Rotten Fish and Fossils...

Resolving the riddle of our earliest vertebrate ancestors

Images shows progressive stages of decay of a close relative of vertebrates, the lancelet (AKA amphioxus). As they rot, specimens look more and more like fossils from the earliest parts of the vertebrate evolutionary tree. (image credit: Mark Purnell, Rob Sansom, Sarah Gabbott, University of Leicester).

How, when and why did our earliest fish-like ancestors evolve? These questions are fundamental to understanding our place in evolution, but answers remain elusive.

These very early vertebrates did not have teeth or skeletons - the remarkable and rare fossils from this critical period of evolution preserve only traces of soft tissues, such as muscles, guts and cartilage, making it very difficult to read this part of our fossil record.

To understand these important extinct animals, palaeontologists need to work out how the process of decay hundreds of millions of years ago affected what was fossilised.

By rotting a variety of primitive fish we are discovering how their characteristic anatomical features are transformed and lost during decay. Our results are allowing us to correctly recognise and interpret the ancient fossils, and are giving us a much clearer view of our deep evolutionary origins.

To find out more about our research use the navigation menu one the left.

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