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What do ossification sequences tell us about the origin of extant amphibians?

By Michel Laurin, Océane Lapauze, David Marjanović

Posted 20 Jun 2018
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/352609

The origin of extant amphibians has been studied using several sources of data and methods, including phylogenetic analyses of morphological data, molecular dating, stratigraphic data, and integration of ossification sequence data, but a consensus about their affinities with other Paleozoic tetrapods has failed to emerge. We have compiled five datasets to assess the relative support for six competing hypotheses about the origin of extant amphibians: a monophyletic origin among temnospondyls, a monophyletic origin among lepospondyls, a diphyletic origin among both temnospondyls and lepospondyls, a diphyletic origin among temnospondyls alone, and two variants of a triphyletic origin, in which anurans and urodeles come from different temnospondyl taxa while caecilians come from lepospondyls and are either closer to anurans and urodeles or to amniotes. Our datasets comprise ossification sequences of up to 107 terminal taxa and up to eight cranial bones, and up to 65 terminal taxa and up to seven appendicular bones, respectively. Among extinct taxa, only two or three temnospondyl can be analyzed simultaneously for cranial data, but this is not an insuperable problem because each of the six tested hypotheses implies a different position of temnospondyls and caecilians relative to other sampled taxa. For appendicular data, more extinct taxa can be analyzed, including some lepospondyls and the finned tetrapodomorph Eusthenopteron , in addition to temnospondyls. The data are analyzed through maximum likelihood, and the AICc (corrected Akaike Information Criterion) weights of the six hypotheses allow us to assess their relative support. By an unexpectedly large margin, our analyses of the cranial data support a monophyletic origin among lepospondyls; a monophyletic origin among temnospondyls, the current near-consensus, is a distant second. All other hypotheses are exceedingly unlikely according to our data. Surprisingly, analysis of the appendicular data supports triphyly of extant amphibians within a clade that unites lepospondyls and temnospondyls, contrary to all phylogenies based on molecular data and recent trees based on paleontological data, but this conclusion is not very robust.

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