The terrestrial radiation of vertebrates required changes in skin that resolved the dual demands of maintaining a mechanical and physiological barrier while also facilitating ion and gas transport. Using the amphibious killifish Kryptolebias marmoratus, we found that transcriptional regulation of skin morphogenesis was quickly activated upon air exposure (1 h). Rapid regulation of cell–cell adhesion complexes and pathways that regulate stratum corneum formation was consistent with barrier function and mechanical reinforcement. Unique blood vessel architecture and regulation of angiogenesis likely supported cutaneous respiration. Differences in ionoregulatory transcripts and ionocyte morphology were correlated with differences in salinity acclimation and resilience to air exposure. Evolutionary analyses reinforced the adaptive importance of these mechanisms. We conclude that rapid plasticity of barrier, respiratory and ionoregulatory functions in skin evolved to support the amphibious lifestyle of K. marmoratus; similar processes may have facilitated the terrestrial radiation of other contemporary and ancient fishes.