Year: 2014

Fossil Focus: Tyrannosaurs

Fossil Focus
by Dave Hone(1) Introduction: Thanks to Tyrannosaurus rex, the tyrannosaurs are among the most famous of the extinct dinosaur groups. They receive a disproportionate amount of attention in the media and hold a firm place in the public imagination. However, this also means that more misconceptions and out-of-date ideas are promoted for this group than any other, and the excess of attention detracts from the fact that they are a genuinely interesting clade of animals. In fact, thanks to a great deal of research effort, we may know more about tyrannosaurs than any other group of dinosaurs from the Mesozoic era (252 million to 66 million years ago). This alone makes them a key part of palaeontology. All tyrannosaurs were carnivores, and although the most famous forms from the last part o...

Fossil Focus: Annelids

Fossil Focus
by Luke Parry*1 Introduction: Annelids, whose name comes from the Latin meaning ‘little ring’, make up a phylum of invertebrates with a unique segmented body plan. They are important components of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, and form one of the most diverse invertebrate groups, including as many as 15,000 described species (Fig. 1). Their closest living relatives are the molluscs, brachiopods and nemerteans (proboscis worms). Annelids can broadly be split into two groups, the polychaetes and clitellates. These groups share many features, such as segmented bodies and paired bundles of bristles made of chitin, called chaetae or setae. The most familiar annelids are the clitellates — the earthworms, leeches and their relatives — which have become adapted to a terrestrial lifestyle

Fossil Focus: Porpoises

Fossil Focus
by Rachel A. Racicot*1 Introduction Porpoises are among the smallest of modern whales, but they are one of the most amazing groups. They use specialized high-frequency hearing and sound production, and they have one of the best fossil records of any marine mammal. Thanks to modern imaging technology, we have been able to learn about how porpoises are able to sense their environment through echolocation and how they evolved. I will be telling you a bit about a particularly interesting porpoise from the fossil record, Semirostrum ceruttii (‘Cerutti’s half-nose’), and using it as an example of how CT scans help scientists to explore ancient and modern anatomy. What are porpoises? People sometimes use ‘porpoise’ interchangeably with ‘dolphin’, but scientists use the term to refer to a dist

Patterns in Palaeontology: Palaeoart – fossil fantasies or recreating lost reality?

Patterns in Palaeontology
by Mark P. Witton*1 Introduction: Illustrations, sculptures and animations of fossil organisms and the world around them are mainstays of palaeontology. Such restorations, known as palaeoart, are more important than they may at first seem: they help to communicate palaeontological ideas across age and language barriers; have inspired generations of scientists; and have provided the foundation of an international industry of palaeontology-themed merchandise and media worth hundreds of millions of pounds. Due to its increasing prominence and popularity, palaeoart is routinely scrutinized by scientists and the public alike. How can we infer so much about the postures, soft tissues, colours and behaviour of extinct animals when fossil skeletons — be they shells, bones or carapaces — are all

Fossil Focus: Diagnosing Dinosaurs

Fossil Focus
by Jennifer Anné*1 Introduction Palaeopathology is the study of the disease and repair of ancient life — most commonly in bone. First coined for the study of diseases in Egyptian mummies, the term was adopted to cover fossil material in 1917 by the first dinosaur doctor, Roy L. Moodie, but has become popular only in recent decades. It is surprising that the study of palaeopathology in the fossil record took so long to catch on in palaeontology. Part of the problem lies with difficulty in getting hold of specimens or accessing the techniques and equipment needed for sensitive analysis. But even if all those problems have been overcome, diagnosing a fossil pathology beyond a vague description brings its own challenges. Difficulties with diagnosing Palaeopathologies may be fairly easy for

Perspectives: Three years on, palaeontology still online

by the Palaeontology [online] team Palaeontology and the history of life are topics that capture the imaginations of children and adults alike, many of whom are keen to learn all about the latest weird wonders discovered by science. Communicating cutting-edge research to the public can be difficult, however, partly because scientists tend to publish their results in technical papers aimed at other scientists, but also because these papers are generally not freely available to non-academics — although the growth of open access means that this is improving in many countries. Popular-science writers provide accurate and accessible summaries of some of the most topical work, but can cover only a fraction of the research carried out by palaeontologists, naturally focusing on current stories

Fossil Focus: Placodonts

Fossil Focus
by James M. Neenan1 Introduction: The placodonts were a group of marine reptiles that lived in shallow coastal waters, and mostly ate hard-shelled prey such as mussels and other bivalves (that is, they were durophagous). They lived during the Triassic period, and have so far been found in modern-day Europe, the Mediterranean and South China (Fig. 1). The Triassic was a very special time for marine-reptile evolution, with their greatest morphological diversity being known from this period. The beginning of the Triassic was characterized by the largest mass-extinction event that has ever occurred on Earth (the Permian–Triassic extinction), in which around 95% of all marine life went extinct. This marked the start of the Mesozoic era (the ‘age of dinosaurs’ that contains the Triassic, Juras

Fossil Focus: Arthropod–plant interactions

Fossil Focus
by Ben J. Slater*1 Introduction: When the geneticist and evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane was asked what he could conclude about the nature of a creator from his studies of natural history, he supposedly replied that any creator must have “an inordinate fondness for beetles”. Indeed, there are more species of beetle than of any other animal alive today, and as insects, beetles belong to the most diverse class of modern organisms, which includes more than two-thirds of all described species (Fig. 1). It can be said that macroscopic life is dominated by insects (and in particular beetles), but like all organisms, insects — and other arthropods, the larger phylum to which the insects belong — don’t exist in isolation. Organisms are the product of their environment, which inc

Fossil Focus: Eggs, nests and dinosaur reproduction

Fossil Focus
by Bernat Vila1 Introduction Of all the dinosaur fossils, skeletons are most fascinating to the public, because they represent real evidence of dinosaurs’ existence. When the study of skeletons is combined with information from fossilized footprints (which show how and how fast dinosaurs walked), dinosaurs seem to come to life: the body seems to move and interact with the substrate. But in real life, dinosaurs lived in similar ways to modern animals, and by asking the proper questions of some singular fossils, researchers can find out about their biology, such as their feeding strategies, growth and reproduction. Fossil eggs and nests are the only evidence about the reproductive biology of dinosaurs. The study of oological fossils Eggs and nests are called indirect fossils because they

Patterns in Palaeontology: The latitudinal biodiversity gradient

Patterns in Palaeontology
by Philip D. Mannion*1 Introduction: Today, most living species are found in the tropics, the region of the Earth that surrounds the Equator. Species numbers, a measure of biodiversity, decline towards both the North and South poles (Fig. 1). This is known as the latitudinal biodiversity gradient (LBG), and it is the dominant ecological pattern on Earth today. Although there are exceptions to the rule, including high-latitude peaks in diversity of many marine or coastal vertebrates (including seals and albatrosses), the LBG describes the distribution of species diversity for the vast majority of animals and plants, both on land and in the sea, and in the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Understanding the causes and evolution of the LBG helps researchers to explain present-day geograp...