Caecilians aren’t precisely your run-of-the-mill amphibian. Limbless, toothed, and worm-like, they spend their life burrowing by the soil, sensing the world with tentacles that protrude from between their eyes.
Little is understood 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, similar 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 file, 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 website 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 underneath the microscope, with its distinctive double row of enamel, despatched chills down my again,” says Kligman who was engaged on the dig with Xavier Jenkins, now a graduate scholar at Idaho State College.
Given the recognized age of the fossil deposit and its recognizable enamel, “we instantly knew it was a caecilian, [and] the oldest caecilian fossil ever discovered,” Kligman adds.
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 file of caecilians again by some 35 million years.
Earlier than this leap again in time, scientists have been struggling to attach the dots between four-legged batrachians (frogs, newts, and salamanders) and caecilians, which collectively are the dwelling representatives of a bunch 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 frequent ancestor bear the identical distinctive two-layer enamel?
There are three prevailing and much-debated theories as to how trendy amphibians developed – just a few evolutionary steps down the road from when lobe-finned fishes first crawled onto land, that’s.
One principle 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. Another suggests their origins lie in lepospondyls, a bunch 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 found 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 kinfolk, the batrachians, and with historical Palaeozoic tetrapods. There was nonetheless hole of greater than 70 million years between the earliest recognized caecilian fossils and their supposed distant kinfolk method again within the Palaeozoic.
In response to Kligman and colleagues, Funcusvermis slots proper into that hole and their new examine provides “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 teeth, so tiny they appear like little nubs on its jawbone. However Funcusvermis lacks sure options of recent caecilians, similar to the tenticular sensory organ that their later kinfolk developed, in all probability to help their burrowing noses with smelling.
“In contrast to dwelling caecilians, Funcusvermis lacks many variations related to burrowing underground, indicating a slower acquisition of options related to an underground way of life within the early phases 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 which you can barely see can tremendously change our understanding of total teams which you can see at the moment,” says paleontologist and examine writer Sterling Nesbitt, additionally of Virginia Tech College.
The examine was printed in Nature.