Tulerpeton: transitional from Ichthyostega to Eucritta

This post was updated February 24, 2017, after new data on Tulerepton became available. And again on December 13, 2017. 

This latest nesting 
of the former basal tetrapod, Tulerpeton (Fig. 2), as a Devonian transitional taxon leading to the Amphibia, the Reptilia and the Seymouriamorpha in the large reptile tree (1134 taxa) was both anticipated (Fig. 1) and welcome.

As you may recall…
Middle Devonian tetrapod trackways (preceding and coeval with the basal bony fish Cheirolepis and the lobe fins Eusthenopteron and Osteolepis) seemed anachronistic when first announced. But it’s all coming together now. And this new nesting adds precious time for evolution to produce the variety of amphibian-like reptiles present in the Viséan, still awaiting consensus confirmation of their reptilian status.

Figure 1. The nesting of Tulerpeton in the Latest Devonian, at the base of the Lepidosauromorpha.

Figure 1. The nesting of Tulerpeton in the Latest Devonian, at the base of the Lepidosauromorpha. This taxon was added to this graphic that was published online in August 2016.

According to Wikipedia
Tulerpeton curtum
(Lebedev 1984, Fammenian, Latest Devonian, 365 mya; Fig. 1) is “one of the first true tetrapods to have arisen.” It was distinct from less derived Acanthostega and Ichthyostega by a strengthened limb structure. It was also half to an eighth the size of these basal tetrapods. A fragmented skull is known for Tulerpeton, but the only fragment I’ve seen is a vague round premaxilla on small reconstructions. Both the manus and pes have 6 digits, all provided with clawed unguals. (NOTE ADDED MARCH 6, 2017: The pes has only five digits after a fresh reconstruction)

FIgure 1. Tulerpeton compared to Eldeceeon.

FIgure 2. Tulerpeton compared to similarly-sized Eldeceeon. The loss of one digit in the manus and pes occurred between the Fammenian and Viséan.

Tulerpeton lived in shallow marine waters.
Little is known of this Eldeceeon-sized specimen, but the limbs and pectoral girdle are fairly well preserved. And these were enough to nest it between Ichthyostega and Eucritta among 1133 taxa in the LRT.

Coates and Ruta 2001 report:
“The most taxon-inclusive crown hypothesis incorporates the hexadactylous Late Devonian genus Tulerpeton as a basal stem amniote, thereby pegging the lissamphibian amniote divergence to a minimum date of around 360 Ma.” So there were early rumors. Only taxon exclusion prevented prior workers from recovering the reptile relationship earlier, no doubt due to the six fingers and toes on this putative basal tetrapod.

The loss of the sixth digit
occurred more than once, just as the later loss of a fifth digit occurred more than once. We should look for taxa with six fingers at the base of the Reptilomorpha and Seymouriamorpha — unless Tulerpeton developed a sixth finger on its own.

Phylogenetic analysis
originally placed Tulerpeton near the base of reptilomorphs, like Proterogyrinus and Eoherpeton. Later workers nested it as a more basal member of the Tetrapoda, between Acanthostega and Greererpeton.

those long, clawed fingers and toes, and the individual proportions of the metapodials and phalanges nested Tulerpeton between Ichthyostega and Eucritta in the LRT.

Major studies do not yet recognize the reptile status
of Gephyrostegus. Hopefully someone will add them and Eldeceeon to a future taxon list to confirm or refute the present findings.

Coates MI and Ruta M 2001 (2002). Fins to limbs: What the fossils say. Evolution & Development 4(5): 390–401.
Lebedev OA 1984. The first find of a Devonian tetrapod in USSR. Doklady Akad. Navk. SSSR. 278: 1407–1413.
Lebedev OA and Clack JA 1993. Upper Devonian tetrapods from Andreyeva, Tula Region, Russia. Paleontology36: 721-734.
Lebedev OA and Coates MI 1995. postcranial skeleton of the Devonian tetrapod Tulerpeton curtum Lebedev. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. 114 (3): 307–348.


3 thoughts on “Tulerpeton: transitional from Ichthyostega to Eucritta

  1. Oh no, not that again. *sigh* The 1990s called, they want their phylogeny back.

    You cite Coates & Ruta (2001). Now go take a look at Ruta, Coates & Quicke (2003) – Google Scholar will find you a free copy of the PDF – or at Ruta & Coates (2007). You’ll be astounded at where Tulerpeton comes out when these same authors score it for a phylogenetic analysis instead of talking about other people’s much smaller matrices. (Hint: it’s the same place where we find it in our preprint.)

    Michel Laurin’s rebuttal paper to the idea of Tulerpeton lying on the amniote stem instead of the tetrapod stem is also worth a look.

    Also, do I really need to tell you how hopeless it is at the moment to try to reconstruct Eldeceeon? The poor thing’s been split through the bone; you can hardly see any bone surfaces, you’re looking at the bones from the inside. More specimens have been found, and I hope the existing ones have been or will be CT-scanned; a full description is ongoing (Clack & Milner 2015, Handbuch).

    all provided with clawed unguals.

    I bet not a single one of them is. I have all the literature on Tulerpeton in my office right now, I’ll check in a few hours.

  2. Found it. Lebedev & Coates (1995: fig. 8A) showed quite clearly that the terminal phalanges of the hand, although quite tapered, are not curved and lack any surface modifications for the attachment of a claw sheath. The one terminal phalanx of the foot whose tip is preserved (fig. 12A) is quite blunt and doesn’t have a modified surface either.

  3. I’m sure you’d find the same data for the unguals of Silvanerpeton and Gephyrostegus bohemicus. Remember, David, these are amphibian-like reptiles, granted that status only because they are the last common ancestors of all known reptiles in the LRT. I’ve already noted that there are few to no reptile-like traits in the bones. Evidently and by definition its their reproductive advances and their phylogenetic positions that mark them as reptiles.

    Let’s modify ‘clawed’ unguals to ‘sharp clawlike’ unguals. Does that help?

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