Learning Outcomes

  • Identify characteristics of amphibians
  • Describe the evolutionary history of amphibians

Characteristics of Amphibians

As tetrapods, most amphibians are characterized by four well-developed limbs. In some species of salamanders, hindlimbs are reduced or absent, but all caecilians are (secondarily) limbless. An important characteristic of extant amphibians is a moist, permeable skin that is achieved via mucus glands. Most water is taken in across the skin rather than by drinking. The skin is also one of three respiratory surfaces used by amphibians. The other two are the lungs and the buccal (mouth) cavity. Air is taken first into the mouth through the nostrils, and then pushed by positive pressure into the lungs by elevating the throat and closing the nostrils.

All extant adult amphibians are carnivorous, and some terrestrial amphibians have a sticky tongue used to capture prey. Amphibians also have multiple small teeth at the edge of the jaws. In salamanders and caecilians, teeth are present in both jaws, sometimes in multiple rows. In frogs and toads, teeth are seen only in the upper jaw. Additional teeth, called vomerine teeth, may be found in the roof of the mouth. Amphibian teeth are pedicellate, which means that the root and crown are calcified, separated by a zone of noncalcified tissue.

Amphibians have image-forming eyes and color vision. Ears are best developed in frogs and toads, which vocalize to communicate. Frogs use separate regions of the inner ear for detecting higher and lower sounds: the papilla amphibiorum, which is sensitive to frequencies below 10,000 hertz and unique to amphibians, and the papilla basilaris, which is sensitive to higher frequencies, including mating calls, transmitted from the eardrum through the stapes bone. Amphibians also have an extra bone in the ear, the operculum, which transmits low-frequency vibrations from the forelimbs and shoulders to the inner ear, and may be used for the detection of seismic signals.

Evolution of Amphibians

The fossil record provides evidence of the first tetrapods: now-extinct amphibian species dating to nearly 400 million years ago. Evolution of tetrapods from lobe-finned freshwater fishes (similar to coelacanths and lungfish) represented a significant change in body plan from one suited to organisms that respired and swam in water, to organisms that breathed air and moved onto land; these changes occurred over a span of 50 million years during the Devonian period.

The image shows a tetrapod-like fish with fin-like legs.

Figure 1. The recent fossil discovery of Tiktaalik roseae suggests evidence for an animal intermediate to finned fish and legged tetrapods. (credit: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation)

Aquatic tetrapods of the Devonian period include Ichthyostega and Acanthostega. Both were aquatic, and may have had both gills and lungs. They also had four limbs, with the skeletal structure of limbs found in present-day tetrapods, including amphibians. However, the limbs could not be pulled in under the body and would not have supported their bodies well out of water. They probably lived in shallow freshwater environments, and may have taken brief terrestrial excursions, much like “walking” catfish do today in Florida. In Ichthyostega, the forelimbs were more developed than the hind limbs, so it might have dragged itself along when it ventured onto land. What preceded Acanthostega and Ichthyostega?

In 2006, researchers published news of their discovery of a fossil of a “tetrapod-like fish,” Tiktaalik roseae, which seems to be a morphologically “intermediate form” between sarcopterygian fishes having feet-like fins and early tetrapods having true limbs (Figure 1). Tiktaalik likely lived in a shallow water environment about 375 million years ago.[1] Tiktaalik also had gills and lungs, but the loss of some gill elements gave it a neck, which would have allowed its head to move sideways for feeding. The eyes were on top of the head. It had fins, but the attachment of the fin bones to the shoulder suggested they might be weight-bearing. Tiktaalik preceded Acanthostega and Ichthyostega, with their four limbs, by about 10 million years and is considered to be a true intermediate clade between fish and amphibians.

The early tetrapods that moved onto land had access to new nutrient sources and relatively few predators. This led to the widespread distribution of tetrapods during the early Carboniferous period, a period sometimes called the “age of the amphibians.”

The Paleozoic Era and the Evolution of Vertebrates

When the vertebrates arose during the Paleozoic Era (542 to 251 MYA), the climate and geography of Earth was vastly different. The distribution of landmasses on Earth were also very different from that of today. Near the equator were two large supercontinents, Laurentia and Gondwana, which included most of today’s continents, but in a radically different configuration (Figure 2). At this time, sea levels were very high, probably at a level that hasn’t been reached since. As the Paleozoic progressed, glaciations created a cool global climate, but conditions warmed near the end of the first half of the Paleozoic. During the latter half of the Paleozoic, the landmasses began moving together, with the initial formation of a large northern block called Laurasia, which contained parts of what is now North America, along with Greenland, parts of Europe, and Siberia. Eventually, a single supercontinent, called Pangaea, was formed, starting in the latter third of the Paleozoic. Glaciations then began to affect Pangaea’s climate and the distribution of vertebrate life.

A world map shows two continents, Gondwana and Laurentia, which are shaped very differently from the continents of today. Gondwana was made up of two smaller subcontinents separated by a narrow sea. One continent contained modern Antarctica, and the other contained parts of Africa.

Figure 2. Paleozoic continents. During the Paleozoic Era, around 550 million years ago, the continent Gondwana formed. Both Gondwana and the continent Laurentia were located near the equator.


During the early Paleozoic, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was much greater than it is today. This may have begun to change later, as land plants became more common. As the roots of land plants began to infiltrate rock and soil began to form, carbon dioxide was drawn out of the atmosphere and became trapped in the rock. This reduced the levels of carbon dioxide and increased the levels of oxygen in the atmosphere, so that by the end of the Paleozoic, atmospheric conditions were similar to those of today.

As plants became more common through the latter half of the Paleozoic, microclimates began to emerge and ecosystems began to change. As plants and ecosystems continued to grow and become more complex, vertebrates moved from the water to land. The presence of shoreline vegetation may have contributed to the movement of vertebrates onto land. One hypothesis suggests that the fins of aquatic vertebrates were used to maneuver through this vegetation, providing a precursor to the movement of fins on land and the development of limbs. The late Paleozoic was a time of diversification of vertebrates, as amniotes emerged and became two different lines that gave rise, on one hand, to mammals, and, on the other hand, to reptiles and birds. Many marine vertebrates became extinct near the end of the Devonian period, which ended about 360 million years ago, and both marine and terrestrial vertebrates were decimated by a mass extinction in the early Permian period about 250 million years ago.

View Earth’s Paleogeography: Continental Movements Through Time to see changes in Earth as life evolved.

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  1. Daeschler, E. B., Shubin, N. H., and Jenkins, F. J. “A Devonian tetrapod-like fish and the evolution of the tetrapod body plan,” Nature 440 (2006): 757–763, doi:10.1038/nature04639,