skip to primary navigationskip to content

Nature Ecology and Evolution paper from Prof Jenny Clack and NERC consortium

last modified Dec 06, 2016 04:23 PM

Fossils of what may be the earliest four-legged backboned animals to walk on land have been discovered in Scotland.

The lizard-like creatures lived about 355 million years ago, when the ancestors of modern reptiles, birds and mammals emerged from swamps.

The discovery plugs a 15 million-year gap in the fossil record.

There are five complete fossils and many more fragments of bones that have yet to be classified.

Some resemble lizards or newts, while others are larger, with almost crocodile-like proportions.

"We're lifting the lid on a key part of the evolutionary story of life on land," said of the University of Cambridge.

"What happened then affects everything that happens subsequently - so it affects the fact that we are here and which other animals live with us today."

For more of this story please click this link.

See these other websites for more information -

And this link will take you to the TW:eed Project website...


These stories are based on this paper, published on 5 December 2016:

Phylogenetic and environmental context of a Tournaisian tetrapod fauna

  • Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, Article number: 0002 (2016)
  • doi:10.1038/s41559-016-0002


The end-Devonian to mid-Mississippian time interval has long been known for its depauperate palaeontological record, especially for tetrapods. This interval encapsulates the time of increasing terrestriality among tetrapods, but only two Tournaisian localities previously produced tetrapod fossils. Here we describe five new Tournaisian tetrapods (Perittodusapsconditus, Koilopsherma, Ossiraruskierani, Diploradusaustiumensis and Aytonerpetonmicrops) from two localities in their environmental context. A phylogenetic analysis retrieved three taxa as stem tetrapods, interspersed among Devonian and Carboniferous forms, and two as stem amphibians, suggesting a deep split among crown tetrapods. We also illustrate new tetrapod specimens from these and additional localities in the Scottish Borders region. The new taxa and specimens suggest that tetrapod diversification was well established by the Tournaisian. Sedimentary evidence indicates that the tetrapod fossils are usually associated with sandy siltstones overlying wetland palaeosols. Tetrapods were probably living on vegetated surfaces that were subsequently flooded. We show that atmospheric oxygen levels were stable across the Devonian/Carboniferous boundary, and did not inhibit the evolution of terrestriality. This wealth of tetrapods from Tournaisian localities highlights the potential for discoveries elsewhere.

The term ‘Romer’s Gap’ was coined1,2 for a hiatus of appro­ximately 25 million years (Myr) in the fossil record of tetra­pods3, from the end-Devonian to the mid-Mississippian (Viséan). Following the end-Devonian, the earliest terrestrial tetrapod fauna was known from the early Brigantian (late Viséan) locality of East Kirkton near Bathgate, Scotland4,5. By that time, tetrapods were ecologically diverse, and were terrestrially capable. With five or fewer digits, some had gracile limbs6,7—unlike the polydactylous, predominantly aquatic, fish-like tetrapods of the Late Devonian8. Fossils representing transitional morphologies between these disparate forms were almost entirely lacking, limiting both understanding of the acquisition of terrestrial characteristics and the relationships between the diverse mid-Carboniferous taxa. Alternative hypotheses to explain the hiatus have included a low oxygen regime9 or lack of successful collecting in Tournaisian strata2.

Although isolated tetrapod limb bones, girdle elements and trackways are known from the Tournaisian of the Horton Bluff Formation at Blue Beach, Nova Scotia10,11, only a small fraction has been fully described12. The only other Tournaisian tetrapod material was the articulated skeleton of Pederpesfinneyae, from the Tournaisian Ballagan Formation near Dumbarton, western Scotland13,14. More recently, new taxa from this formation in the Scottish Borders region were reported2. Further collecting from five localities (Supplementary Fig. 1) has since produced more data about the fauna, its environment and climatic conditions.

Our analysis shows that the Tournaisian included a rich and diverse assemblage of taxa, which included close relatives of some Devonian forms on the tetrapod stem and basal members of the amphibian stem. We diagnose, name and analyse five taxa (Figs 1,2,3,4,5), and summarize at least seven others that are distinct but undiagnosable at present (Fig. 6 and Supplementary Figs 2–6).

Tetrapods occupied a mosaic of juxtaposed microhabitats including ponds, swamps, streams and floodplains, the last of these with highly variable salinity and water levels in a sharply contrasting seasonal climate. Their fossils are most closely associated with palaeosols and the overlying sandy siltstones. These indicate exposed and vegetated land surfaces that were then flooded15,16 (Supplementary Fig. 7). This varied environment persisted over the 12 Myr of the Tournaisian3. In contrast to a previous study9, we show that atmospheric oxygen levels were stable across the Devonian/Carboniferous boundary and did not therefore compromise terrestrial faunal life.

Differential diagnoses below give the characters in which each taxa differs from all other tetrapods in its combination of autapomorphic and derived (relative to Devonian taxa) characters.