Caecilians aren’t precisely your run-of-the-mill amphibian. Limbless, toothed, and worm-like, they spend their life burrowing by means of the soil, sensing the world with tentacles that protrude from between their eyes.
Little is thought about these evasive creatures, or how they developed. Fossils of solely 11 species of ancestral caecilians have ever been discovered, so our understanding of how they’re associated to different amphibians, akin to frogs and salamanders, is fragmented at finest.
Now, a group of scientists from the US has uncovered a group of tiny jawbones representing a brand new species that plugs an enormous hole within the fossil report, revealing extra concerning the distinctive options of modern-day caecilians and the evolutionary origins of moisty amphibians.
Virginia Tech paleontologist Ben Kligman and colleagues describe discovering the fossils – some jawbones not more than a quarter-inch lengthy – in Arizona at a web site known as Thunderstorm Ridge the place the remnants of greater than 70 particular person caecilians have since been unearthed. They’ve named the brand new creature Funcusvermis gilmorei, which means ‘funky worm’.
“Seeing the primary jaw beneath the microscope, with its distinctive double row of tooth, despatched chills down my again,” says Kligman who was engaged on the dig with Xavier Jenkins, now a graduate pupil at Idaho State College.
Given the identified age of the fossil deposit and its recognizable tooth, “we instantly knew it was a caecilian, [and] the oldest caecilian fossil ever discovered,” Kligman provides.
The fossil dates again to round 220 million years in the past, when the traditional supercontinent often called Pangea had not but damaged aside and Arizona hung concerning the equator. Which means the fortunate discover pushes the fossil report of caecilians again by some 35 million years.
Earlier than this leap again in time, scientists had been struggling to attach the dots between four-legged batrachians (frogs, newts, and salamanders) and caecilians, which collectively are the dwelling representatives of a gaggle of tetrapods known as Lissamphibia.
However the caecilian’s place inside this group was unsure. The place alongside the road did caecilians lose their limbs? Or from whom did frogs evolve theirs? Did their final widespread ancestor bear the identical distinctive two-layer tooth?
There are three prevailing and much-debated theories as to how trendy amphibians developed – a number of evolutionary steps down the road from when lobe-finned fishes first crawled onto land, that’s.
One concept suggests they developed from an extinct group of four-legged amphibians known as the dissorophoid temnospondyls that lived within the Paleozoic period, some 250 million years in the past. One other suggests their origins lie in lepospondyls, a gaggle of early tetrapods that resembled eels and snakes with stumpy legs.
A 3rd however much less favored speculation is that caecilians descended from lepospondyls and frogs and salamanders developed from dissorophoids.
In 2008, a creature dubbed ‘frogamander’ was present in Texas, with a big frog-like head and salamander-like tail. The invention strengthened evolutionary connections between frogs and salamanders, nesting them inside the four-limbed dissorophoids, separate to caecilians.
However the full origin story of Lissamphibia nonetheless hinged on caecilians’ relationship with their dwelling amphibian relations, the batrachians, and with historic Palaeozoic tetrapods. There was nonetheless hole of greater than 70 million years between the earliest identified caecilian fossils and their supposed distant relations approach again within the Palaeozoic.
In line with Kligman and colleagues, Funcusvermis slots proper into that hole and their new research gives “compelling proof supporting a single origin of dwelling amphibians inside dissorophoid temnospondyls.”
Funcusvermis shares skeletal options with early frog and salamander fossils, in addition to dissorophoid temnospondyls. Like all trendy amphibians, it has rows of distinctive pedicellate tooth, so tiny they seem like little nubs on its jawbone. However Funcusvermis lacks sure options of recent caecilians, akin to the tenticular sensory organ that their later relations developed, most likely to help their burrowing noses with smelling.
“Not like dwelling caecilians, Funcusvermis lacks many variations related to burrowing underground, indicating a slower acquisition of options related to an underground life-style within the early levels of caecilian evolution,” Kligman says.
Whereas extra fossil finds would definitely assist flesh out the evolutionary historical past of caecilians, for now paleontologists are relishing within the specimens they’ve chanced upon.
“This discover clearly demonstrates that some fossils that you would be able to barely see can vastly change our understanding of whole teams that you would be able to see right now,” says paleontologist and research writer Sterling Nesbitt, additionally of Virginia Tech College.
The research was revealed in Nature.