Microsaurs in the Viséan and Middle Devonian footprints

Figure 1. Which came first? The tracks or the trackmakers? In this case the tracks came first, strong indications that the variety of Devonian trackmakers we have found were all commonplace in the Late Devonian. The variety of basal reptiles and microsaurs found in the Visean must also reflect a wide radiation of derived taxa, pointing to an earlier origin.

Figure 1. Which came first? The tracks or the trackmakers? In this case the tracks came first, strong indications that the variety of Devonian trackmakers we have found were all commonplace in the Late Devonian. The variety of basal reptiles and microsaurs found in the Visean must also reflect a wide radiation of derived taxa, pointing to an earlier origin.

The earliest known microsaur,
Kirktonecta milnerae (Clack 2011, UMZC 2002, Viséan, 330 mya), is not the basalmost microsaur, nor is it a basalmost lepospondyl, the parent clade. In the large reptile tree, Kirktonecta nests with Tuditanus, phylogenetically nesting much more recently than the Utegenia(Lepospondyl) /Silvanerpeton (stem-reptile) split.  That means what we have as taxa in the Visréan represents these taxa when they were commonplace, long after their origination and radiation.

On a related note,
the earliest known tetrapod trackways, the early Middle Devonian Zachelmie trackways, precede all known Devonian trackmakers in the Late Devonian. That means we no longer have to wait for the Late Devonian taxa to begin to evolve the earliest reptiles, but we can still use their morphologies. Now we can begin to evolve reptiles earlier, likely during the Tournasian, the first part of Romer’s Gap, a time for which there are (strangely) few to no fossils during the first 15 million years of the Carboniferous. This time succeeded a major extinction event, the Hangenberg event, in which most marine and freshwater groups became extinct or reduced, including the Ichthyostegalia. Evidently the places where these rare survivors were radiating are currently unknown in the fossil record. These survivors include basal temnospondyls and lepospondyls that also include basal microsaurs.

Fortunately,
the Ichthostegalia had already given rise to a wide range of stem-amphibians and stem-reptiles that ultimately produced all the post-Devonian tetrapods. Those Zachelmie trackways dated 10-18 million years earlier, give more time for reptilomorphs and reptiles to have their genesis and radiation. Post-extinction events traditionally produce new clades. So it appears to be with the genesis of the Reptilia (= Amniota).

The Early Devonian
is where we find Meemannia eos, an early ray-finned fish that was originally classified an early lobe-finned fish. So it didn’t take long after the origin of such fish to develop fingers and toes and move onto land.

This just in:
Recent work by Sallan and Galimberti 2015 showed that only small fish survived the Devonian / Carboniferous extinction event. Read more here. And a paper on Late Devonian catastrophes, impacts and glaciation here.

References
Clack JA 2011. A new microsaur from the early Carboniferous (Viséan) of East Kirkton, Scotland, showing soft tissue evidence. Special Papers in Palaeontology. 86:1–11.

Sallan L and Galimberti AK 2015. Body-size reduction in vertebrates following the end-Devonian mass extinction. Science, 2015; 350 (6262): 812 DOI: 10.1126/science.aac7373

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