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Ancient amphibians discovered in Brazil

Two new extinct amphibian species and the oldest terrestrial reptile skeleton ever found in South America have been discovered in Brazil. 

Two new extinct amphibian species that lived 278 million years ago have been uncovered in northeastern Brazil alongside the oldest terrestrial reptile skeleton ever found in South America. Described today in Nature Communications, they were discovered during field expeditions by an international team, including scientists from the Natural History Museum in London, and colleagues from Brazil, Argentina, Germany, the USA and South Africa.

The two new aquatic amphibians are relatives of modern salamanders. Timonya annae was a small fanged creature reaching 40 centimetres in length that looked like a cross between a modern Mexican salamander and eel. Procuhy nazariensis, was a close relative of Timonya and would have reached a similar length. Both species are from an extinct group known as the dvinosaurs, distant relatives of modern salamanders. Skull remains of a rhinesuchidae steresopondyl amphibian whose distant relatives lived in South Africa in later times were also found.

The find fills an important geographic gap in our understanding of the evolution and adaptation of amphibians, a group that is increasingly under threat today from environmental change and diseases such as the chytrid fungus. Until now, our knowledge of four-legged vertebrates from the beginning of this pre-historic period was limited to North America and Western Europe, with very little known about which animals lived in the southern tropics.

Dr Martha Richter, palaeontologist and fossil vertebrates collection manager at the Natural History Museum and co-author of the study says:

'This discovery is remarkable as most of what we understand about the evolution and adaptation of amphibians through time is based on animals located in Europe and North America. Now that we know that their distant relatives inhabited a vast lake system in the tropical region of the supercontinent Pangaea in areas that correspond to north-eastern Brazil, we can find out more about their abundance, palaeobiology and how wide their distribution away from the equator was.'

The team also discovered a reptile fossil that is very similar to the lizard-like Captorhinus aguti, a species found in contemporary rocks in North America. This is the oldest reptile bone fossil ever found in South America. These finds will help scientists paint a picture of the ways animals spread during the Permian and how they colonised new areas.

Dr Richter adds, 'More than 90 per cent of the all the species on Earth went extinct at the end of the Permian 253 million years ago, as conditions worldwide became so inhospitable. It was the worst mass-extinction known to date. Understanding the composition of extinct faunas like this in north-eastern Brazil and how they changed through time may help us to better predict how today's lake systems and their complex communities of animals evolve in response to the extensive global environmental changes. Although the configuration of the continents and climate were different then, we and the rest of the modern faunas are in danger of having to face dramatic climate change within only a few decades.'

Ken Angielczyk, a scientist from the Field Museum in Chicago and joint author of the study said:

'Exploration in understudied regions, such as north-eastern Brazil, gives us a snapshot of life elsewhere that we can use for comparisons. In turn, we can see which animals were dispersing into new areas, particularly as an ice age was ending in the southern continents and environmental conditions were becoming more favourable for reptiles and amphibians'.

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  • The Natural History Museum welcomes more than five million visitors a year and is a world-leading science research centre. Through its unique collection and unrivalled expertise it is tackling the biggest challenges facing the world today. It helps enable food security, eradicate disease and manage resource scarcity. It is studying the diversity of life and the delicate balance of ecosystems to ensure the survival of our planet.
  • This research was sponsored by the Negaunee Foundation, The Grainger Foundation, The Field Museum, Conselho Nacional para a Ciência e Tecnologia, National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration, Universidad de Buenos Aires Ciencia y Técnica, a Sofja Kovalevskaja Award of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and the Natural History Museum of London. 
  • The research team includes scientists from Brazil’s Universidad Federal do Piauí, Argentina's Universidad de Buenos Aires, the Iziko South African Museum, South Africa's University of Witwatersrand, London's Natural History Museum, Berlin's Museum für Naturkunde and Humboldt-Universität, and Chicago's Field Museum and Saint Xavier University. 
  • The fossils are housed at the Federal University of Piaui in Teresina, Brazil.