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Fossil Focus

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

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

Fossil Focus – Marrellomorph arthropods

Fossil Focus
by David Legg*1 Introduction: The Palaeozoic era was a time of incredible biological diversification, which saw the origins and establishment of most modern animal body plans and phyla, particularly during the Cambrian explosion, an event which lasted for about 20 million years during the early Cambrian Period (starting about 542 million years ago), and the subsequent Great Ordovician biodiversification event. During this time, there was a lot of ‘evolutionary experimentation’, with many ancient communities dominated by alien-looking creatures unlike any of their modern counterparts. One such peculiar group is the marrellomorph arthropods, roughly 11 species known exclusively from the lower Cambrian (starting about 542 million years ago) to the lower Devonian period (ending about 393 mil

Fossil Focus: Cinctans

Fossil Focus
by Imran A. Rahman*1 Introduction: The fossil record of early animals — which dates back at least to the Cambrian period, more than 500 million years ago — is packed full of bizarre sea creatures that seem, at first glance, rather different from anything alive today. These include the armoured slug-like Wiwaxia, the spiny worm-like Hallucigenia and Earth’s first big predator, Anomalocaris. Collectively, these fossils were termed “weird wonders” by the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould; they possess some, but not all, of the characteristics shared by their modern relatives, and so are crucial for understanding the early evolution of animal phyla. This article focuses on a peculiar extinct group of Cambrian weird wonders called the cinctans, which look more like tennis racquets t

Fossil focus: Giraffidae — where we’ve been and where we’re going

Fossil Focus
by Chris Basu1 Giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis) are charismatic and iconic animals. Together with their closest living relatives, okapis (Okapia johnstonii), they are remnants of an otherwise diverse group of even-toed ungulates - Giraffidae. Giraffids are ruminants (they have a specialized four-chambered stomach), and are related to other ruminant groups such as bovids (including cattle and antelopes), cervids (deer) and antilocaprids (pronghorns).  Ruminants use microbes in their stomachs to ferment and break down vegetation that would otherwise be impossible to digest. The origins of Giraffidae are hazy. DNA analysis confirms that they are a valid group, and that they diverged from other ruminants approximately 25 million years ago. This agrees with what is generally understood f

Fossil Focus: Ammonoids

Fossil Focus
by Kenneth De Baets1, René Hoffmann2, Jocelyn A. Sessa3 and Christian Klug4. Introduction: Ammonoids (Ammonoidea) are an extinct group of marine invertebrates with an external shell. They were cephalopods, and hence closely related to modern cuttlefish, squid, octopuses and the pearly nautilus. In a non-scientific context, they are commonly called ammonites, but that term really includes only Jurassic and Cretaceous forms in its stricter scientific sense. The Ammonoidea as a whole lived from the Early Devonian to the earliest Palaeogene period, covering a timespan of about 350 million years. Normally, only their shells, also called conchs, or their internal moulds are found in the fossil record. Conchs from adult ammonoids range from about 5 millimetres to 2 metres in diameter. Due to

Fossil focus: Stuck in time — life trapped in amber

Fossil Focus
by Leyla J. Seyfullah*1 and Alexander R. Schmidt1 Introduction: Some of the most extraordinary fossils ever discovered, from insects to plants and feathers, are preserved in amber. Amber is the term for various solidified forms of plant resin that occur in the rock record. It can be found in many different colours, shapes and sizes (Fig. 1). Until the past decade, it was thought to be very rare, but new discoveries have shown that it is more abundant in terms of both geographical coverage and presence through time than was previously thought. Although many amber deposits do not contain fossils, some do. Fossils (also known as inclusions) in amber often have exquisite, three-dimensional preservation, retaining fine surface and structural details, and are frequently preserved at lea...

Fossil focus: Acanthodians

Fossil Focus
by Richard Dearden*1 Introduction: The acanthodians are a mysterious extinct group of fishes, which lived in the waters of the Palaeozoic era (541 million to 252 million years ago). They are characterized by a superficially shark-like coating of tiny scales, and spines in front of their fins (Fig. 1). The acanthodians’ heyday was during the Devonian period, about 419 million to 359 million years ago, but their fossil record stretches back to the Silurian period (around 440 million years ago). One specialized filter-feeding group, the Acanthodiformes, persisted until the end of the Permian period (about 252 million years ago), disappearing in the end-Permian mass extinction. Acanthodian fossils were first described by the eminent Swiss palaeontologist Louis Agassiz during the nineteenth c