Chinlestegophis jenkinsi gen. et spec. nov.
Jason D. Pardo, Bryan J. Small, and Adam K. Huttenlocker (2017)
Stem caecilian from the Triassic of Colorado sheds light on the origins of Lissamphibia.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (advance online publication)
Research into modern amphibian origins is increasingly focusing on the limbless caecilians, a poorly studied group whose pre-Cenozoic fossils are limited to two species. We describe tiny fossils from the Triassic of Colorado with a mixture of traits found in caecilians and extinct Permian–Triassic temnospondyls: Stereospondyli. Computed 3D tomography shows how skull bones organized around internal structures, and we suggest how these may have become fused or simplified in caecilians. The fossils’ association with burrows highlights ecological diversity of Triassic amphibians as well as when and how burrowing evolved in the stereospondyl ancestors of caecilians. Our narrative for research on amphibian origins highlights the importance of stereospondyls, the most numerous and anatomically diverse amphibian group of the Triassic.
The origin of the limbless caecilians remains a lasting question in vertebrate evolution. Molecular phylogenies and morphology support that caecilians are the sister taxon of batrachians (frogs and salamanders), from which they diverged no later than the early Permian. Although recent efforts have discovered new, early members of the batrachian lineage, the record of pre-Cretaceous caecilians is limited to a single species, Eocaecilia micropodia. The position of Eocaecilia within tetrapod phylogeny is controversial, as it already acquired the specialized morphology that characterizes modern caecilians by the Jurassic. Here, we report on a small amphibian from the Upper Triassic of Colorado, United States, with a mélange of caecilian synapomorphies and general lissamphibian plesiomorphies. We evaluated its relationships by designing an inclusive phylogenetic analysis that broadly incorporates definitive members of the modern lissamphibian orders and a diversity of extinct temnospondyl amphibians, including stereospondyls. Our results place the taxon confidently within lissamphibians but demonstrate that the diversity of Permian and Triassic stereospondyls also falls within this group. This hypothesis of caecilian origins closes a substantial morphologic and temporal gap and explains the appeal of morphology-based polyphyly hypotheses for the origins of Lissamphibia while reconciling molecular support for the group’s monophyly. Stem caecilian morphology reveals a previously unrecognized stepwise acquisition of typical caecilian cranial apomorphies during the Triassic. A major implication is that many Paleozoic total group lissamphibians (i.e., higher temnospondyls, including the stereospondyl subclade) fall within crown Lissamphibia, which must have originated before 315 million years ago.