Evolution of Amphibians

The fossil record provides evidence of the first tetrapods: now-extinct amphibian species dating to nearly 400 million years ago. Evolution of tetrapods from lobe-finned freshwater fishes (similar to coelacanths and lungfish) represented a significant change in body plan from one suited to organisms that respired and swam in water, to organisms that breathed air and moved onto land; these changes occurred over a span of 50 million years during the Devonian period.

Aquatic tetrapods of the Devonian period include Ichthyostega and Acanthostega. Both were aquatic, and may have had both gills and lungs. They also had four limbs, with the skeletal structure of limbs found in present-day tetrapods, including amphibians. However, the limbs could not be pulled in under the body and would not have supported their bodies well out of water. They probably lived in shallow freshwater environments, and may have taken brief terrestrial excursions, much like “walking” catfish do today in Florida. In Ichthyostega, the forelimbs were more developed than the hind limbs, so it might have dragged itself along when it ventured onto land. What preceded Acanthostega and Ichthyostega?

In 2006, researchers published news of their discovery of a fossil of a “tetrapod-like fish,” Tiktaalik roseae, which seems to be a morphologically “intermediate form” between sarcopterygian fishes having feet-like fins and early tetrapods having true limbs (Figure). Tiktaalik likely lived in a shallow water environment about 375 million years ago.Daeschler, E. B., Shubin, N. H., and Jenkins, F. J. “A Devonian tetrapod-like fish and the evolution of the tetrapod body plan,” Nature 440 (2006): 757–763, doi:10.1038/nature04639, Tiktaalik also had gills and lungs, but the loss of some gill elements gave it a neck, which would have allowed its head to move sideways for feeding. The eyes were on top of the head. It had fins, but the attachment of the fin bones to the shoulder suggested they might be weight-bearing. Tiktaalik preceded Acanthostega and Ichthyostega, with their four limbs, by about 10 million years and is considered to be a true intermediate clade between fish and amphibians.

The image shows a tetrapod-like fish with fin-like legs.
Tiktaalik. The recent fossil discovery of Tiktaalik roseae suggests evidence for an animal intermediate to finned fish and legged tetrapods, sometimes called a "fishapod." (credit: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation)

The early tetrapods that moved onto land had access to new nutrient sources and relatively few predators. This led to the widespread distribution of tetrapods during the early Carboniferous period, a period sometimes called the “age of the amphibians.”