Modern Amphibians

Amphibia comprises an estimated 6,770 extant species that inhabit tropical and temperate regions around the world. All living species are classified in the subclass Lissamphibia ("smooth-amphibian"), which is divided into three clades: Urodela (“tailed”), the salamanders; Anura (“tail-less”), the frogs; and Apoda (“legless ones”), the caecilians.

Urodela: Salamanders

Salamanders are amphibians that belong to the order Urodela (or Caudata). These animals are probably the most similar to ancestral amphibians. Living salamanders (Figure) include approximately 620 species, some of which are aquatic, others terrestrial, and some that live on land only as adults. Most adult salamanders have a generalized tetrapod body plan with four limbs and a tail. The placement of their legs makes it difficult to lift their bodies off the ground and they move by bending their bodies from side to side, called lateral undulation, in a fish-like manner while “walking” their arms and legs fore-and-aft. It is thought that their gait is similar to that used by early tetrapods. The majority of salamanders are lungless, and respiration occurs through the skin or through external gills in aquatic species. Some terrestrial salamanders have primitive lungs; a few species have both gills and lungs. The giant Japanese salamander, the largest living amphibian, has additional folds in its skin that enlarge its respiratory surface.

Most salamanders reproduce using an unusual process of internal fertilization of the eggs. Mating between salamanders typically involves an elaborate and often prolonged courtship. Such a courtship ends in the deposition of sperm by the males in a packet called a spermatophore, which is subsequently picked up by the female, thus ultimately fertilization is internal. All salamanders except one, the fire salamander, are oviparous. Aquatic salamanders lay their eggs in water, where they develop into legless larvae called efts. Terrestrial salamanders lay their eggs in damp nests, where the eggs are guarded by their mothers. These embryos go through the larval stage and complete metamorphosis before hatching into tiny adult forms. One aquatic salamander, the Mexican axolotl, never leaves the larval stage, becoming sexually mature without metamorphosis.

The photo shows a black salamander with bright yellow spots.
Salamander. Most salamanders have legs and a tail, but respiration varies among species. (credit: Valentina Storti)

Link to Learning

View River Monsters: Fish With Arms and Hands? to see a video about an unusually large salamander species.

Anura: Frogs

Frogs (Figure) are amphibians that belong to the order Anura or Salientia ("jumpers"). Anurans are among the most diverse groups of vertebrates, with approximately 5,965 species that occur on all of the continents except Antarctica. Anurans, ranging from the minute New Guinea frog at 7 mm to the huge goliath frog at 32 cm from tropical Africa, have a body plan that is more specialized for movement. Adult frogs use their hind limbs and their arrow-like endoskeleton to jump accurately to capture prey on land. Tree frogs have hands adapted for grasping branches as they climb. In tropical areas, “flying frogs” can glide from perch to perch on the extended webs of their feet. Frogs have a number of modifications that allow them to avoid predators, including skin that acts as camouflage. Many species of frogs and salamanders also release defensive chemicals that are poisonous to predators from glands in the skin. Frogs with more toxic skins have bright warning (aposematic) coloration.

The photo shows a big, bright green frog sitting on a branch.
Tree frog. The Australian green tree frog is a nocturnal predator that lives in the canopies of trees near a water source.

Frog eggs are fertilized externally, and like other amphibians, frogs generally lay their eggs in moist environments. Although amphibian eggs are protected by a thick jelly layer, they would still dehydrate quickly in a dry environment. Frogs demonstrate a great diversity of parental behaviors, with some species laying many eggs and exhibiting little parental care, to species that carry eggs and tadpoles on their hind legs or embedded in their backs. The males of Darwin's frog carry tadpoles in their vocal sac. Many tree frogs lay their eggs off the ground in a folded leaf located over water so that the tadpoles can drop into the water as they hatch.

The life cycle of most frogs, as other amphibians, consists of two distinct stages: the larval stage followed by metamorphosis to an adult stage. However, the eggs of frogs in the genus Eleutherodactylus develop directly into little froglets, guarded by a parent. The larval stage of a frog, the tadpole, is often a filter-feeding herbivore. Tadpoles usually have gills, a lateral line system, longfinned tails, and lack limbs. At the end of the tadpole stage, frogs undergo metamorphosis into the adult form (Figure). During this stage, the gills, tail, and lateral line system disappear, and four limbs develop. The jaws become larger and are suited for carnivorous feeding, and the digestive system transforms into the typical short gut of a predator. An eardrum and air-breathing lungs also develop. These changes during metamorphosis allow the larvae to move onto land in the adult stage.

The photo shows a frog with a long tail from the tadpole stage.
Amphibian metapmorphosis. A juvenile frog metamorphoses into a frog. Here, the frog has started to develop limbs, but its tadpole tail is still evident.

Apoda: Caecilians

An estimated 185 species comprise the caecilians, a group of amphibians that belong to the order Apoda. They have no limbs, although they evolved from a legged vertebrate ancestor. The complete lack of limbs makes them resemble earthworms. This resemblance is enhanced by folds of skin that look like the segments of an earthworm. However, unlike earthworms, they have teeth in both jaws, and feed on a variety of small organisms found in soil, including earthworms! Caecilians are adapted for a burrowing or aquatic lifestyle, and they are nearly blind, with their tiny eyes sometimes covered by skin. Although they have a single lung, they also depend on cutaneous respiration. These animals are found in the tropics of South America, Africa, and Southern Asia. In the caecelians, the only amphibians in which the males have copulatory structures, fertilization is internal. Some caecilians are oviparous, but most bear live young. In these cases, the females help nourish their young with tissue from their oviduct before birth and from their skin after birth.

Evolution Connection

The Paleozoic Era and the Evolution of VertebratesWhen the vertebrates arose during the Paleozoic Era (542 to 251 MYA), the climate and geography of Earth was vastly different. The distribution of landmasses on Earth were also very different from that of today. Near the equator were two large supercontinents, Laurentia and Gondwana, which included most of today's continents, but in a radically different configuration (Figure). At this time, sea levels were very high, probably at a level that hasn’t been reached since. As the Paleozoic progressed, glaciations created a cool global climate, but conditions warmed near the end of the first half of the Paleozoic. During the latter half of the Paleozoic, the landmasses began moving together, with the initial formation of a large northern block called Laurasia, which contained parts of what is now North America, along with Greenland, parts of Europe, and Siberia. Eventually, a single supercontinent, called Pangaea, was formed, starting in the latter third of the Paleozoic. Glaciations then began to affect Pangaea’s climate and the distribution of vertebrate life.

A world map shows two continents, Gondwana and Laurentia, which are shaped very differently from the continents of today. Gondwana was made up of two smaller subcontinents separated by a narrow sea. One continent contained modern Antarctica, and the other contained parts of Africa.
Paleozoic continents. During the Paleozoic Era, around 550 million years ago, the continent Gondwana formed. Both Gondwana and the continent Laurentia were located near the equator.

During the early Paleozoic, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was much greater than it is today. This may have begun to change later, as land plants became more common. As the roots of land plants began to infiltrate rock and soil began to form, carbon dioxide was drawn out of the atmosphere and became trapped in the rock. This reduced the levels of carbon dioxide and increased the levels of oxygen in the atmosphere, so that by the end of the Paleozoic, atmospheric conditions were similar to those of today.

As plants became more common through the latter half of the Paleozoic, microclimates began to emerge and ecosystems began to change. As plants and ecosystems continued to grow and become more complex, vertebrates moved from the water to land. The presence of shoreline vegetation may have contributed to the movement of vertebrates onto land. One hypothesis suggests that the fins of aquatic vertebrates were used to maneuver through this vegetation, providing a precursor to the movement of fins on land and the further development of limbs. The late Paleozoic was a time of diversification of vertebrates, as amniotes emerged and became two different lines that gave rise, on one hand, to synapsids and mammals, and, on the other hand, to the codonts, reptiles, dinosaurs, and birds. Many marine vertebrates became extinct near the end of the Devonian period, which ended about 360 million years ago, and both marine and terrestrial vertebrates were decimated by a mass extinction in the early Permian period about 250 million years ago.

Link to Learning

View Earth’s Paleogeography: Continental Movements Through Time to see changes in Earth as life evolved.