped skull for such an early tetrapod – most other known species had rather wide and flat skulls, but Whatcheeria‘s head was instead proportionally taller and narrower. Along with heavily reinforced sutures between the bones of its skull, it would have had a very powerful bite and been able to resist the twisting forces of large struggling prey in its jaws, suggesting it was a specialized crocodile-like predator.