Amphibian fossil discovery in the USA

This video is called Transitional Fossil: Fish to Amphibians.

By Clara Moskowitz, LiveScience Senior Writer:

Ancient Amphibian Skull Discovered at Airport

posted: 15 March 2010 02:07 pm ET

A meat-eating amphibian that lived 300 million years ago may represent one of the earliest examples of land-based vertebrate life, scientists announced today.

Researchers discovered the fossilized head of the ancient creature in 2004, near the Pittsburgh International Airport in western Pennsylvania. The ancient amphibian has been dubbed Fedexia striegeli after FedEx, which owns the land on which the fossil was found, and for Adam Striegel, who discovered the specimen while on a field trip as an undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh.

Scientists think the species lived during an important turning point for Earth’s vertebrate life (animals with backbones), which had mostly been water-based until that period. Our planet’s climate was changing around that time, becoming warmer and drier as it began to come out of an ice age.

“This reduced the number of environments for highly-aquatic amphibians to live in, and forced the amphibians to become more terrestrial,” said study co-author David Brezinski, a paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

The creature lived during the Late Pennsylvanian Period, or about 100 million years before mammals first appeared, and about 70 million years before dinosaurs began to walk the Earth. Because of the shifting of Earth’s plates, during this period Pennsylvania was actually located near the equator, with a climate close to what we find in the Amazon basin today.

“At that time, we had a number of widely distributed rare instances of other highly terrestrial animals that make their appearance in the fossil record,” said co-researcher David S. Berman, also of the Carnegie Museum.

But the fact that animals with features that had evolved for living on land were showing up at this time means they had probably begun to make the shift even earlier, he said.

“They’re already so highly advanced for a terrestrial existence, they must have been around for a while,” Berman told LiveScience.

The researchers think Fedexia striegeli lived primarily on land because of a few features found on its well-preserved skull, which was about five inches long (11.5 centimeters). First, its nasal opening was divided into two portions, and scientist think the back portion held a gland that might have increased its sense of smell, or rid the body of excess salt. Both functions would have been helpful for terrestrial creatures.

The amphibian also lacked a set of grooves in its skull called a lateral line – a feature left over in many species from their fish ancestors. The lateral line helped aquatic animals to sense vibrations in water, which aided in hunting for food or prey, but served no purpose on land.

And finally, Fedexia striegeli’s bones were highly ossified, which means they were thick and well-developed – another sign that a creature was walking around bearing its weight on land.

The researchers described their findings in the March 15 issue of the Annals of Carnegie Museum.

See also here.

The Kaiser’s spotted newt, found only in Iran, is considered Critically Endangered and is believed to number fewer than 1,000 mature wild individuals. The amphibian is being proposed for an Appendix I listing during a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Endangered Fauna and Flora (CITES): here.

4 thoughts on “Amphibian fossil discovery in the USA

  1. Article published March 22, 2010

    Rare fossil find
    College student discovers the skull of an ancient predator


    PITTSBURGH — During a geology field trip in 2004, the professor told his students that a road-cut featuring rock formations near Pittsburgh International Airport was a great place to find plant fossils.

    Hearing that, Adam Striegel, then a University of Pittsburgh junior, plucked up a hand-sized rock at his feet that appeared to bear the fossil of a fern frond or leaf. But as the trek proceeded, the rock became too cumbersome while he scribbled notes, so he cast it aside.

    But later, after second thoughts, he found the fossil once again to show his geology professor Charles Jones.

    It was a lucky course of events.

    The fern? Actually, an ancient predator’s jagged teeth. The rock? Actually, a fossil skull.

    And that’s not even the best of it.

    When he and Dr. Jones eventually showed the fossil to David S. Berman at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the noted paleontologist could barely believe his eyes.

    He beheld the fossilized skull of a trematopid that looked a bit different from two other existing trematopid fossils. Further study convinced museum experts that the skull was a new genus and species of carnivorous amphibian that lived about 300 million years ago in Western Pennsylvania and was among the first to spend most of its time on land rather than in water.

    The fossil of a trematopid temnospondyl amphibian, a new genus and species of carnivorous amphibian, was found near the Pittsburgh airport.

    Last week Mr. Berman, the museum’s curator of vertebrate paleontology and three museum colleagues — Amy C. Henrici, vertebrate paleontology collection manager; David K. Brezinski, associate curator of invertebrate paleontology, and Albert D. Kollar, collection manager of invertebrate paleontology — published their findings in the Annals of Carnegie Museum, which describe the newly discovered trematopid. The article includes evidence it represents one of the earliest examples of terrestrial vertebrate to adapt to warmer, drier climates of the Upper Pennsylvanian region, which was tropical at that time.

    The find produced an electrifying moment for Mr. Berman.

    “I have had five to 10 great discoveries in my 40-year career, and you live for those moments,” he said. “The only thing that could be better is if I had made the discovery myself.”

    Museum paleontologists have named the new trematopid, Fedexia striegeli, to honor its discoverer and the FedEx Corp, which owns the property where it was found.

    Mr. Striegel, the 29-year-old White Oak native and now an elementary school teacher in Rockville, Md., said he remains amazed at what happened after he picked up that “rock” six years ago.

    “I can’t believe my name will be known forever as this species of animal,” he said. “Who can say that they have a species of animal named after them?”

    And to think he almost tossed it aside.

    This Trematopidae, as its family of amphibians is known, provides evidence of amphibians emerging from water to reside on land in the later part of the Pennsylvania Period, 318 to 299 million years ago. While it likely returned to water to lay eggs, it spent most of its time as a terrestrial hunter, as evidenced by its canine-like teeth.

    Fedexia striegeli represents how animals adapted to the changing environment in an age when ice buildup on the South Pole caused oceans to recede, creating more dry land as the Appalachian Mountains simultaneously began rising in this region.

    The new species is not only the first trematopid fossil to be found in Pennsylvania, but only the third from the Pennsylvanian Period. Mr. Berman discovered one in New Mexico, and a third was discovered in Kansas. Fedexia lived about 80 million years before dinosaurs first appeared.

    During the Early Permian Period, 295 to 270 million years ago, trematopids became more diversified and numerous, resulting in more abundant fossil evidence.

    The Fedexia fossil skull is “remarkably well-preserved” a museum news release notes.

    “Unlike many other fossil finds, the fossil skull remained three-dimensional and did not suffer post-mortem crushing over time by the compaction of rock formations above it,” it states. “The preservation of the skull is so precise that even the middle-ear bone, known as the stapes, remains perfectly intact and in its correct position, a very rare discovery in fossils.”

    Anatomical features including the novel shape and size of its eye orbit size, but especially the shape of its greatly elongated external nares or nostril-like openings, among other anatomical features, identify Fedexia as a new genus and species of trematopid. The fossil suggests an animal up to 2 feet long that resembles a giant salamander.

    Mr. Berman said he got permission from FedEx to keep the fossil discovered on its property. The fossil will be preserved for future research in the museum collection. The Carnegie also is making casts of the skull to present to FedEx, Mr. Jones and Mr. Striegel.

    But the most surprising aspect of the story, Dr. Berman said, was its discovery by an amateur “who had no prior experience in recognizing invertebrate [sic] fossils in the rock — a talent that usually takes years to develop.”

    As a junior, Mr. Striegel chose the geology course to satisfy a science requirement. And now he’s forever immortalized in scientific literature.

    “I honestly just reached down and picked up a rock,” he said. “I wish there was something more amazing about it. The professor had just said we might find something there and mostly likely we would find plant fossils.

    “I picked it up and studied it a little bit and thought I saw a fern.”

    Contact David Templeton at: or 412-263-1578.


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