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Marjanovic and Laurin 2016: Basal tetrapods, continued…

Monday, February 20, 2017 11:49
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Sorry this took so long…
As you’ll see there was a lot of work and prep involved that has been several weeks in the making. Thank you for your patience.

Earlier I introduced the Marjanovic and Laurin 2016 study
the way they did, by reporting their confirmation of the Ruta and Coats 2007 basal tetrapod topology that they were testing prior to reevaluating the data. I noted then that both studies (Fig. 5) included many so-called pre-reptiles, including  Bruktererpeton, Chroniosaurus, Solenodonsaurus, Limnoscelis, Tseajaia, DiadectesOrobates and Westlothiana,should not be in the pre-amniote inclusion set. Those taxa nest within the Reptilia in the large reptile tree (LRT, subset Fig. 4) with Silvanerpeton and Gephyrostegus at the base of the Reptilia (= Amniota). As reported earlier, those two are the amphibian-like reptiles that first developed the amniotic egg that defines the clade Amniota, a junior synonym of the Reptilia, based on the tree that recovers them at the base of both major branches, the new Archosauromorpha and the new Lepidosauromorpha early in the Viséan.

How can one readily compare two competing cladograms? 
You would not want to sit through a comparison of tens of thousands of scores for competing trees in a short blog like this. But we can compare images of taxa (Figs. 1–3. 6–8) placed in their phylogenetic order, subdivided for clarity into the three major lineages of basal tetrapods:

  1. Basalmost tetrapods and the lineage that led to Reptilia
  2. Members of the Lepospondyli
  3. Members of the Microsauria

These images will serve as a ready reference for today’s topics. As a preview, in summary:

The Marjanovic and Laurin (ML) 2016 tree nests

  1. frogs like Rana and salamanders like Andrias with microsaurs.
  2. small amphibamids, Cacops and Micromelerpeton nest with temnospondyls.
  3. basal Amniota splits into Synapsida (Caseasauria + Archaeovenator) and Sauropsida (Captorhinus, Paleothyris, Petrolacaosaurus) arising from an unknown genus basal to Diadectomorpha + Amniota
  4. The clade Amphibia arises near Solenodonsaurus + the crown-group Tetrapoda
  5. The clade Microsauria is divided into three parts separated by non-microsaurs with origins near Westlothiana.

The LRT nests

  1. frogs and salamanders nest with lepospondyls.
  2. small amphibamids, Cacops and Micromelerpeton nest with lepospondyls.
  3. basal Amniota splits into Archosauromorpha  (several basal taxa, Archaeovenator, Paleothyris and Petrolacaosaurus) and Lepiodosauromorpha (several basal taxa, Caseasauria and Captorhinus) with both major clades arising from Gephyrostegus bohemicus a late-surving Westphalian taxon, and Silvanerpeton, a Viséan taxon.
  4. The clade Amphibia arises near Balanerpeton and the amphibamids.
  5. The clade Microsauria has a single origin near Kirktonecta 

What you should be looking for
is a gradual accumulation of traits in every lineage. And look for taxa that don’t fit in the order presented. This can be done visually with these figures, combining hundreds of traits into one small package. Rest assured that all scoring by ML and the competing analysis in the LRT were done with the utmost care and diligence. So, some biased or errant scoring must have taken place in one study or the other or both for the topologies to differ so great. Bear in mind that ML had firsthand access to fossils and may have bowed to academic tradition, while I had photos and figures to work with and no allegiance to academic tradition.

the large reptile tree (LRT) taxa (Figs. 1–3) had two separate origins for limbed vertebrates.

In both studies
basal tetrapod outgroups are tail-propelled sarcopterygians having muscular fins not yet evolved into limbs with digits. Behind the skull are opercular bones that are lost in taxa with limbs. An exoskeleton of bony scales disappears in taxa with limbs. Snout to tail tip length averages 50 cm.

In the LRT
locomotion switches to the limbs in temnospondyls, which tend to be larger (1m+ and have overlapping dorsal ribs. The Greererpeton branch flattens out the ribs and skull, reducing both the tail and the limbs to likely become sit-and-wait predators. Phylogenetic size reduction and limb elongation is the trend that leads to Reptilia (Gephyrostegus). However an early exception, Crassigyrinus (Fig. 1), elongates the torso and reduces the limbs to adopt an eel-like lifestyle. Kotlassia adopts a salamander-like lifestyle from which Utegenia and the Lepospondyli arise (Fig. 2) alongside Reptilia.

In the LRT,
short-tailed, salamander-like Utegenia (derived from the Seymouriamorpha, Fig. 2) is a late-surving basal member of the generally small-sized clade Lepospondyli, which ultimately produces salamanders and frogs. A side branch produces the larger, temnospondyl-like Cacops, which develops a bony ridge atop the dorsal spines. Note the nesting here of Gerobatrachus as a salamander and frog relative, distinct from the ML tree (Fig. 6).

In the LRT
the Microsauria are derived here from the small basal amphibamids, Caerorhachis and more proximally, Kirktonecta. Microsaurs range from salamander-like to lizard-like to worm-like. The tail elongates to become the organ of locomotion in the Ptyonius clade. The head and torso flatten in the Eoserpeton clade.

is the pertinent subset of the LRT (Fig. 4) with a representative, but not complete or exhaustive set of taxa. A summary of the tree’s differences with the ML tree is presented above. The ML tree is summarized below in three parts (6-8).

Figure 4. Subset of the LRT focusing on basal tetrapods. ” data-medium-file=”″ data-large-file=”″ class=”size-full wp-image-26172″ src=”″ alt=”Figure 4. Subset of the LRT focusing on basal tetrapods.” width=”584″ height=”893″ srcset=” 584w, 98w, 196w, 588w” sizes=”(max-width: 584px) 100vw, 584px” />

Figure 4. Subset of the LRT focusing on basal tetrapods.

The Marjanovic and Laurin 2016 tree
(Fig. 5) presents a topology that is similar to the LRT in parts, but distinct in other parts, as summarized above. I realize this presentation is illegible at this column size due to the large number of taxa. Click on it to enlarge it. At the top and down the right column are basal taxa leading to temnspondyls and reptiles at bottom right. Working from the bottom up the left side are the microsaurs ending with the lissamphibians (frogs and salamanders) at the top/middle of the left column.

Figure 4. CLICK TO ENLARGE. The reevaluated Marjanovic and Laurin tree from which taxa on hand were set to match the tree topology (Figs. 5-7). ” data-medium-file=”″ data-large-file=”″ class=”size-full wp-image-26151″ src=”″ alt=”Figure 4. CLICK TO ENLARGE. The reevaluated Marjanovic and Laurin tree from which taxa on hand were set to match the tree topology (Figs. 5-7).” width=”584″ height=”780″ srcset=” 584w, 112w, 225w, 588w” sizes=”(max-width: 584px) 100vw, 584px” />

Figure 5. CLICK TO ENLARGE. The reevaluated Marjanovic and Laurin tree from which taxa on hand were set to match the tree topology (Figs. 5-7).

The ML tree
subdivides into there parts (Figs 6-8): basal taxa, some leading to temnospondyls and amphibamids; taxa leading to and including Amniota; and finally microsaurs leading to and including extant amphibians.

In the ML topology,
Ichthyostega, a taxon with a very large pectoral girdle, ribs, and pelvis, gives rise the the altogether smaller and more fish-like Acanthostega, which gives rise to members of the Whatcheeridae, tall-skulled Crassigyrinus and flat-skulled Osinodus. The traditional Colosteidae arise next. They have a variety of long shapes with short-legs. Oddly from this seemingly primitive clade arises small, short-torsoed, long-legged Eucritta followed by long torsoed, short-legged Proterogyrinus followed by a large clade of short-torsoed, long-legged taxa, including the >1m temnospondyls and the <30cm amphibamids.

In the ML tree
Gephyrostegus arises from the small temnospondyl, Balanerpeton, and and gives rise to Chroniosaurus, Solenodonsaurus, the Seymouriamorpha (including Utegenia) and the Diadectomorpha, nesting as the sister clade to the Amniota. Thus, no phylogenetic miniaturization was present at the origin of the Amniota in the ML tree. Moreover, dozens of taxa were not included here that nest at the base of the Amniota (Reptilia) in the LRT.  Basal amniotes in the ML tree are all Latest Carboniferous to Early Permian, while in the LRT basal amniotes arrived at least 40 million years earlier in the Visean (Early Carboniferous) and had radiated widely by the Late Carboniferous, as shown by the ML taxaon list. No amphibian-like reptiles made it to their Amniota.

In the ML tree
the three microsaur clades (Fig. 5) arise from the Viséan taxon, Westlothiana (Fig. 8), which nests as a derived reptile when tested against more amniotes in the LRT. Utaherpeton is a basal microsaur in both trees, but it gives rise to the eel-like Acherontiscus and kin in the ML tree. Westlothiana further gives rise to Scincosaurus and kin, including the larger Diplocaulus. Thirdly, Westlothiana gives rise to lizard-like Tuditanus which gives rise to big-skulled Pantylus and tiny-limbed Microbrachis, shark-nosed Micraroter and Rhynchokos. In both trees, Batropetes bucks the long-body, short-leg trend. In both trees Celtedens, representing the salamander-like albanerpetontids, gives rise to extant salamanders and frogs

So the possibilities are:

  1. Only one tree is completely correct
  2. Only one tree is mostly correct.
  3. Both trees have some correct and incorrect relationships


  1. Basal tetrapods tend to converge on several traits. For instance in the LRT, the palate is ‘open’ with narrow pterygoids in both temnospondyls and lepospondyls.
  2. Many small derived taxa lose and fuse skull bones
  3. Many taxa fuse vertebral bones as they evolve away from the notochord-based semi-encircling vertebrae of fish toward more complete vertebrae in which the neural spine, pleurocentrum and intercentrum tend to fuse, sometimes in convergent pattern, as widely recognized in basal reptiles and microsaurs.
  4. In basal tetrapods, fingers are not often preserved. So when four fingers appear their identity has to be ascertained. In the LRT mc5 and digit 5 are absent in Lepospondyls. In the LRT mc1 and digit 1 are absent in the temnospondyls. Five fingers and/or metacarpals are preserved in the few other non-amniote, basal tetrapods that preserve fingers (Proterogyrinus, Seymouria). The ML tree assumes that when four digits are present, they represent digits 1–4.

maximum parsimony and Occam’s Razor should rule unless strong evidence to the contrary is provided. After evidence is presented, it’s up to colleagues to accept or reject or ignore hypotheses.

Marjanovic D and Laurin M 2016. Reevaluation of the largest published morphological data matrix for phylogenetic analysis of Paleozoic limbed vertebrates. PeerJ. Not peer-reviewed. 356 pp.
Ruta M and Coates MI 2007
. Dates, nodes and character conflict: addressing the lissamphibian origin problem. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 5-69-122.


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