Abstract The origin of morphological novelties is a controversial topic in evolutionary developmental biology. The heads of anuran larvae have several unique structures, including the supra- and infrarostral cartilages, the specialised structure of the gill basket (used for filtration), and novel cranial muscle arrangements. FoxN3, a member of the forkhead/winged helix family of transcription factors, has been implicated as important for normal craniofacial development in the pipid anuran Xenopus laevis. We have investigated the effects of functional knockdown of FoxN3 (using antisense oligonucleotide morpholino) on the development of the larval head skeleton and the associated cranial muscles in X. laevis. Our data complement earlier studies and provide a more complete account of the requirement of FoxN3 in chondrocranium development. In addition, we analyse the effects of FoxN3 knockdown on cranial muscle development. We show that FoxN3 knockdown primarily affects the novel skeletal structures unique to anuran larvae, i.e. the rostralia or the fine structure of the gill apparatus. The articulation between the infrarostral and Meckel’s cartilage is malformed and the filigreed processes of the gill basket do not develop. Because these features do not develop after FoxN3 knockdown, the head morphology resembles that in the less specialised larvae of salamanders. Furthermore, the development of all cartilages derived from the neural crest is delayed and cranial muscle fibre development incomplete. The cartilage precursors initially condense in their proper position but later differentiate incompletely; several visceral arch muscles start to differentiate at their origin but fail to extend toward their insertion. Our findings indicate that FoxN3 is essential for the development of novel cartilages such as the infrarostral and other cranial tissues derived from the neural crest and, indirectly, also for muscle morphogenesis.