Today we’ll look at WHEN
we find fossils of basal tetrapods and basal reptiles. According to the large reptile tree (959 taxa, LRT, subset shown in Fig. 1), oftentimes we find late survivors of earlier radiations in higher strata. The origin of Reptilia (amphibian-like amniotes) extends back to the Devonian and Early Carboniferous now, not the Late Carboniferous as Wikipedia reports and as the Tree of Life project reports.
Figure 1. Color coded chronology of basal tetrapods and reptiles.We’re lucky to know these few taxa out of a time span of several tens of millions of years. Click to enlarge.
The Late Devonian 390–360 mya
Here we find late survivors of an earlier radiation: Cheirolepis, a basal member of the Actinopterygii (ray-fin fish) together with Eusthenopteron and other members of the Sarcopterygii (lobe-fin fish). Coeval are basal tetrapods, like Acanthostega and basal reptiles, like Tulerpeton. These last two launch the radiations we find in the next period. The presence of Tulerpeton in the Late Devonian tells us that basal Seymouriamorpha and Reptilomorpha are waiting to be found in Devonian strata. We’ve already found basal Whatcheeriidae in the Late Devonian taxa Ichthyostega and Ventastega.
Early Carboniferous 360–322 mya
Here we find the first radiations of basal reptilomorphs, basal reptiles, basal temnospondyls, basal lepospondyls and microsaurs, lacking only basal seymouriamorphs unless Eucritta is counted among them. It nests outside that clade in the LRT.
Late Carboniferous 322–300 mya
Here we find more temnospondyls, lepospondyls and phylogenetically miniaturized archosauromorphs, likely avoiding the larger predators and/or finding new niches. Note the first prodiapsids, like Erpetonyx and Archaeovenator, appear in this period, indicating that predecessor taxa like Protorothyris and Vaughnictis had an older, Late Carboniferous, origin. Not shown are the large basal lepidosauromorphs, Limnoscelis and Eocasea and the small archosauromorphs, Petrolacosaurus and Spinoaequalis.
Early Permian 300–280 mya
Here we find the first fossil Seymouriamorpha and the last of the lepospondyls other than those that give rise to extant amphibians, like Rana, the frog. Here are further radiations of basal Lepidosauromorpha, basal Archosauromorpha (including small prodiapsids), along with the first radiations of large synapsids.
Late Permian 280–252 mya
Here we find the next radiation of large and small synapsids, the last seymouriamorphs, and derived taxa not shown in the present LRT subset.
Early/Mid Triassic 252 mya–235 mya
Among the remaining basal taxa few have their origins here other than therapsids close to mammals. Afterwards, the last few basal taxa listed here, principally among the Synapsida, occur later in the Late Triassic, the Jurassic and into the Recent. Other taxa are listed at the LRT.
What you should glean from this graphic
Taxa are found in only the few strata where fossilization occurred. So fossils are incredibly rare and somewhat randomly discovered. The origin of a taxa must often be inferred from phylogenetic bracketing. And that’s okay. This chart acts like a BINGO card, nesting known taxa while leaving spaces for taxa we all hope will someday fill out our card.