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 young generally undergo metamorphosis from larva with gills to an adult air-breathing form with lungs. Amphibians use their skin as a secondary respiratory surface and some small terrestrial salamanders and frogs lack lungs and rely entirely on their skin. They are superficially similar to lizards but, along with mammals and birds, reptiles are amniotes and do not require water bodies in which to breed. With their complex reproductive needs and permeable skins, amphibians are often ecological indicators; in recent decades there has been a dramatic decline in amphibian populations for many species around the globe.
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.
The three modern orders of amphibians are Anura (the frogs and toads), Urodela (the salamanders), and Apoda (the caecilians). The number of known amphibian species is approximately 7,000, of which nearly 90% are frogs. The smallest amphibian (and vertebrate) in the world is a frog from New Guinea (Paedophryne amauensis) with a length of just 7.7 mm (0.30 in). The largest living amphibian is the 1.8 m (5 ft 11 in) Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus), but this is dwarfed by the extinct 9 m (30 ft) Prionosuchus from the middle Permian of Brazil. The study of amphibians is called batrachology, while the study of both reptiles and amphibians is called herpetology.
The word "amphibian" is derived from the Ancient Greek term ἀμφίβιος (amphíbios), which means "both kinds of life", ἀμφί meaning "of both kinds" and βιος meaning "life". The term was initially used as a general adjective for animals that could live on land or in water, including seals and otters. Traditionally, the class Amphibia includes all tetrapod vertebrates that are not amniotes. Amphibia in its widest sense (sensu lato) was divided into three subclasses, two of which are extinct:
The actual number of species in each group depends on the taxonomic classification followed. The two most common systems are the classification adopted by the website AmphibiaWeb, University of California, Berkeley and the classification by herpetologist Darrel Frost and the American Museum of Natural History, available as the online reference database "Amphibian Species of the World". The numbers of species cited above follows Frost and the total number of known amphibian species is over 7,000, of which nearly 90% are frogs.
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.
All modern amphibians are included in the subclass Lissamphibia, which is usually considered a clade, a group of species that have evolved from a common ancestor. The three modern orders are Anura (the frogs and toads), Caudata (or Urodela, the salamanders), and Gymnophiona (or Apoda, the caecilians). It has been suggested that salamanders arose separately from a Temnospondyl-like ancestor, and even that caecilians are the sister group of the advanced reptiliomorph amphibians, and thus of amniotes. Although the fossils of several older proto-frogs with primitive characteristics are known, the oldest "true frog" is Prosalirus bitis, from the Early Jurassic Kayenta Formation of Arizona. It is anatomically very similar to modern frogs. The oldest known caecilian is another Early Jurassic species, Eocaecilia micropodia, also from Arizona. The earliest salamander is Beiyanerpeton jianpingensis from the Late Jurassic of northeastern China.