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Fossil Focus: The First Mammals

Fossil Focus: The First Mammals

Fossil Focus
by Elsa Panciroli1 Introduction: The study of the earliest mammals is an exciting part of palaeontology, telling us not only about strange animals that once lived on Earth, but also about how our own ancestors evolved alongside the dinosaurs. Early mammal fossils are very rare and often we only find a few teeth and bones, but we can tell a lot about the animals’ ecology and evolution from these remains. Discoveries of more-complete skeletons, particularly in China, are now revealing that early mammals were more successful and diverse than anyone had suspected. They specialized to exploit new habitats, diets and ways of living that would lead to their ultimate success. I want to give you an overview of the earliest mammals: mammals from the time of the dinosaurs. We will look at what d
Perspectives: Fossils and the Law — A Summary

Perspectives: Fossils and the Law — A Summary

Perspectives
by Jack J. Matthews1 Introduction: Geoconservation, also known as Earth Heritage Conservation, is how we protect important examples of Earth’s physical resources. Geological features can be protected for all sorts of reasons, including being important to cultural heritage, geological education and understanding, or the overall aesthetics of an area. A great many designations, management frameworks and legal instruments have been used to govern and protect fossil-rich outcrops in the United Kingdom, but these are poorly publicized and, for example, rarely taught to palaeontologists as part of an undergraduate degree. Field work is an important part of palaeontological research, so it is a good idea for everyone who works with fossils, whether amateur or professional, to have a good und
Fossil Focus: The Ediacaran Biota

Fossil Focus: The Ediacaran Biota

Fossil Focus
by Frances S. Dunn*1 and Alex G. Liu2 Introduction: The Ediacaran period, from 635 million to 541 million years ago, was a time of immense geological and evolutionary change. It witnessed the transition out of an ice-house climate, the break-up of one supercontinent (Rodinia) and the assembly of another (Gondwana), a major meteorite impact (the Acraman event) and unprecedented shifts in global ocean chemistry that included a significant rise in oxygen concentrations (Fig. 1A). Rocks from the Ediacaran also record the appearance of a diverse (species-rich) group of large, morphologically complex lifeforms: the Ediacaran biota. These organisms were globally abundant from about 571 million to 541 million years ago. To our modern eyes, many Ediacaran fossils look strange and unfamiliar, and
Fossil Focus: Sauropodomorpha

Fossil Focus: Sauropodomorpha

Fossil Focus
by David Button1 Introduction The sauropods are some of the most iconic prehistoric vertebrates. Their unique body plan — long neck and tail, bulky body and proportionately tiny head — is perhaps the most famous image of ‘a dinosaur’ and the group includes household names such as Brontosaurus, Diplodocus and Brachiosaurus. Sauropod remains have been found on every continent, and they were one of the most important groups of terrestrial giant plant eaters, or megaherbivores, throughout the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods (201 million to 66 million years ago). The single most notable sauropod trait is their gigantic size: the largest sauropods would have measured more than 40 metres from nose to tail, reached 18 metres tall and tipped the scales in the region of 60–80 tonnes, making them t
Fossil Focus: Acritarchs

Fossil Focus: Acritarchs

Fossil Focus
by Heda Agić*1 Introduction: The acritarchs are a major, long-ranging and successful group of small, capsule-like, organically preserved fossils, which are present in the rock record of most of Earth’s history, dating back 1.8 billion year, or perhaps even as many as 3.4 billion years (Fig. 1). They include mostly single-celled microfossils ranging from a few micrometres (one-millionth of a metre) to one millimetre in size, and each is made up of a sac of organic tissue (vesicle). They are most commonly round, and can be either smooth or covered in spines (Fig. 2). Acritarchs are found in rock deposits that were once marine and terrestrial aquatic environments, and have been described from localities on all continents, as well as from all time periods from the Proterozoic eon (starting 2
Patterns in Palaeontology: From giants to dwarfs – Estimating the body mass of extinct species

Patterns in Palaeontology: From giants to dwarfs – Estimating the body mass of extinct species

Patterns in Palaeontology
by Charlotte Brassey1 Introduction Body mass is so fundamental to an organism that it is often overlooked, yet it has considerable importance in animal biology. It is, quite literally, the amount of matter making up an individual. On a day-to-day basis, we encounter values for body mass as we step onto our bathroom scales and are encouraged to maintain a healthy weight (not too heavy or too light). Veterinarians are interested in body mass for much the same reason: the weight of an animal can provide an indication of its health and is commonly used to plan medical treatments. Body mass is also tied to an animal’s physiology (including speed of metabolism and length of pregnancy), ecology (diet, home-range size) and behaviour (social status, aggression). For these reasons, zoologists are
Education and Outreach: Dinosaurs in the movies

Education and Outreach: Dinosaurs in the movies

Education and Outreach
by Szymon Górnicki*1 Introduction: Dinosaurs fit perfectly into the role of movie monsters: many were enormous, or had distinctive characteristics such as spikes, horns, claws and big teeth. The fact that they aren’t found in the modern world (except for birds) excites the imagination, and films represent some of the few opportunities to see them as they may have looked when they were alive. It’s not surprising that the history of movies featuring dinosaurs goes back more than 100 years. The cinematographic rise of the dinosaurs: The first moving picture featuring dinosaurs was Prehistoric Peeps (1905), an adaptation of a cartoon with the same name. The film launched the popular trend of showing primitive humans and non-avian dinosaurs living alongside one another, even though the foss
Patterns in Palaeontology: A story of vision

Patterns in Palaeontology: A story of vision

Patterns in Palaeontology
by James Fleming*1 Introduction: Photoreception, the ability to perceive light, is a sense shared by many living organisms on Earth. However, only some can take the step beyond merely detecting light levels, and generate an image. Humans are among the animals that have image-forming vision, and are able to see in colour in the day (polychromatic diurnal vision) and in black and white at night (monochromatic nocturnal vision) — the shades of colour that we pick up on an evening out trigger our diurnal receptors at very low levels. However, this is not the only way in which animals can see the world around them. Some species, such as whales and dolphins, can see only monochromatically no matter the time of day, while others see in colour no matter how dark it gets! The elephant hawk-mot

Patterns in Palaeontology: How and why did the arthropod shed its skin? Moulting in living and fossil arthropods

Patterns in Palaeontology
by Harriet B. Drage*1 Introduction: Arthropods are one of the most successful groups of animals, in the present day and the fossil record. There are more than 1 million described arthropod species, and it has been estimated that there are at least 5 million more undescribed alive today (Fig. 1). This makes up more than 80% of all known animal species! Arthropods also have an extremely diverse fossil record, extending back to the Cambrian Explosion 541 million years ago. For much of the Palaeozoic era (541 million to 252 million years ago), arthropods dominated marine ecosystems, and they have been significant components of all environments since then. The phylum Arthropoda encompasses insects (Hexapoda), crustaceans (such as shrimps and lobsters) and arachnids (such as spiders), a...

Fossil Focus: Mesozoic crocodyliforms

Fossil Focus
by Jonathan P. Tennant*1 Introduction: Crocodilians are truly iconic creatures, and throughout history have inspired stories of dragons and soul-devouring gods. Modern crocodilians are the crocodiles, alligators, caimans and gharials, all part of the crown group Crocodylia (Fig. 1). There are only 23 recognized species alive today, and of these 10 are considered to be endangered, according to the IUCN red list, due to ongoing environmental disruption and human activity. This relative lack of modern diversity stands out in stark contrast to that of their close relatives, the dinosaurs, whose modern descendants, the birds, have about 10,000 species around today! It isn’t obvious from looking at modern birds and crocodiles that they share a common ancestor. For instance, when was the last t