Ancient fossils help us better understand modern-day species — and this one is named after Kermit the Frog

The fossil skull of Kermitops held in front of the Kermit the Frog puppet display in the “Entertainment Nation” exhibition at the National Museum of American History.

Kermit the Frog is known for his dream of finding the “Rainbow Connection,” but the Muppet’s latest adventure has him connected to a different discovery: The fossilized skull of a 270-million-year-old ancient amphibian ancestor.

The skull was uncovered in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History by a team of researchers at George Washington University. They described the fossil as a “new species of proto-amphibian” in a paper published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

It’s only fair, then, that they name this prehistoric amphibian after the most famous frog of our modern times: Kermit.

The specimen’s full government name is Kermitops gratus. Calvin So, the lead author of the new paper, said naming it as such is an opportunity to engage everyday people in the discoveries made in the often hidden-away halls of museum collections.

Arjan Mann (right) , a Smithsonian postdoctoral paleontologist and former Peter Buck Fellow, and Calvin So (left) , a doctoral student at George Washington University, holding the fossil skull of Kermitops in front of the Kermit the Frog puppet display in the “Entertainment Nation” exhibition at the National Museum of American History
Arjan Mann (right), a Smithsonian postdoctoral paleontologist and former andCalvin So (left), a doctoral student at George Washington University, holding the fossil skull of Kermitops in front of the Kermit the Frog puppet display in the“Entertainment Nation”exhibition at the National Museum of American History. Photo courtesy of James D. Tiller and James Di Loreto/Smithsonian

“Using the name Kermit has significant implications for how we can bridge the science that is done by paleontologists in museums to the general public,” So said in a statement

“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.”

It’s not just about banjo-playing antics for this Kermit, though. 

Although it may seem counterintuitive, discoveries of ancient species are helpful to scientists working to learn more and protect the animals that roam the earth today.

“The early fossil record of amphibians and their ancestors is largely fragmentary, which makes it difficult to understand how frogs, salamanders and their kin originated,” a press release from the museum explained. 

“Adding relatives like Kermitops into the fold is essential for fleshing out the early branches of the amphibian family tree.”

The fossil skull of Kermitops (left) alongside a modern frog skull (right)
The fossil skull of Kermitops (left) alongside a modern frog skull (right). Photo courtesy of Brittany M. Hance/Smithsonian

Researchers on the study hope that this discovery of an exciting ancestor hiding in plain sight will inspire others to take a look at their own museum’s fossil collections — to piece together clues from the distant past to better understand how we got to this current iteration of life on earth.

In fact, the Smithsonian’s enormous fossil collection provides avenues of study in DNA, environmental changes, biodiversity, evolution, and more. 

For instance, learning more from the mass extinction of species during an era of global warming known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, scientists can better understand how climate change can impact the health of an entire species.

“Fossils test our understanding of how the planet works — they contain clues that improve our ability to predict climate, in both the past and in the future,” Scott Wing, a paleobotanist who has worked with the Smithsonian since 1984, wrote in a blog post.

“I hope people of the future will look back on us and see that we learned the lessons of deep time.”

The discovery of Kermitops gratus 

The fossil that is now known as Kermitops was discovered by late paleontologist and curator Nicholas Hotton III in Texas in 1984. Hotton worked in the museum’s paleobiology department for nearly four decades, spending much of his time excavating fossils in the Red Beds of north central Texas. 

Kermitops was just one of his many finds — which included more fossilized remains of ancient reptiles, amphibians, and precursors to modern mammals — and was stored in the museum’s National Fossil Collection

Then, nearly 40 years later, it caught the eye of Arjan Mann, who teamed up with So to figure out who this skull belonged to.

They identified the skull as one that belonged to a temnospondyl, a diverse group of primitive amphibian relatives that lived for over 200 million years. But this particular specimen was unique enough to be the basis of an entirely new genus — thus the playful new name.

Arjan Mann with the fossil skull of Kermitops in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History fossil collection
Arjan Mann with the fossil skull of Kermitops in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History fossil collection. Photo courtesy of Phillip R. Lee/Smithsonian

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

This project is the latest collaboration between the Smithsonian and George Washington University, which provides students with access to collections and resources, allowing them to make major discoveries just like this.

Plus, as amphibians of today face multiple threats — from disease to habitat loss and pollution — learning more about where they come from could open up a world of knowledge to protect them.

“Paleontology is always more than just dinosaurs, and there are lots of cool evolutionary stories and mysteries still waiting to be answered,” Mann said. “We just need to keep looking.”

So, while this ancient skull can’t sing a tune, maybe this community of passionate researchers — and their discoveries — is really who Kermit was talking about when he sang about “the lovers, the dreamers, and me.”

Header image courtesy of James D.Tiller/Smithsonian

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