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Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton

Research project: The Mid-Palaeozoic biotic crisis: Setting the trajectory of Tetrapod evolution

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The transition from fish to terrestrial tetrapods.

A terrestrial palaeoclimate record from the tetrapod gap in East Greenland
East Greenland

The first 4 limbed animals were aquatic and fish-like. Following the end Devonian mass extinction they disappeared from the fossils record for 15 million years. When they reappeared they were fully terrestrial five toed animals. This project investigates new tetrapod discoveries and their ecosystem within the 15 million year gap.


This project will shed light on a key stage in the evolution of life on Earth. The advent onto land of limbed vertebrates (tetrapods) was an event that shaped the future evolution of the planet, including the appearance of humans. The process began about 360 million years ago, during the mid Palaeozoic, in the early part of the Carboniferous Period. Within the 20 million years that followed, limbed vertebrates evolved from their essentially aquatic and fish-like Devonian predecessors into fully terrestrial forms, radiating into a wide range of body forms that occupied diverse habitats and ecological niches. We know this because we have adequate fossil record of the earliest limbed vertebrates from the Late Devonian, contrasting with the terrestrial forms that lived significantly later in the Early Carboniferous, about 340 million years ago. It is also clear that a mass extinction event occurred at the end of the Devonian, following which life on land and in fresh water habitats had to be re-established. Unfortunately, the formative 20 million years from the end of Devonian times has remained almost unrepresented for fossil tetrapods and their arthropod contemporaries. Thus, we know little about how tetrapods evolved adaptions for life on land, the environments in which they did so, and the timing or sequence of these events. The evolutionary relationships among these early tetrapods and how they relate to modern forms are also unclear and contraversial as a result of this lack of fossil information. The entire fossil hiatus has been called 'Romer's Gap' after the American palaeontologist who first recognized it. Now, for the first time anywhere in the world, several fossil localities representing this period have been discovered in south-eastern Scotland. They have already provided a wealth of new fossils of tetrapods, fish, invertebrates and plants, and our team is the first to have the opportunity to study this material and the environmental, depositional, and climate context in which this momentous episode took place. We have a number of major aims. The existing fossil material will form a baseline for this study, but the project will augment this by further excavating the richest of the sites so far found and subjecting it to a detailed archaeological-style analysis. We will collect from other recently recognized sites and explore for further sites with relevant potential. The fossil material will be described and analysed using a range of modern techniques to answer many questions related to the evolution of the animals and plants. Not only that, using stratigraphical, sedimentological, palynological, geochemical and isotopic data, we will establish the conditions of deposition that preserved the fossils, the environments in which the organisms lived and died, and the precise times at which they did so. We will drill a borehole that will core through the entire geological formation in which these fossils have been found. Using this, we will integrate data from our fossil sites using the signals provided by the sedimentary record to build a detailed time line showing in which horizons the fossils were found, the age of each occurrence and their sequential realationship. We will compare and correlate our data with that from contemporaneous deposits in Nova Scotia, the only other locality with information sufficiently rich to be meaningful. Our data will allow us to infer changes to the environment and the evolutionary trajectories of the animals and plants during the deposition of this formation, covering 20 million years following the end-Devonian mass extinction. Comparison with similar data for the Late Devonian will allow us to chart the changes around the time of the mass extinction, to infer its causes and consequences, and obtain a detailed record of exactly how changes to the environment correlated with changes to the fauna and flora.

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Key Contacts

Professor John Marshall

PhDs and Other Opportunities


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