Amniotes (from Greek ἀμνίον amnion, "membrane surrounding the fetus", earlier "bowl in which the blood of sacrificed animals was caught", from ἀμνός amnos, "lamb") are a clade of tetrapod vertebrates comprising the reptiles, birds, and mammals that lay their eggs on land or retain the fertilized egg within the mother. They are distinguished from the anamniotes (fishes and amphibians), which typically lay their eggs in water. Older sources, particularly prior to the 20th century, may refer to amniotes as "higher vertebrates" and anamniotes as "lower vertebrates", based on the discredited idea of the Great Chain of Being.
Amniotes are tetrapods (descendants of four-limbed and backboned animals) that are characterised by having an egg equipped with an amnios, an adaptation to lay eggs on land rather than in water as the anamniotes (including frogs) typically do. Amniotes include synapsids (mammals along with their extinct kin) and sauropsids (reptiles and birds), as well as their ancestors. Amniote embryos, whether laid as eggs or carried by the female, are protected and aided by several extensive membranes. In eutherian mammals (such as humans), these membranes include the amniotic sac that surrounds the fetus. These embryonic membranes and the lack of a larval stage distinguish amniotes from tetrapod amphibians.
The first amniotes, referred to as "basal amniotes", resembled small lizards and evolved from the amphibian reptiliomorphs about 312 million years BC, in the Late Carboniferous geologic period (or Pennsylvanian), though with a possible Early Carboniferous (Mississippian) record. Their eggs could survive out of the water, allowing amniotes to branch out into drier environments. The eggs could also "breathe" and cope with wastes, allowing the eggs and the amniotes themselves to evolve into larger forms.
The amniotic egg represents a critical divergence within the vertebrates, one enabled to reproduce on dry land—free of the need to return to water for reproduction as required of the amphibians. From this point the amniotes spread around the globe, eventually to become the dominant land vertebrates. Very early in the evolutionary history of amniotes, basal amniotes diverged into two main lines, the synapsids and the sauropsids, both of which persist into the modern era. The oldest known fossil synapsid is Protoclepsydrops from about 312 million years ago, while the oldest known sauropsid is probably Paleothyris, in the order Captorhinida, from the Middle Pennsylvanian epoch (ca. 306–312 million years ago).