Crassigyrinus scoticusJennifer A. Clack
Crassigyrinus scoticus is an aquatic stem-tetrapod from the Late Mississippian and Early Pennsylvanian (Visean and basal Namurian) of Scotland, notable for combining bizarre specializations such as tiny forelimbs, with a number of primitive features such as the palatal construction. These have given rise to arguments about its taxonomic status. It is known from three skulls, one of which is in articulation with a fairly complete skeleton, and a couple of incomplete lower jaws. Not only is it taxonomically enigmatic, it must also have been a remarkable and formibable animal when alive.
Phylogenetic Position of Crassigyrinus
The taxonomic position of Crassigyrinus has been the source of some debate. Panchen (1985) regarded it as related to ‘anthracosaurs’, that is to say embolomeres plus Gephyrostegus and Eoherpeton. The basis for this rested upon a few characters such as ‘dark dentine’ in the teeth and the form of the dermal bone ornament. Since then, other analyses have progressively severed the link with anthracosaurs. However, the most recent descriptive work (Clack 1998) found that it clustered with Whatcheeria and the embolomeres. Since then, Ruta et al.(2003) in an analysis including representatives of all Palaeozoic tetrapod groups, concluded that it was the next most basal taxon after the Devonian forms, contrasting with Clack (2002), who placed it as the next stem taxon above the Early Carboniferous family Whatcheeriidae.
The author disagrees with the move to restrict the vernacular term ‘tetrapod’ to a crown clade (Gauthier et al., 1989). In this page, the term ‘tetrapod’ and ‘stem-tetrapod’ refer only to vertebrates with limbs and digits. (Refer to the lichen page on the Definition of the taxon Tetrapoda to get more information on this topic.)
The holotype skull, from Gilmerton near Edinburgh, shows a more or less undistorted and complete side view (Panchen 1973). The short pre-orbital region, quadrangular orbit and extended suspensorial region are clear from this specimen, as is the irregular, patchy nature of the dermal ornament. The snout is somewhat compressed, obscuring its structure. Further preparation of this and a second skull specimen showed that the naris was peculiar. Though relatively large, it included a cushion-shaped septomaxilla. A skull associated with a postcranial skeleton, from the Dora Bone Bed of Cowdenbeath, Fife, (Andrews et al. 1977, Panchen 1985) shows the skull table to be similar in structure to those of embolomeres, with unsutured junctions to the cheeks. In contrast to embolomeres, however, it had a primitive bone-pattern with supra-temporal/ postparietal contact. A notch between the skull table and the cheek has been interpreted as housing a spiracle, but the stapes is unknown.
A third skull (BMNH 30532), also from Gilmerton, shows the palate very clearly, and indicates that Crassigyrinus had a combination of a very osteolepiform-like configuration of the vomers, and extremely specialized, massive palatal dentition. This specimen also shows more clearly than the other two, a bizarre fenestra between the premaxillae, which communicated with an anterior palatal fenestra (Clack 1998). The function of this structure is unknown. Large holes in the dorsal surface of the dentary housed the massive palatal teeth when the jaws were closed, a feature unique to Crassigyrinus. In other respects the lower jaws prove to be rather primitive in construction (Ahlberg and Clack 1998)
If the skull was bizarre, the postcranial skeleton to which it attached was correspondingly weird (see title figure). The humerus was extremely small, no longer than the longest dimension of the orbit. It retains some of the extra foramina seen in Ichthyostega and Acanthostega. The ulna and radius were similarly reduced making the forelimbs “ridiculously small” (Panchen and Smithson 1990). They articulated with the shoulder girdle at a point very close to the jaw joint. It is not known how many digits were present. Long curved ribs surrounded the body, attached to centra which were poorly ossified and formed ventral U-shaped supports for the persistent notochord. The hind limbs were relatively small compared with a more conventional tetrapod, but were not nearly so reduced as the forelimbs.
Paleoecology and Lifestyle
Crassigyrinus was a large, long-bodied, permanently aquatic predator, with fearsome-looking teeth in a heavily reinforced skull. The snout in particular was consolidated and buttressed, and with a kinetic inertial jaw mechanism, would have produced a bone-smashing snap-trap. Its large eyes were probably adapted for use in murky coal-swampy water. Panchen (1985) envisaged it as behaviourally somewhat analgous to a Moray eel.
Ahlberg, P.E., Clack, J.A. 1998. Lower jaws, lower tetrapods - a review based on the Devonian genus Acanthostega. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Earth Sciences, 89, 11-46.
Andrews, S.M., Browne, M.A.E., Panchen, A.L.&. and Wood, S.P. 1977. Discovery of amphibians in the Namurian (Upper Carboniferous) from Fife. Nature 265: 529-532.
Clack, J. A. 1998. The Scottish Carboniferous tetrapod Crassigyrinus scoticus (Lydekker) - cranial anatomy and relationships. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh: Earth Sciences. 88, 127-142.
Clack, J. A. 2002. An early tetrapod from Romer's Gap. Nature 418: 72-76.
Gauthier, J., Canatella, D., De Queiroz, K., Kluge, A. and Rowe, T. 1989. Tetrapod phylogeny. In: Fernholm, B., Bremer, K. and Jornwall, H., The Hierarchy of Life. London, Elsevier Science Publishers, pp. 337-353.
Panchen, A.L. 1973. On Crassigyrinus scoticus Watson, a primitive amphibian from the Lower Carboniferous of Scotland. Palaeontology 16: 179-193.
Panchen, A.L. 1985. On the amphibian
Panchen, A.L. and Smithson, T.R. 1990. The pelvic girdle and hind limb of Crassigyrinus scoticus (Lydekker) from the Scottish Carboniferous and the origin of the tetrapod pelvic skeleton. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh: Earth Sciences. 81: 31-44.
Ruta, M., Coates, M.I., Quicke, D.L.J. 2003. Early tetrapod relationships revisited. Biological Reviews, 78, 251-345
About This PageI would like to express my grateful thanks to Michel Laurin for guiding me through the production of these pages and for editing the result. I would also like to thank David Maddison for scanning in the images for me, and Katja Schulz for finalising the appearance of the pages.
Jennifer A. Clack
University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, UK
Correspondence regarding this page should be directed to Jennifer A. Clack at
Page copyright © 2011 Jennifer A. Clack
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- First online 28 January 1998
- Content changed 09 February 2006
Citing this page:
Clack, Jennifer A. 2006. Crassigyrinus. Crassigyrinus scoticus. Version 09 February 2006. http://tolweb.org/Crassigyrinus_scoticus/15012/2006.02.09 in The Tree of Life Web Project, http://tolweb.org/