Clades of Amphibians

Learning Outcomes

  • Distinguish between the characteristics of Urodela, Anura, and Apoda

Amphibia comprises an estimated 6,770 extant species that inhabit tropical and temperate regions around the world. Amphibians can be divided into three clades: Urodela (“tailed-ones”), the salamanders; Anura (“tail-less ones”), the frogs; and Apoda (“legless ones”), the caecilians.

Urodela: Salamanders

The photo shows a black salamander with bright yellow spots.

Figure 1. Most salamanders have legs and a tail, but respiration varies among species. (credit: Valentina Storti)

Salamanders are amphibians that belong to the order Urodela. Living salamanders (Figure 1) include approximately 620 species, some of which are aquatic, other terrestrial, and some that live on land only as adults. Adult salamanders usually have a generalized tetrapod body plan with four limbs and a tail. They move by bending their bodies from side to side, called lateral undulation, in a fish-like manner while “walking” their arms and legs fore and aft. It is thought that their gait is similar to that used by early tetrapods. Respiration differs among different species. The majority of salamanders are lungless, and respiration occurs through the skin or through external gills. Some terrestrial salamanders have primitive lungs; a few species have both gills and lungs.

Unlike frogs, virtually all salamanders rely on internal fertilization of the eggs. The only male amphibians that possess copulatory structures are the caecilians, so fertilization among salamanders typically involves an elaborate and often prolonged courtship. Such a courtship allows the successful transfer of sperm from male to female via a spermatophore. Development in many of the most highly evolved salamanders, which are fully terrestrial, occurs during a prolonged egg stage, with the eggs guarded by the mother. During this time, the gilled larval stage is found only within the egg capsule, with the gills being resorbed, and metamorphosis being completed, before hatching. Hatchlings thus resemble tiny adults.

View River Monsters: Fish With Arms and Hands? to see a video about an unusually large salamander species.

Anura: Frogs

Frogs are amphibians that belong to the order Anura (Figure 2a). Anurans are among the most diverse groups of vertebrates, with approximately 5,965 species that occur on all of the continents except Antarctica. Anurans have a body plan that is more specialized for movement. Adult frogs use their hind limbs to jump on land. Frogs have a number of modifications that allow them to avoid predators, including skin that acts as camouflage. Many species of frogs and salamanders also release defensive chemicals from glands in the skin that are poisonous to predators.

Part a shows a big, bright green frog sitting on a branch. Part b shows a frog with a long tail from the tadpole stage.

Figure 2. (a) The Australian green tree frog is a nocturnal predator that lives in the canopies of trees near a water source. (b) A juvenile frog metamorphoses into a frog. Here, the frog has started to develop limbs, but its tadpole tail is still evident.

Frog eggs are fertilized externally, and like other amphibians, frogs generally lay their eggs in moist environments. A moist environment is required as eggs lack a shell and thus dehydrate quickly in dry environments. Frogs demonstrate a great diversity of parental behaviors, with some species laying many eggs and exhibiting little parental care, to species that carry eggs and tadpoles on their hind legs or backs. The life cycle of frogs, as other amphibians, consists of two distinct stages: the larval stage followed by metamorphosis to an adult stage. The larval stage of a frog, the tadpole, is often a filter-feeding herbivore. Tadpoles usually have gills, a lateral line system, long-finned tails, and lack limbs. At the end of the tadpole stage, frogs undergo metamorphosis into the adult form (Figure 2b). During this stage, the gills, tail, and lateral line system disappear, and four limbs develop. The jaws become larger and are suited for carnivorous feeding, and the digestive system transforms into the typical short gut of a predator. An eardrum and air-breathing lungs also develop. These changes during metamorphosis allow the larvae to move onto land in the adult stage.

Apoda: Caecilians

This photo shows a limbless, serpentine amphibian, which appears very similar to a worm

Figure 3. The Boettger’s caecilian, Siphonops paulensis, is a species of caecilian.

An estimated 185 species comprise caecilians (Figure 3), a group of amphibians that belong to the order Apoda. Although they are vertebrates, a complete lack of limbs leads to their resemblance to earthworms in appearance.

They are adapted for a soil-burrowing or aquatic lifestyle, and they are nearly blind. These animals are found in the tropics of South America, Africa, and Southern Asia. They have vestigial limbs, evidence that they evolved from a legged ancestor.

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