The Branchiosauridae was a clade of small amphibians from the Permo-Carboniferous with an overall salamander-like appearance. The clade is distinguished by an extraordinary fossil record that comprises hundreds of well-preserved specimens, representing a wide range of ontogenetic stages. Branchiosaurids had external gills and weakly ossified skeletons, and due to this larval appearance their status as neotenic (perennibranchiate) forms has long been accepted. Despite their extensive fossil record large specimens with an adult morphology appeared to be lacking altogether, but recently two adult specimens were identified in a rich sample of Apateon gracilis collected in the 19th century from a locality near Dresden, Saxony. These specimens are unique among branchiosaurids in showing a high level of ossification, including bones that have never been reported in a branchiosaur. These highlight the successive formation of features believed to indicate terrestrial locomotion, as well as feeding on larger prey items. Moreover, these transformations occurred in a small time window (whereas the degree of size increase is used as a proxy of time) and the degree of concentration of developmental events in branchiosaurids is unique among tetrapods outside the lissamphibians. These specimens are compared with large adults of the neotenic branchiosaurid Apateon caducus from the Saar-Nahe Basin, which despite their larger body size lack the features found in the adult A. gracilis specimens. These specimens give new insight into patterns of metamorphosis (morphological transformation) in branchiosaurids that are believed to be correlated to a change of habitat, and clearly show that different life-history pathways comparable to those of modern salamanders were already established in this Paleozoic clade.
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Vol. 60 • No. 7