These are a personal interest – I first trained as an evolutionary biologist. My husband even bought me some little fossils at a museum, I find it awesome that these ancient rocks were once alive. And some of them are so old it is hard to even imagine how different the world was then. So you’ll have to put up with lots of superlatives in this post, but isn’t everyone fascinated by fossils?
- Hallucigenia – named because “It looks like something I once saw on a trip,” this is in my list as a representative of the Burgess Shale in Canada, one of the places in the world I want to see before I die. It is an amazing fauna of soft-bodied animals from not long after the Cambrian explosion, which is when we start finding fossils other than bacteria and some other odd ones 542-488 million years ago (mya). Some of the animals here are completely and utterly different to anything we have today, it is a bit like all the rules have been thrown out the window. Yet there are some that belong to modern groups as well. It is possible that hallucigenia was originally reconstructed upside down, because how can an animal move on one row of tentacles?
- Sue the Tyranosaurus Rex – The largest and most complete tyrannosaur ever found. I love the way the interpretation has changed on so many dinosaurs, they’ve gone from Godzilla to sleek and efficient runners. Sue is from the Cretaceous, so around 146-65 mya.
- Devonian fish (416-359 mya) – I’m from Western Australia, so this is a nod to the Kimberley where I saw my first ancient fossils ‘in the wild’ (but not the fish, just shells). These fish help us learn about how skeletons and jaws developed, they had armoured heads which have preserved beautifully, aesthetically as well as scientifically.
- Pilbara stromatolites – Another WA fossil, the Pilbara stromatolites are some of the oldest fossils in the world at 3.49 billion years old. That’s 7 times as old as hallucigenia. Stromatolites form when mats of blue-green algae act as a net and trap mud, forming something that looks like a giant cabbage. These are some of the earliest living things on earth.
- Lucy, Australopithecus afarensis – the one that started it all for me, Lucy is a possible human ancestor. She is amazing because she is so old (3.2 mya) and about 40% complete, which is almost unheard of. Vertebrate evolution was once described as “a story of teeth, mating to produce slightly different teeth,” because that’s what we find. She was only around the size of a chimp, but she walked fully upright.
- KNM ER 1470 – Most exciting hominid (human) fossils pick up a name, but for some reason this one is just called 1470. But it is very exciting. I am in awe of the people who reconstructed it – it came in hundreds of tiny little pieces. And it is one of the earliest Homo fossils, something that could actually be human, at 1.9 mya. It definitely wouldn’t look like us, but you would be able to see the relationship.
- Acanthostega – one of the earliest tetrapods, or four legged animals. It had arms and legs, but no wrists or ankles and still lived in the water.
- Pakicetus – the earliest whale. Which was more like a wolf with hooves, but the jaws and parts of the skull are whale-like.
- Chinese dinosaur fossils – there is so much coming out of China that is revolutionising our understanding of dinosaurs and birds. They are fantastically well preserved, including feathers, and it appears they developed very early. Rather than birds descending from dinosaurs, it might be the other way around! Some tyrannosaur ancestors even had feathers.
- Piltdown Man – this one isn’t a fossil, it was a hoax. But it’s a fascinating story to look at not only the mechanics of who did it and how it was discovered, but also it tells us a lot about people’s expectations and how interpretations can be influenced by all sorts of other factors, including nationalism.
- Plesiosaurs – my favourite of the dinosaur types. I did a lot of study on locomotion and these guys are unique – they flew through the water with 4 flippers. Predators like that would be incredible.
- The Ediacara fauna – Now these are amazing. The first ‘experiment’ in multicellular life, so something other than protozoans, there are a lot of different sorts but they were a dead end and are unrelated to anything alive today. They were around just before the Cambrian explosion, so about 550 mya.
- My own fossils! – I have some, not that I’ve found myself which would be incredible, but we bought some. This is an ammonite around 165 my old, I find it hard to even imagine how long ago that was and what the earth was like. Holding something that old is unbelievable. It is much heavier than you would expect – it’s definitely a rock even though it looks like a shell. I know these are quite common but if you stop and look at how perfectly it matches the original shell and how it formed it’s wonderful.
Even more amazing, some of the crystals in the feathers have been preserved which tells us what colour they are!
Here it is, released this year – the first ancient animal (160-155 mya) that we actually have a good idea what it looked like.
As I was writing this I noticed a lot of ‘the earliests,’ obviously that’s something that pushes my buttons! Do you have a favourite fossil or prehistoric creature?
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