Amphibians are ectothermic, tetrapod vertebrates of the class Amphibia. Modern amphibians are all Lissamphibia. They inhabit a wide variety of habitats, with most species living within terrestrial, fossorial, arboreal or freshwater aquatic ecosystems. Thus amphibians typically start out as larvae living in water, but some species have developed behavioural adaptations to bypass this.
The earliest amphibians evolved in the Devonian period from sarcopterygian fish with lungs and bony-limbed fins, features that were helpful in adapting to dry land. They diversified and became dominant during the Carboniferous and Permian periods, but were later displaced by reptiles and other vertebrates. Over time, amphibians shrank in size and decreased in diversity, leaving only the modern subclass Lissamphibia.
With the phylogenetic classification, the taxon Labyrinthodontia has been discarded as it is a polyparaphyletic group without unique defining features apart from shared primitive characteristics. Classification varies according to the preferred phylogeny of the author and whether they use a stem-based or a node-based classification. Traditionally, amphibians as a class are defined as all tetrapods with a larval stage, while the group that includes the common ancestors of all living amphibians (frogs, salamanders and caecilians) and all their descendants is called Lissamphibia. The phylogeny of Paleozoic amphibians is uncertain, and Lissamphibia may possibly fall within extinct groups, like the Temnospondyli (traditionally placed in the subclass Labyrinthodontia) or the Lepospondyli, and in some analyses even in the amniotes. This means that advocates of phylogenetic nomenclature have removed a large number of basal Devonian and Carboniferous amphibian-type tetrapod groups that were formerly placed in Amphibia in Linnaean taxonomy, and included them elsewhere under cladistic taxonomy. If the common ancestor of amphibians and amniotes is included in Amphibia, it becomes a paraphyletic group.
Many examples of species showing transitional features have been discovered. Ichthyostega was one of the first primitive amphibians, with nostrils and more efficient lungs. It had four sturdy limbs, a neck, a tail with fins and a skull very similar to that of the lobe-finned fish, Eusthenopteron. Amphibians evolved adaptations that allowed them to stay out of the water for longer periods. Their lungs improved and their skeletons became heavier and stronger, better able to support the weight of their bodies on land. They developed "hands" and "feet" with five or more digits; the skin became more capable of retaining body fluids and resisting desiccation. The fish's hyomandibula bone in the hyoid region behind the gills diminished in size and became the stapes of the amphibian ear, an adaptation necessary for hearing on dry land. An affinity between the amphibians and the teleost fish is the multi-folded structure of the teeth and the paired supra-occipital bones at the back of the head, neither of these features being found elsewhere in the animal kingdom.
The origins and evolutionary relationships between the three main groups of amphibians is a matter of debate. A 2005 molecular phylogeny, based on rDNA analysis, suggests that salamanders and caecilians are more closely related to each other than they are to frogs. It also appears that the divergence of the three groups took place in the Paleozoic or early Mesozoic (around 250 million years ago), before the breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea and soon after their divergence from the lobe-finned fish. The briefness of this period, and the swiftness with which radiation took place, would help account for the relative scarcity of primitive amphibian fossils. There are large gaps in the fossil record, but the discovery of a Gerobatrachus hottoni from the Early Permian in Texas in 2008 provided a missing link with many of the characteristics of modern frogs. Molecular analysis suggests that the frog•salamander divergence took place considerably earlier than the palaeontological evidence indicates.[9] Newer research indicates that the common ancestor of all Lissamphibians lived about 315 million years ago, and that stereospondyls are the closest relatives to the caecilians.
Amphibians are ectothermic (cold-blooded) vertebrates that do not maintain their body temperature through internal physiological processes. Their metabolic rate is low and as a result, their food and energy requirements are limited. In the adult state, they have tear ducts and movable eyelids, and most species have ears that can detect airborne or ground vibrations. They have muscular tongues, which in many species can be protruded. Modern amphibians have fully ossified vertebrae with articular processes. Their ribs are usually short and may be fused to the vertebrae. Their skulls are mostly broad and short, and are often incompletely ossified. Their skin contains little keratin and lacks scales, apart from a few fish-like scales in certain caecilians. The skin contains many mucous glands and in some species, poison glands (a type of granular gland). The hearts of amphibians have three chambers, two atria and one ventricle. They have a urinary bladder and nitrogenous waste products are excreted primarily as urea. Most amphibians lay their eggs in water and have aquatic larvae that undergo metamorphosis to become terrestrial adults. Amphibians breathe by means of a pump action in which air is first drawn into the buccopharyngeal region through the nostrils. These are then closed and the air is forced into the lungs by contraction of the throat. They supplement this with gas exchange through the skin.
Amphibian skin is permeable to water. Gas exchange can take place through the skin (cutaneous respiration) and this allows adult amphibians to respire without rising to the surface of water and to hibernate at the bottom of ponds.[38] To compensate for their thin and delicate skin, amphibians have evolved mucous glands, principally on their heads, backs and tails. The secretions produced by these help keep the skin moist. In addition, most species of amphibian have granular glands that secrete distasteful or poisonous substances. Some amphibian toxins can be lethal to humans while others have little effect. The main poison-producing glands, the parotoids, produce the neurotoxin bufotoxin and are located behind the ears of toads, along the backs of frogs, behind the eyes of salamanders and on the upper surface of caecilians.
Most frogs can be classified as either prolonged or explosive breeders. Typically, prolonged breeders congregate at a breeding site, the males usually arriving first, calling and setting up territories. Other satellite males remain quietly nearby, waiting for their opportunity to take over a territory. The females arrive sporadically, mate selection takes place and eggs are laid. The females depart and territories may change hands. More females appear and in due course, the breeding season comes to an end. Explosive breeders on the other hand are found where temporary pools appear in dry regions after rainfall. These frogs are typically fossorial species that emerge after heavy rains and congregate at a breeding site. They are attracted there by the calling of the first male to find a suitable place, perhaps a pool that forms in the same place each rainy season. The assembled frogs may call in unison and frenzied activity ensues, the males scrambling to mate with the usually smaller number of females.