Stem caecilian from the Triassic of Colorado sheds light on the origins of Lissamphibia [Evolution]
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.
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