Broken teeth and rotting fish: what they tell us about our ancestors

Posted by pt91 at Jan 13, 2012 11:46 AM |
Revolutionising evolution at University of Leicester lecture

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 12 January 2012

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The insights gleaned from the chips in fish teeth and decaying fish will be explained in a lecture at the University of Leicester on 17 January.

Work led by Professor Mark Purnell of the Department of Geology has used revolutionary techniques similar to forensics teams to help reconstruct our earliest vertebrate ancestors. In his lecture 'Broken teeth, rotten fish, and our earliest vertebrate ancestors: the glamorous world of experimental palaeobiology' he will present the results of these experiments and explain how they are changing accepted wisdom on evolutionary change.

The lecture will focus on two research projects, both shortlisted for Times Higher Education awards and the subject of widespread media interest across the world.

Professor Purnell said, “Questions about the deep evolution of vertebrates are fundamental to understanding our own place in the tree of life. What were our earliest vertebrate ancestors like? How, when and why did they acquire characteristic features such as eyes, skeletons and teeth?

“In this lecture I will explain how my research (with various colleagues) is providing new answers to these questions. Decayed remains reveal how the characteristic features that palaeontologists use to recognise and identify the most ancient fossil vertebrates are transformed and then lost during decay – the process of loss, it turns out, is not random.

“By studying the microscopic patterns of breakage and wear on fish teeth we have revealed how damage is correlated with food and feeding. This provides a new tool with which we can analyse dietary change in fish and other aquatic vertebrates, allowing us to look again at fossil teeth to determine whether dietary change is as important in driving evolution as has been thought.”

“Experimental palaeobiology, especially when rotting fish are involved, might not be everybody’s idea of fun, and in this lecture I will give you a taste (or a whiff) of some of the experiments we have been doing. The results, I hope you will agree, are worth it.”

The lecture takes place on 17 January from 5.30pm in Lecture Theatre 1 in the Ken Edwards Building, University of Leicester, and is free and open to the public.

Notes to editors:

For further information contact Professor Mark Purnell on 0116 252 3645 or

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