270-million-year-old amphibian named after Kermit the Frog

An ancient amphibian ancestor found in Texas has been named Kermitops gratus in honour of iconic Muppet, Kermit the Frog.

The animal is known from a fossil skull which was in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. It is described as a new species of proto-amphibian in a paper published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

Two palaeontologists with a tiny amphibian skull fossil on a cushion in a museum collection with magnifying glass
Calvin So (right), a doctoral student at George Washington University, and Arjan Mann (left), a Smithsonian postdoctoral palaeontologist and former Peter Buck Fellow, with the fossil skull of Kermitops in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History fossil collection. Credit: Brittany M. Hance, Smithsonian.

“Using the name Kermit has significant implications for how we can bridge the science that is done by palaeontologists in museums to the general public,” says lead author and George Washington University doctoral student Calvin So. “Because this animal is a distant relative of today’s amphibians, and Kermit is a modern-day amphibian icon, it was the perfect name for it.”

The fossilised skull was found in 1984 by the late palaeontologist Nicholas Hotton III in outcrops in north central Texas known as the Red Beds.

Rocks in these outcrops are more than 270 million years old from the early Permian period (299–251 million years ago). The layers also include fossils of ancient reptiles and sail-backed synapsids, the ancient precursors to mammals.

The well-preserved skull of Kermitops “jumped out” at palaeontologists who were sifting through the Hotton’s fossils in 2021.

It has features different to those of earlier tetrapods – the first vertebrates to leave the ancient oceans and walk on land. The region of the skull behind the eyes is much shorter than its long, curved snout. It likely resembled a stocky salamander which ate tiny, grub-like insects.

Kermitops belongs to a diverse group of amphibians which lived for more than 200 million years from the Carboniferous to Triassic period.

Kermitops offers us clues to bridge this huge fossil gap and start to see how frogs and salamanders developed these really specialized traits,” So adds.

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