Year: 2015

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...

Patterns in Palaeontology: Palaeogenomics

Patterns in Palaeontology
by Jeffrey R. Thompson*1 Introduction: Palaeontology is truly a science of the twenty-first century. Palaeontologists are no longer concerned only with fossils, but also with topics such as genetics, developmental biology and chemistry — although most of us can’t resist digging around in the dirt from time to time! You are almost as likely to find a palaeontology graduate student in a class on molecular biology as in one on stratigraphy. This is because, in recent years, the integration of fossil, developmental and genetic data has fast become one of the most promising ways to study the patterns and processes of evolution. At this point, it may be helpful to introduce some of the sources of information that palaeontologists use to address large-scale evolutionary questions. Molecular

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

Fossil Focus: Seals, sea lions and walruses

Fossil Focus
By Morgan Churchill*1 Introduction Pinnipeds (seals, sea lions and walruses) make up the second most numerous group of marine mammals (behind whales), with 35 species found throughout the world’s oceans and in several freshwater lakes. They are represented by 3 living families: the Phocidae (earless seals; 19 species), found around the globe; the Otariidae (sea lions and fur seals; 15 species), restricted to the North Pacific and Southern Hemisphere; and the Odobenidae (walrus; 1 species), confined to the Arctic. Two additional extinct families are recognized: the Desmatophocidae and the Enaliarctidae of the North Pacific. Pinnipeds show a variety of adaptations for aquatic living, including flippers for moving through water, changes in teeth related to capturing and feeding on slippery

Fossil Focus: Ichthyosaurs

Fossil Focus
By Ryan Marek*1 Introduction A literal translation of ichthyosaur is 'fish lizard', yet ichthyosaurs were neither fish nor members of the lizard family; they were a group of highly successful marine reptiles who lived from the early Triassic period to the late Cretaceous period, around 248 million to 90 million years ago. Ichthyosaurs were among the first diapsids  (a group of animals which have evolved two holes on each side of their skulls, includes birds and all reptiles except turtles) to evolve a thunniform (fish-like) body plan as an adaptation to life in the sea (Fig. 1). They were also the first air-breathing vertebrates to evolve this body plan; the only other group to do so was the whales and dolphins, millions of years later. Most ichthyosaurs after the Triassic had the fish-l

Fossil Focus: The place of small shelly fossils in the Cambrian explosion, and the origin of Animals

Fossil Focus
by Aodhan Butler *1 Introduction: Darwin, the Cambrian explosion and the origin of animals. The small shelly fossils (or SSFs) of the early Cambrian period (approximately 541 million to 509 million years ago) could in many ways be described as the world’s worst jigsaw puzzle. This article will attempt to give a brief tour of the significance, history and biology of this humble yet potentially hugely important group of fossil organisms and how they may help in answering fundamental questions about how and when the major groups of animals evolved on Earth. A palaeontological mystery… “To the question why we do not find rich fossiliferous deposits belonging to these assumed earliest periods prior to the Cambrian system, I can give no satisfactory answer.” Charles Darwin, On the Origin of
Fossil Focus: Oreodonts

Fossil Focus: Oreodonts

Fossil Focus
by Joshua Ludtke*1 Introduction: Oreodonts make up an extinct group of small, medium and large hoofed mammals. They are among the most commonly represented mammals in more than 40 million years of the North American fossil record; among completely extinct groups, the oreodonts may be the most abundantly preserved group of fossil mammals. This abundance has allowed them, after their extinction, to spread across the globe. Since at least the 1840s, fossil collectors from around the world have visited the North American west to excavate oreodonts, and their fossils have ended up in both public museums and private collections worldwide (see Fig. 1). What is an oreodont? Oreodont is the informal term for any member of the taxon Merycoidodontoidea. Oreodonts are placental mammals; some f...

Education and Outreach: Innovation in palaeontological research driven by students and non-specialists

Education and Outreach
by Marc Laflamme*1 and Paul A. E. Piunno1 Introduction: Scientific research is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, drawing together experts from a range of fields to generate knowledge and address major problems. This is particularly true for palaeontology, which stands at the intersection of a wide array of disciplines including geology, biology, chemistry, materials science, statistics and biomechanics. Although scientific innovation is principally driven by trained scientists, research opportunities often present themselves to others — in palaeontology, this can tie into the strong public interest in famous extinct animals such as dinosaurs and mammoths. Indeed, palaeontology has an extensive history of important contributions by people without formal training, from Mary Anning’s

Fossil Focus: Cambrian arthropods

Fossil Focus
by David A. Legg*1 Introduction: The arthropods make up a major and highly successful group of animals that includes insects and their kin (hexapods); arachnids and their kin (chelicerates); millipedes and centipedes (myriapods); crabs, lobsters, shrimp and their relatives (crustaceans); and the extinct trilobites. In fact, arthropods are the most diverse, abundant and ubiquitous animal phylum. Members of the group outnumber those of all other phyla on Earth, both in terms of species, with more than 1,200,000 currently described (and a potential 10,000,000 remaining to be described), and in terms of abundance. For example, if you gathered all the world’s Arctic krill in one place, it has been estimated that they would weigh 500 million tonnes! Arthropods are found in all oceans and on al

Life as a Palaeontologist: A thoroughly suitable job for a woman

Life as a Palaeontologist
by Ellen Currano1 “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” — J. R. R. Tolkien The Fellowship of the Ring (Ballantine Books, 1954). Introduction: It was never part of my plan to become the (sometimes bearded) face of women in palaeontology. I was that first grader who fell in love with dinosaurs and set her heart on becoming a palaeontologist. Since I started college, my dream has been to work at the University of Wyoming, travel the world digging up fossils, publish papers in scientific journals and, if I was lucky, be asked to give public lectures on my work. In other words, I wanted to emulate the professors at the top-tier research insti