Before you read any further, check out Jason Pardo’s letter below. He’s the expert. I’m only a freshman when it comes to this very unusual taxon and its kin.
This post was updated February 8, 2017 with new identifications of several skull bones. This did not change the nesting of Brachydectes with Eocacilia.
Further updated March 18, 2017 with new skull bone identities for Brachydectes.
Brachydectes newberryi (Cope 1868, AMNH 6941; latest Carboniferous; 300 mya; Fig. 1-4) was long considered a lysorophian amphibian with a tiny skull, an extremely long snake-like torso, vestigial limbs and a very short tail. You find them in eastern Kansas.
Figure 1. Brachydectes overall and skull in four views.
A recent PlosOne article
by Pardo and Anderson (2016) studied the skull of Brachydectes (Fig. 3) using micro CT scanning. They report, “Contra the proposals of some workers, we find no evidence of expected lissamphibian synapomorphies in the skull morphology in Brachydectes newberryi, and instead recognize a number of derived amniote characteristics within the braincase and suspensorium. Morphology previously considered indicative of taxonomic diversity within Lysorophia may reflect ontogenetic rather than taxonomic variation.” Later they wrote, “an expansive phylogenetic analysis is outside the scope of this study and will appear elsewhere.”
in the large reptile tree (LRT), Brachydectes nested between Adelospondylus and Eocaecilia, which also has a long snake-like torso, but composed of far fewer and individually much longer vertebrae and a distinct skull architecture. A large, but not exhaustive, selection of basal amniotes was tested and none attracted Brachydectes as much as the two lissamphibians listed above, given the prior data of a line drawing of the skull (Fig. 2) by Marjanovic and Laurin 2013 derived from Wellstead C F 1991.
Figure 2. Brachydectes skull data from a line drawing produced by Marjanović and Laurin 2013. Most leposponysls have a very narrow parasphenoid process and large interptyergoid vacuities, but eocacaecilians expanded this bone and reduced the vacuities like Brachydectes did.
Figure 1. Brachydectes newberryi has some difficult to identify bones just aft of the orbit due to fusion and reduction. Brachydectes (Laysorophus) elongatus (Fig. 2) provides Rosetta Stone clues as to what is happening in this clade.
The new data
(Figs 2,3 ) are not too far off from the Wellstead C F 1991 data. Notably the tabular no longer extends ventrally alongside the squamosal as it does in the larger specimen. Does this represent a break? or fusion? Or phylogenetic difference? Below (Fig. 3) is the new data on KUVP 49541, plus a reinterpretation of skull sutures based on the micro CT scans. The nesting of the new Brachydactes does not shift in the LRT. It is still a lissamphibian close to microsaurs and caecilians. That’s a broad range, indicative of a long list of yet to be found taxa.
Pardo and Anderson’s reconstruction
(Fig. 3) does not include the coronoid or lateral exposure of the splenial. Pardo and Anderson note the single supraoccipital compares well with that of various basal reptiles, and indeed it does. The occipital arch of other lissamphibians consists of only paired exoccipitals,.. until you include microsaurs.
More on supraoccipital homologies
According to Pardo and Anderson, “the presence of a well-developed median supraoccipital is restricted to the amniote crown and recumbirostran ‘microsaurs’. Although the supraoccipital of Brachydectes and ‘microsaurs’ has traditionally been considered convergent with the amniote supraoccipital, new data from μCT have demonstrated that the ‘microsaur’ supraoccipital shares a number of morphological details with early amniotes, and early eureptiles in particular, and is likely homologous with the amniote element. This homology does not extend far down the amniote stem, as seymouriamorphs lack a supraoccipital and ‘anthracosaurs’ generally exhibit paired elements within the synoptic tectum.”
In the LRT, microsaurs are sisters to the clade that includes Adeospondylus, Brachydectes and Eocaeceila. That’s a great deal of phylogenetic distance, but not as great as any other pairing in the LRT. Perhaps more taxa will fill the apparent gaps someday.
Figure 4. Four sizes of Brachydectes in situ. Here, unfortunately, the authors have penned in the sutures, negating any possibility of any reviewer to judge whether they were drawn correctly or not.
Pardo and Anderson also report
“neurocranial morphology does not support a close relationship between Brachydectes and lissamphibians.” Admittedly, Brachydectes is indeed quite different from its sisters…yet it is not closer to other tested taxa in the LRT. If you look at various microsaurs and other lissamphibians, you get a wide range of morphologies at every node.
By noting various key features in contention with the traditional relationship. Pardo and Anderson essentially ‘put the cart before the horse.’ They waited to do the phylogenetic analysis, when they should have done that analysis before publishing. Homoplasy is rampant in tetrapods. I think they fell prey to yet another example. Only analysis, at present, settles all issues.
Pardo and Anderson then report,
“Morphology of the braincase of Brachydectes suggests a close relationship with the brachystelechid ‘microsaurs’ Carrolla craddocki and Quasicaecilia texana, within the Recumbirostra.” These two are new to me and untested in the LRT. Wikipedia nests them with Batropetes, which has long legs, and a horned-lizard type body, only distantly related to Brachydectes in the LRT. The skull of Quasicaecilia is shown here, but no post-crania is shown. Recumbirostran microsaurs, are considered the earliest known example of adaptation to head-first burrowing in the tetrapod fossil record. I wish the sister candidates offered by Pardo and Anderson were long and snake-like, but they are not. Deletion of post-cranial traits from the LRT does not shift the placement of Brachydectes within the LRT.
Figure 5. Original interpretation of Brachydectes, KUVP 49541, by Pardo and Anderson. Colors added for clarity and to match micro CT scan.
Carroll RL 1967. An Adelogyrinid Lepospondyl Amphibian from the Upper Carboniferous: Canadian Journal of Zoology 45(1):1-16.
Carroll RL and Gaskill P 1978. The order Microsauria. American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 211 pp.
Cope ED 1868. Synopsis of the extinct Batrachia of North America. Proc Acad Nat Sci 20: 208–221. doi: 10.5962/bhl.title.60482
Jenkins FA and Walsh M 1993. An Early Jurassic caecilian with limbs. Nature 365: 246–250.
Jenkins FA, Walsh DM and Carroll RL 2007. Anatomy of Eocaecilia micropodia, a limbed caecilian of the Early Jurassic. Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology 158(6): 285-366.
Marjanović D and Laurin M 2013. The origin(s) of extant amphibians: a review with emphasis on the “lepospondyl hypothesis”. Geodiversitas 35 (1): 207-272. http://dx.doi.org/10.5252/g2013n1a8
Pardo JD and Anderson JS 2016. Cranial Morphology of the Carboniferous-Permian Tetrapod Brachydectes newberryi (Lepospondyli, Lysorophia): New Data from µCT. PLoS ONE 11(8): e0161823. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0161823. online here.
Wellstead C F 1991. Taxonomic revision of the Lysorophia, Permo-Carboniferous lepospondyl amphibians. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 209: 1–90.