The fish-to-tetrapod transition —followed later by terrestrialization—represented a major step in vertebrate evolution that gave rise to a successful clade that today contains more than 30,000 tetrapod species.
The early tetrapod Ichthyostega was discovered in 1929 in the Devonian Old Red Sandstone sediments of East Greenland (dated to approximately 365 million years ago). Since then, our understanding of the fish-to-tetrapod transition has increased considerably, owing to the discovery of additional Devonian taxa that represent early tetrapods or groups evolutionarily close to them.
However, the aquatic environment of early tetrapods and the vertebrate fauna associated with them has remained elusive and highly debated. Here we use a multi-stable isotope approach (δ13C, δ18O and δ34S) to show that some Devonian vertebrates, including early tetrapods, were euryhaline and inhabited transitional aquatic environments subject to high-magnitude, rapid changes in salinity, such as estuaries or deltas.
Euryhalinity may have predisposed the early tetrapod clade to be able to survive Late Devonian biotic crises and then successfully colonize terrestrial environments.