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Reptile Evolution

Amniotic reptiles evolved from reptiles that moved onto land and developed amniotic eggs.

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Reptile Evolution

So what exactly is a dinosaur?

Dinosaurs were not lizards. Rather, they were a separate group of reptiles with a distinct upright posture not found in lizards. Dinosaurs can be described as large, powerful reptiles. And many were very big. But dinosaurs were more than that. They were a varied group of animals with over 1,000 non-avian species.

Evolution of Reptiles

The earliest amniotes evolved about 350 million years ago. They resembled small lizards, but they were not yet reptiles. Their amniotic eggs allowed them to move away from bodies of water and become larger. They soon became the most important land vertebrates.

Synapsids and Sauropsids

By about 320 million years ago, early amniotes had diverged into two groups, called synapsids and sauropsids. Synapsids were amniotes that eventually gave rise to mammals. Sauropsids were amniotes that evolved into reptiles, dinosaurs, and birds. The two groups of amniotes differed in their skulls. The earliest known reptile, pictured in Figure below, dates back about 315 million years.

Hylonomus illustration: earliest reptile

Earliest Reptile: Hylonomus. The earliest known reptile is given the genus name Hylonomus. It was about 20 to 30 centimeters (8 to 12 inches) long, lived in swamps, and ate insects and other small invertebrates.

At first, synapsids were more successful than sauropsids. They became the most common vertebrates on land. However, during the Permian mass extinction 245 million years ago, most synapsids went extinct. Their niches were taken over by sauropsids, which had been relatively unimportant until then. This is called the Triassic takeover.

Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

By the middle of the Triassic about 225 million years ago, sauropsids had evolved into dinosaurs. Dinosaurs became increasingly important throughout the rest of the Mesozoic Era, as they radiated to fill most terrestrial niches. This is why the Mesozoic Era is called the Age of the Dinosaurs. During the next mass extinction, which occurred at the end of the Mesozoic Era, all of the dinosaurs went extinct. Many other reptiles survived, however, and they eventually gave rise to modern reptiles.

Evolution of Modern Reptile Orders

Figure below shows a traditional phylogenetic tree of living reptiles. Based on this tree, some of the earliest reptiles to diverge were ancestors of turtles. The first turtle-like reptiles are thought to have evolved about 250 million years ago. Ancestral crocodilians evolved at least 220 million years ago. Tuataras may have diverged from squamates (snakes and lizards) not long after that. Finally, lizards and snakes went their separate ways about 150 million years ago.

Reptilian phylogenetic tree

Traditional Reptile Phylogenetic Tree. This phylogenetic tree is based on physical traits of living and fossil reptiles. Trees based on DNA comparisons may differ from the traditional tree and from each other, depending on the DNA sequences used. Reptile evolution is currently an area of intense research and constant revision.


  • The earliest amniotes appeared about 350 million years ago, and the earliest reptiles evolved from a sauropsida ancestor by about 315 million years ago.
  • Dinosaurs evolved around 225 million years ago and dominated animal life on land until 65 million years ago, when they all went extinct.
  • Other reptiles survived and evolved into the classes of reptiles that exist today.

Explore More

Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.

  1. Describe Seymouria.
  2. Describe the adaptations that led to reptiles.
  3. What allowed reptiles to become more abundant?
  4. List two advantages of laying eggs on land.
  5. List three advantages reptiles have over amphibians.


  1. Identify amniotes called synapsids and sauropsids.
  2. Give a brief overview of reptile evolution.
  3. Explain why reptiles were able to replace amphibians as the dominant land vertebrates.


Age of the Dinosaurs

Age of the Dinosaurs

Refers to the Mesozoic Era.


A diverse group of reptiles; the dominant terrestrial vertebrates for 135 million years, from the beginning of the Jurassic (about 200 million years ago) until the end of the Cretaceous (65.5 million years ago).
phylogenetic tree

phylogenetic tree

Diagram that shows how species are related to each other through common ancestors.


Type of early amniote that evolved during the Carboniferous Period; eventually gave rise to dinosaurs, reptiles, and birds.


Type of early amniote that evolved during the Carboniferous Period; eventually gave rise to mammals.
Triassic takeover

Triassic takeover

Evolution of sauropsids into available niches after the Permian mass extinction.

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