by Aodhán O'Gogain*1
Introduction and background
During the Pennsylvanian subperiod (roughly 318 million to 299 million years ago), lush tropical rainforests covered much of what is now North America and Europe, but were then near Earth’s Equator. These tropical forests were teeming with animals, from 2-metre-long millipedes that scurried along among the roots to fish with fangs 10 centimetres in length that inhabited the associated rivers and estuaries. Living among these giants was a diverse group of small (less than 1 metre) vertebrates that resembled newts, lizards and snakes. These were the Lepospondyli, a sub-class of tetrapods that are characterized by having hourglass-shaped centrums, the central parts of their vertebrae. They had elongated, small bodies and short limbs, with one
by Robert Brocklehurst*1
Introduction and background
Dinosaurs fascinate people more than almost any other group of fossil animals, and the general public is interested in many open questions on dinosaur biology. How fast could dinosaurs run? Were they warm blooded? If they had feathers, does that mean they could fly? These questions focus on dinosaur metabolism and movement, both of which are intimately linked with the respiratory system, because breathing — the ability to take in air, extract oxygen from it and then expel it from the body along with waste carbon dioxide— sets a fundamental upper limit on how much activity an organism is capable of.
How did dinosaurs breathe? That’s probably not a question palaeontologists get asked as often as the others. Breathing is something we a
by Martin Smith*1
Five hundred and fifty million years ago, few (if any) organisms on Earth were much more complex than seaweed. But this would not be the case for long: during a profound evolutionary event dubbed the Cambrian Explosion, natural selection generated the raw material of all the body plans we see in the oceans today. Fossil sites from midway through the Cambrian period (541 million to 485 million years ago) preserve organisms that could almost be mistaken for modern eels, jellyfish, shrimp and squid, along with members of most other major animal groupings (phyla) recognized by biologists today.
But the exceptional fossil deposits of the Cambrian period, some of which preserve fleshy bodies as well as the skeletons and bones that make up a typical fossil, al...
by Elsa Panciroli1
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
by Frances S. Dunn*1 and Alex G. Liu2
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 th
by David Button1
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
by Heda Agić*1
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
by Jonathan P. Tennant*1
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
by David Legg*1
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
by Imran A. Rahman*1
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