Sieving out the big picture

Dr Steven C Sweetman (UK) Ask any palaeontologist, professional or otherwise, to name the first fossil vertebrate or vertebrate group that comes to mind and the chances are that the majority will come up with something like the charismatic dinosaurs, Dimetrodon (Fig. 1), the saber-toothed ‘tiger’ or some other large and spectacular creature from the past. Fig. 1. A cheerful looking, reconstruction of the non-mammalian synapsid, Dimetrodon, displayed at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, Alberta, Canada. The chances of anyone coming up with, for example, albanerpetontids (Figs. 2 and 3), an extinct (Middle Jurassic to Pliocene) group of newt-sized, superficially salamander-like amphibians, are probably next to nil. Indeed, who except specialists have ever heard of the Albanerpetontidae? Fig. 2. Reconstruction of an albanerpetontid from the Early Cretaceous of Spain based on an exceptional specimen displaying soft tissue preservation.   Fig. 3. Albanerpetontid bones from the Early Cretaceous of the Isle of Wight, southern England. A, premaxilla; B, maxilla; C, dentary; D, partial and; E, substantially complete fused frontals; F, humerus. However, an understanding of the small animals that lurked in the shadow of the large and generally better known beasts with which they coexisted can often shed valuable light on ancient ecosystems and palaeobiology, and provides insights that cannot be obtained from study of big beasts in isolation. Despite this, the discovery of beautifully preserved dinosaur and large fossil mammal remains, particularly in the badlands (Fig. 4) and tar pits of North America, has quite naturally generated much more public … Read More

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