The water-to-land transition in vertebrate evolution offers an unusual opportunity to consider computational affordances of a new ecology for the brain. All sensory modalities are changed, particularly a greatly enlarged visual sensorium due to air versus water as a medium, and expanded by mobile eyes and neck. The multiplication of limbs, as evolved to exploit aspects of life on land, is a comparable computational challenge. As the total mass of living organisms on land is a hundredfold larger than the mass underwater, computational improvements promise great rewards. In water, the midbrain tectum coordinates approach/avoid decisions, contextualized by water flow and by the animal’s body state and learning. On land, the relative motions of sensory surfaces and effectors must be resolved, adding on computational architectures from the dorsal pallium, such as the parietal cortex. For the large-brained and long-living denizens of land, making the right decision when the wrong one means death may be the basis of planning, which allows animals to learn from hypothetical experience before enactment. Integration of value-weighted, memorized panoramas in basal ganglia/frontal cortex circuitry, with allocentric cognitive maps of the hippocampus and its associated cortices becomes a cognitive habit-to-plan transition as substantial as the change in ecology.This article is part of the theme issue ‘Systems neuroscience through the lens of evolutionary theory’.