An Introduction to Fossils


Notes (pdf) for my University of York CLL class “An Introduction to Fossils” on Nov. 29th: 2014_Intro_Fossils

Useful links

The challenges of taxonomy, or why reptiles don’t exist any more (article from The Conversation). – a marvellous and comprehensive website devoted to understanding trilobites.

The Burgess Shale – Cambrian lagerstatte website from the Royal Ontario Museum (including a Virtual Sea Odyssey).

Primeval Predators – the plastic version of the Burgess Shale!

The Palaeontological Association – promoting palaeontology (also with a Facebook page and a Twitter account).

The Micropalaeontological Society – for lovers of smaller fossils.


(N. B. Clicking the tag ‘fossils‘ will also bring up plenty of other links and resources on this website).


A Very Short History of the Earth

Time Spiral (from Wikimedia Commons)

ChronoZoom – an interactive time scale showing the age of life, the universe and everything (if your computer has the right browser!).


ICS – The International Commission on Stratigraphy (the latest geological timescale can be found here).

William Smith and biostratigraphy (part of a University of California Berkeley series on the history of evolutionary thought).

John Phillips – the Time Lord of York (my article for York Mix).

Absolute dating

A quick introduction to radiometric dating (University of California Berkeley).

How to calculate the age of meteorites (or anything else for that matter).

Rock Around The Clock (Daily Telegraph article on the 4.4 billion year-old zircon crystal from Australia). The scientific paper can be found here.

Fossils & Extinction

From soup to cells (Berkeley introduction to the origins of life on Earth).

Solving Darwin’s Dilemma – Precambrian rocks really do contain abundant fossils (report of 2009 study by scientists at Oxford University).

First Life – David Attenborough tackles the origins of life, including the Precambrian fossils found near his childhood home in Leicester.

Mass extinctions (NHM guide to the “Big Five”). If you fancy a “Big Five” walking tour of London, you can follow my not entirely serious guide.

Prehistoric fossil collectors (article from the Geological Society).

How will humans go extinct? (article on BBC News, 24 April 2013).

Hidden Horizons website (Scarborough-based company run by Will Watts, offering Geology & Natural History Education and Events. Look out for information on the upcoming Yorkshire Fossil Festival).


Life Through Time – Evolutionary Palaeontology (week 8)

Australopithecus afarensis, better known as Lucy

The slides (colour) for the final week’s class can be downloaded here: 2013_LifeThruTime_Lect8_colour. I will add a black and white version shortly.

The links for the class are as follows:

“Big Bang Big Boom” is a 10-minute animation of the evolution of life, and is well worth a watch. Click here to view it.

Did bird brains help them survive the end-Cretaceous extinction? Read about it here.

(And the new Cretaceous bird fossil from China with possible eggs preserved can be admired here)

What were the multituberculates? Find out here.

The origins of marsupials can be read about here.

The preservation of colour in the fossil record can be read about here.

An overview of the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum and what happened to life on Earth can be read here.

There are various interesting websites on how whales evolved from land mammals, such as this one, this one, and this one.

The Messinian Salinity Crisis can be read about here.

A Smithsonian website on human evolution can be read here.

The Neanderthal In Us, a press release about the Neanderthal genome, suggesting interbreeding with humans, can be downloaded here: The_Neanderthal_in_us

However, the Neanderthal interbreeding theory has been challenged.

Life Through Time – Evolutionary Palaeontology (Week 7)

The great Cretaceous ocean

A colour pdf of the notes for week 7’s class can be downloaded here: 2013_LifeThruTime_Lect7_colour. I will try to add a black and white version soon.

Links for week 7’s class are as follows:

Chen & Benton’s (2012) paper on the recovery of life after the end-Permian extinction can be read here: Chen_Benton2012_PT_recovery

Was Nyasasaurus the first dinosaur? Read about it here.

“Fossil eggshells: fragments from the past” can be found here.

My attempt to explain why birds aren’t bird-hipped can be read here.

The Natural History Museum’s online resource on ‘Dino-birds’ can be read here. The paper by Zelenitsky et al. (2012) on feathered dinosaurs can be read here: Zelenitsky_etal2012_dino_feathers

Geerat Vermeij’s (1977) paper on the Mesozoic Marine Revolution can be read here: Vermeij1977_MMR

A detailed website exploring the evolution of seed plants can be accessed here.

A paper by Duchesne and Larson (1989) investigating the role of cellulose in the evolution of plants can be read here: Duchesne_Larson1989_cellulose_plant_evoln


Life Through Time – Evolutionary Palaeontology (Week 6)

Lycopsid tree-fern, Joggins Formation, Nova Scotia.

The pdf of the class 6 lecture notes can be found here: 2013_LifeThruTime_Lect6

The vertebrate palaeontologist Darren Naish has written a series of general interest articles on the origins of tetrapods, including a piece on temnospondyls that can be read here.

Professor Jenny Clack of Cambridge University is one of the world’s leading experts on early tetrapods. Her website, which has lots of useful info, can be found here. Her research also featured on the BBC series Beautiful Minds.

The Joggins Fossil Cliffs of Nova Scotia have yielded all sorts of amazing early terrestrial fossils and are a UNESCO World Heritage site. The website can be found here.

The website for the new TW:eed project (Tetrapod World: early evolution and diversification) can be found here.


Life Through Time – Evolutionary Palaeontology (Week 5)

Tiktaalik roseae in the Chicago Museum

The pdf of the lecture notes for week 5 can be found here: 2013_LifeThruTime_Lect5

Classifying species

An interesting overview of fossils and the species concept can be read here.

The International Code on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) explains why Carl von Linne/Carolus Linnaeus is the type specimen of Homo sapiens here.

The Natural History Museum, meanwhile, explains the taxonomy of Neanderthals here.

An interesting debate on species identification and sexual selection in the fossil record is taking place in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, and can be read here.

The origins of vertebrates

Dr Paul Willis of the Royal Insitution of Australia explains here why we are all fish.

Matt Friedman and Lauren Sallan’s recent review of 500 million years of fish evolution can be downloaded here: Friedman_Sallan2012_Fossil_fish

Gnathostomes, or jawed fish, are explained on the Tree of Life web project here.

A BBC news article on a mysterious, spiral-toothed Carboniferous fish can be found here.

On a similar note, the ‘hyper-chisel’ teeth of the silvery mole rat can be admired here. To clarify the class discussion, most rodents have teeth which keep on growing, but the mole rat is very unusual in having a shark-like conveyor belt that keeps generating new teeth.

The University of Chicago website explaining the extraordinary story of the ‘fishapod’ Tiktaalik roseae can be found here.

The origins of land plants

A University of Florida webpage on the transition of plants onto land can be read here.

The Wikipedia entry on the evolutionary history of plants is thorough, and can be read here.

A University of Aberdeen website on the flora of the Rhynie Chert can be found here.

Robert Berner’s short review of Phanerozoic oxygen levels and the importance of land plants can be read here: Berner1999_Phanerozoic_oxygen

An article explaining the value of fossil plants in reconstructing ancient climates can be found here.


Life Through Time – Evolutionary Palaeontology (Part 4)


The Ordovician graptolite Didymograptus murchisoni.

A pdf of the slides from class 4 can be downloaded here: 2013_LifeThruTime_Lect4

The article that suggested a link between meteorite impacts and the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event can be read here.

A post on the Ordovician Fezouata fauna of Morocco, which contains amazing ‘Cambrian’ fossils, can be read here.

What is a species? We will examine this further in class 5, but a modern overview is provided here.

A short BBC Wales film on Cwm Hirnant and the end-Ordovician extinction can be found here.

Palaeocast is an excellent new website with a series of online interviews about hot topics in palaeontology and fossils.  with the discoverers of the giant Ordovician trilobite, Isotelus rex, can be found on Palaeocast here.

Life Through Time – Evolutionary Palaeontology (Part 3)

Searching for the Ediacaran-Cambrian boundary, Fortune Head, Newfoundland.

The lecture notes for the 3rd class – the Cambrian Explosion – can be downloaded here: 2013_LifeThruTime_Lect3

A University of Maryland website discussing ‘The Long Fuse of the Cambrian Explosion’ can be found here.

High-quality artist’s impressions of the weirdos of the Cambrian can be found on National Geographic here.

The fantastic Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) website about the Burgess Shale can be found here.

The equally good online guide to trilobites, by Sam Gon III, can be found here.

A good Wikipedia entry on the problematical early Cambrian fossils called halkieriids is here.

The amazing fossils of Chengjiang, China, are revealed on their UNESCO World Heritage page here.

The 2010 paper by Jean Vannier and colleagues, discussing the possibility that priapulid worms were the makers of the first Cambrian burrows, can be downloaded here: Vannier_etal2010_priapulid_PC


Life Through Time – Evolutionary Palaeontology (Part 1)

Proterozoic stromatolites from South America.

A colour pdf of the first week’s lecture slides can be found here: 2013_LifeThruTime_Lect1

If you’re looking for a good palaeontology textbook, try Mike Benton & Dave Harper’s “Introduction to Paleobiology and the Fossil Record” (2009).

Useful web resources on evolution and fossils:

1. History of life through time (University of California Museum of Paleontology)

2. Understanding Evolution (University of California Berkeley)

3. Evolution (Natural History Museum, London)

4. Evolution (PBS)

References for Class 1:

Half-life of DNA – Allentoft et al (2012)

Microfossils, Red Queens and Court Jesters – Peters et al (2013)

Earliest fossil bacteria – Wacey et al. (2011)

Earliest fossil MISS – Noffke et al. (2012)

1.3 billion years of acritarchs – Huntley et al. (2006)

An interview with palaeontologist Dr Leila Battison, on the origins of life, can be found on the Palaeocast website here.