Scottish fossils solve mystery of how life moved onto land

Posted by ap507 at Feb 18, 2016 09:20 AM |
University of Leicester researchers involved in national project to be exhibited at the National Museum of Scotland from Friday 19 February

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 18 February 2016

Images of the fossils and artist impressions available at:

A collection of Scottish fossils which solve the mystery of how vertebrate life came to move from water to land will be displayed in a new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland entitled Fossil Hunters: Unearthing the Mystery of Life on Land running from Friday 19 February - Sunday 14 August 2016.

The project, which is led by the University of Cambridge, includes researchers from a number of institutions including the University of Leicester, who investigated the environmental, depositional and climatic context of this critical transition in Earth history some 360 million years ago.

The groundbreaking finds from the rocks exposed in the Scottish Borders fill a major gap in our understanding of evolution.

Until recently, there was very little fossil evidence of life on land during the early Carboniferous period, around 345-360 million years ago. This was a pivotal moment in evolution, when vertebrate life moved from the sea to the land; a momentous shift without which humans would not exist today.

This 15-million-year missing link is named “Romer’s Gap” after the American palaeontologist Alfred Sherwood Romer, who identified it. Without evidence to the contrary, some palaeontologists concluded that low levels of oxygen during this period restricted evolution on land.

However, the fossils found in the Scottish Borders confirm that a rich and diverse ecosystem of amphibians, plants, fish and invertebrates thrived during this period. Most importantly, they address one of palaeontology’s big unanswered questions, that of how vertebrate life crawled out of the water.

Sarah Davies, Professor of Sedimentology at the University of Leicester’s Department of Geology, said: “This has been a really exciting project because it has brought together researchers interested in all aspects of the palaeontology and geology of these fascinating rocks. The team at Leicester are working to reconstruct the environments that existed in the deep geological past, revealing why this part of Britain hosts such an incredible record of the first land vertebrates.”  

Visitors to the exhibition will have the opportunity to discover how amphibians took their first steps on to land and why this is such an important milestone in the evolutionary timeline. They will also be able to find out about the techniques used to unearth the fossils and what the extensive analysis of the finds tell us about life on land before the dinosaurs.

Nick Fraser, Keeper of Natural Sciences at National Museums Scotland, said: “National Museums Scotland holds one of the finest collections of fossils of early, land-based life in the world. Solving the mystery of this evolutionary missing link is hugely exciting, and has allowed us to gain a rich understanding of a key period in the evolution of life on earth. This fascinating exhibition will explore in detail for the first time the full story of this remarkable discovery.”

Long before vertebrates evolved legs, there was already life on land. The earliest known terrestrial ecosystem in the world is preserved in a bed of sediment in Aberdeenshire called Rhynie Chert. This 410-million-year-old rock contains plants, spiders and the oldest-known fossil insects.

However, there was no evidence of tetrapods (vertebrates with four limbs) on land. Fossil evidence pre-dating Romer’s Gap showed tetrapods living in the water 360 million years ago, but their limbs were not strong enough to support them on land. 

15 million years later, ample evidence of tetrapod life on land can be found, by which point amphibians were well-adapted to walking. Palaeontologists could only speculate as to how and why the monumental step from water to land was taken.

The late Stan Wood, a self-taught Scottish field palaeontologist, was convinced that fossil evidence of tetrapod life during Romer’s Gap could be found in Scotland, and spent 20 years searching for it. Finally, in 2011, he uncovered never-before-seen fossil evidence of early tetrapod life on land - fossil animal skeletons, along with millipedes, scorpions and plants- at the Whiteadder River, near Chirnside.

These finds – some of which were displayed at the National Museum of Scotland in 2012 - were the catalyst for a major research project which set out to uncover further evidence of tetrapod life on land during the earliest Carboniferous period, and to analyse the findings.

Fossil Hunters also presents subsequent fossil finds and detailed analysis alongside Stan Wood’s extraordinary discoveries.

The research behind the exhibition is part of a major grant funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund, with research conducted by National Museums Scotland in partnership with the Universities of Cambridge, Southampton and Leicester as well as the British Geological Survey.

The research team from the University of Leicester’s Department of Geology included Professor Sarah Davies, Dr Carys Bennett and research assistant Janet Sherwin.

Links to find out more about the project Tetrapod World: early evolution and diversification:




Twitter: @TetrapodWorld


Notes to Editors:
For more information about the project contact Professor Sarah Davies on or Dr Carys Bennett on

Further information and images are available from Alice Wyllie, Bruce Blacklaw or Susan Gray, Press Office, National Museums Scotland on email

Notes to editors

  1. National Museums Scotland looks after museum collections of national and international importance and provides loans, partnerships, research and training in Scotland and internationally. Our individual museums are the National Museum of Scotland, the National Museum of Flight, the National Museum of Rural Life and the National War Museum. The National Museums Collection Centre in Edinburgh houses conservation and research facilities as well as collections not currently on display.
  2. The National Museum of Scotland reopened in summer 2011 following a three-year, £50m redevelopment. With over 8 million visitors since reopening, the National Museum of Scotland is the most popular museum in the country outside of London according to ALVA figures.


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