F Rosa Rubicondior: Creationism in Crisis - Now It's An Ancestral Amphibian from 270 Million Years Before 'Creation Week' - And Another Gap Closes

Monday 25 March 2024

Creationism in Crisis - Now It's An Ancestral Amphibian from 270 Million Years Before 'Creation Week' - And Another Gap Closes

Fossil skull of Kermitops gratus
Brittany M. Hance, Smithsonian.
Researchers Name Prehistoric Amphibian Ancestor Discovered in Smithsonian Collection After Kermit the Frog | Smithsonian Institution

Once upon a time, about 10,000 years ago, a magic man made of nothing appeared from nowhere and decided to create a universe that looked like a small flat planet with a dome over it, or so some ignorant Bronze Age pastoralists told their children.

Of course, they were doing their best with what little knowledge they had of the world they lived in and its history, so they filled the gaps in their knowledge and understanding with stories, and of course got it almost entirely and spectacularly wrong.

We know this because, unlike the story-tellers from the fearful infancy of our species, we now have the knowledge and understanding that centuries of careful science has revealed to us - at least those of us with the capacity to learn and understand the science know it. This is why those still unable to believe their mummy and daddy could be wrong about the superstitions they were taught as children but have since learned some science, are increasingly calling the creation stories in the Bible allegorical or metaphorical, while those who have a more objective view dismiss then as the work of ignorant people who knew no better.

Of course, despite herculean mental efforts, none of the creation myth can be forced into an allegory or metaphor for the existence of early proto-amphibians 270 million years before the little domed universe was magicked up out of nothing, and the existence of just such an animal was shown to be a fact of history when it was examined by palaeontologists from George Washington University who examines a fossil in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and found to be 270-million-year-old fossil of a previously unknown proto-amphibian, which they have named Kermitops gratus after Kermit the Frog.

The three scientists who made this discovery, led by Calvin So, a doctoral student at the Department of Biological Sciences, George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA, have pubished their finding open access in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society and explained it in a Smithsonian Museum news release:
What can you tell me about the Lower Clear Fork Formation of the Early Permian of Texas? The Lower Clear Fork Formation is a geologic formation located in Texas, USA, and it is part of the Early Permian period, specifically dating back to the Leonardian age, which occurred approximately 290 to 280 million years ago. Here are some key points about the Lower Clear Fork Formation:
  1. Geographical Distribution: The Lower Clear Fork Formation is primarily found in north-central Texas, particularly in areas such as Baylor, Clay, and Archer Counties.
  2. Stratigraphy: In terms of stratigraphy, the Lower Clear Fork Formation lies above the Wichita Group and below the Admiral Formation.
  3. Depositional Environment: This formation was primarily deposited in a shallow marine environment, suggesting it was once covered by a relatively shallow sea. The presence of marine fossils within the formation supports this interpretation.
  4. Sedimentary Characteristics: The Lower Clear Fork Formation is composed of various sedimentary rocks, including limestone, dolomite, sandstone, shale, and siltstone. These sedimentary rocks provide valuable insights into the environmental conditions and processes that occurred during the Early Permian period in this region.
  5. Fossil Content: Fossils found within the Lower Clear Fork Formation include marine invertebrates such as brachiopods, bryozoans, crinoids, gastropods, and cephalopods. These fossils offer valuable information about the marine ecosystems and biodiversity during the Early Permian period.
  6. Economic Significance: The Lower Clear Fork Formation contains significant hydrocarbon resources, particularly natural gas and oil. Exploration and production activities in this formation have contributed to the economic development of the region.
  7. Research and Study: Scientists and geologists study the Lower Clear Fork Formation to better understand the geologic history, paleoenvironments, and evolutionary dynamics during the Early Permian period. These studies help in reconstructing past climates, ecosystems, and geological processes.
Overall, the Lower Clear Fork Formation provides valuable geological and paleontological information about the Early Permian period in Texas, contributing to our understanding of Earth's history and evolution during this time.
Scientists have uncovered the fossilized skull of a 270-million-year-old ancient amphibian ancestor in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. In a paper published today, March 21, in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the team of researchers described the fossil as a new species of proto-amphibian, which they named Kermitops gratus in honor of the iconic Muppet, Kermit the Frog.

According to Calvin So, a doctoral student at the George Washington University and the lead author on the new paper, naming the new creature after the beloved frog character, who was created by puppeteer Jim Henson in 1955, is an opportunity to get people excited about the discoveries scientists make using museum collections.

Using the name Kermit has significant implications for how we can bridge the science that is done by paleontologists in museums to the general public, because this animal is a distant relative of today’s amphibians, and Kermit is a modern-day amphibian icon, it was the perfect name for it.

Calvin So, lead author
Department of Biological Sciences
George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA
The fossilized skull—which measures just over an inch long and possesses large, oval-shaped eye sockets—was originally unearthed by the late paleontologist Nicholas Hotton III, who served as a curator in the museum’s paleobiology department for nearly 40 years. Hotton spent several field seasons excavating fossils from rock outcrops in north central Texas known as the Red Beds. The area’s rust-colored rocks date back to the early Permian period more than 270 million years ago and contain the fossilized remains of ancient reptiles, amphibians and sail-backed synapsids, the precursors to modern mammals.

Hotton and his team collected so many fossils that they were not able to study all of them in detail. This included a small proto-amphibian skull, which the team had unearthed in a rock layer known as the Clear Fork Formation in 1984. The skull was deposited in the Smithsonian’s National Fossil Collection, where it spent decades waiting for a researcher to take a closer look.

In 2021, Arjan Mann, a postdoctoral paleontologist at the museum and a former Peter Buck Fellow, was sifting through Hotton’s trove of Texas fossils when one specimen labeled as an early amphibian caught his eye.

One fossil immediately jumped out at me—this really well preserved, mostly prepared skull.

Dr. Arjan Mann, co-author
Negaunee Integrative Research Center
Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, IL, USA.
Mann and So teamed up to determine what kind of prehistoric creature the fossil belonged to. The skull possessed a mishmash of traits that were different from features seen in the skulls of older tetrapods, the ancient ancestors of amphibians and other living four-legged vertebrates. For example, the region of the skull behind the animal’s eyes was much shorter than its elongated, curved snout. These skull proportions helped the animal, which likely resembled a stout salamander, snap up tiny grub-like insects.

The researchers identified the fossil as a temnospondyl, a diverse group of primitive amphibian relatives that lived for over 200 million years from the Carboniferous to the Triassic periods. But because the animal’s skull sported such unique features, the scientists concluded that it belonged in an entirely new genus, which they named Kermitops. The moniker is a play on the creature’s cartoonishly wide-eyed face and is derived from a mashup of the words “Kermit” and the Greek suffix “-ops,” which means face. The researchers also christened the new animal with the species name gratus to represent their gratitude for Hotton and the rest of the team that originally unearthed the fossil.

Kermitops is notable for more than just its namesake puppet persona. The early fossil record of amphibians and their ancestors is largely fragmentary, which makes it difficult to understand how frogs, salamanders and their kin originated. Adding relatives like Kermitops into the fold is essential for fleshing out the early branches of the amphibian family tree.

Kermitops offers us clues to bridge this huge fossil gap and start to see how frogs and salamanders developed these really specialized traits.

Calvin So.
Mann agrees and hopes that the discovery of a previously unknown amphibian ancestor hiding in plain site will inspire other paleontologists to take a closer look at their own museum’s fossil collections.

This is an active area of research that a lot more paleontologists need to dive back into. Paleontology is always more than just dinosaurs, and there are lots of cool evolutionary stories and mysteries still waiting to be answered. We just need to keep looking.

Dr. Arjan Mann.
The new project is the latest example of the Smithsonian’s history of collaboration with George Washington University. This collaboration provides the university’s students with access to the collections and resources of the world’s largest museum and research complex. The new paper also includes a coauthor from the Field Museum of Natural History.

Amphibamiform temnospondyls are at the forefront of discourse surrounding modern amphibian evolutionary origins. Here we present a new amphibamiform, Kermitops gratus gen. et sp. nov., from the Lower Clear Fork Formation of the Early Permian of Texas. Kermitops reveals a mosaic of features shared with other amphibamiforms and possesses unique characteristics, including an internarial fontanelle formed by the premaxillae without contribution of the nasals. It possibly possesses a basioccipital that contributes to the occipital condyle, which has significant implications for recent hypotheses of the evolution of the modern amphibian neurocranium. Parsimony analyses recover non-traditional amphibamiform relationships but place Kermitops within Amphibamiformes. Bayesian inference analysis captures a more traditional hypothesis of amphibamiform relationships; however, the time-calibrated analysis under the fossilized birth–death model recovers a topology that mirrors the parsimony topologies. The low robusticity of topologies across different permutations employing traditional and modern methods suggest a need for improvement of current morphological datasets of lissamphibian origins. A morphometric analysis of the crania of terrestrial amphibamiforms reveals the evolution of disparate cranial morphologies among coeval taxa from the Early Permian of Texas.


Modern amphibian origins among temnospondyls has been the primary focus of temnospondyl research over the past two decades, with the small, lightly-built, terrestrial amphibamiforms at the centre of these discussions (Schoch and Milner 2004, Anderson et al., 2008; Sigurdson and Bolt 2010, Maddin et al. 2012, Schoch 2013, 2014, 2019.1, Pardo et al. 2017, Pérez-Ben et al. 2018, Atkins et al. 2019, Schoch et al. 2020.1, Kligman et al. 2023). Amphibamiforms are considered to be the immediate outgroups to lissamphibians or within Lissamphibia, placing a premium on advancement in understanding amphibamiform diversity. The close relationship between amphibamiforms and lissamphibians has largely hinged on the presence of bicuspid, pedicellate teeth in some adult amphibamiforms (Parsons and Williams 1963). These features are one of the few skeletal characteristics uniting the three modern lissamphibian orders (Bolt 1969, Milner 1988) and, therefore, have been used to identify amphibamiforms as the progenitors of modern amphibians (Bolt 1969, Anderson et al. 2008, Sigurdson and Bolt 2010). Further emphasis is placed on the significance of general skull shape and cranial dermal bones as plesiomorphies of lissamphibians and amphibamiforms (Anderson et al. 2008.1b, Maddin et al. 2012, Schoch 2019.1, Mann and Gee 2019.2). The changes in timing and rate of developmental processes have also been proposed as significant contributors to the reduction and simplification of elements in the origin of lissamphibians (Schoch 2013, 2014, Pérez-Ben et al. 2018, Atkins et al. 2019). However, changes in morphology achieved primarily through shifts in timing and rate of development can produce convergent anatomy due to physical and developmental constraints (Hanken and Wake 1993, Yeh 2002). This may obscure anatomy differentiating lissamphibian synapomorphies from amphibamiform symplesiomorphies. Further anatomical and ecomorphological investigations of amphibamiform temnospondyls could identify new anatomical character complexes and inform current hypotheses on the evolutionary relationships of temnospondyls and lissamphibian origins.

Here we describe a previously unreported amphibamiform from the lower Clear Fork Formation (‘Arroyo Formation’ beds) of Texas, USA. Kermitops gratus gen. et sp. nov. exhibits a divergent morphology among amphibamiforms, with an elongate antorbital region and a greatly abbreviated postorbital region. This increases known amphibamiform diversity in the Early Permian, as well as improves our understanding of morphological diversity within the group. We tested the phylogenetic relationships of Kermitops with the recent matrix of Schoch and Werneburg (2023.1) and Werneburg et al. (2023.2) using maximum parsimony, Bayesian inference, and time-calibration under the fossilized birth–death (FBD) model, revealing discordant topologies. Furthermore, given the unique skull morphology of Kermitops, we were prompted to investigate the morphological diversity of the amphibamiform cranium to glean information on the ecomorphotypes of coeval terrestrial amphibamiform taxa spanning the Carboniferous to Triassic.
Figure 1.
Photograph (A) and interpretive illustration (B) of Kermitops gratus, gen. et sp. nov. (USNM PAL 407585) in dorsal view.

Figure 2.
Photograph (A) and interpretive illustration (B) of Kermitops gratus, gen. et sp. nov. (USNM PAL 407585) in ventral view.

Figure 3.
Photograph of Kermitops gratus, gen. et sp. nov. (USNM PAL 407585) in occipital (A) and lateral (B) view, and the interpretation in occipital (C) and lateral (D) view.


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