Stepping out

Bullies you know what they're like - always trying to push you around, and always bigger than you. You can try and ignore them, but they never seem to go away. Some of the smaller animals swimming and crawling in the ancient seas had a worse problem. One false move and they could end up as the bullies' breakfast. One way to avoid hungry predators like this was to escape to somewhere they couldn't follow. And this is just what some animals did nearly 500 million years ago, by taking their first...

First prize in the ugly competition

Imagine a creature built like a small tank and with the temperament of a cranky grizzly bear. The enormous mouth bristles with teeth like steak knives. It's hard to imagine how it could have closed its mouth without stabbing itself in the nose and jaw at the same time. Waddling along on huge feet and looking for all the world as though it was wearing oversized cricket gloves, this creature from hell was top dog on land 250 million years ago. It is called a gorgonopsid. Gorgonopsids were just...

Mammals finally arrive

Many changes occurred to the mammal-like reptiles before they eventually evolved into true mammals. But what made the first true mammals different Mammals have larger brains than snakes and lizards, and give birth to live young (except for echidnas and platypuses, which lay eggs). What really makes cats, rats, you and me different from therapsids, lizards and snakes (apart from not usually being especially slithery and scaly) is that we are far more active and create our own high body...

Therapsids the what

By about 265 million years ago (round about your knuckles) most pelycosaurs had died out. Replacing them were a new group of mammal-like reptiles, called the therapsids (not a word to say first thing in the morning with a mouth full of muesli). These little beauties would have been favourites to win first prize in any ugly competition. Some had a bulky body, stubby legs, short tail and oversized head, often with protruding fangs that probably dripped litres of drool. Many looked like a cross...

Concrete cauliflowers

A hundred million years ago, dinosaurs tramped through the forests. But long before that, an amazing number of animals wandered and slithered over the land, or swam and crawled in the seas. And if we went right back in time, we'd find that the very first creatures, thousands of millions of years ago, were so small that you couldn't see them. All you'd see is just a bit of slime . . . Do you like cauliflowers I do, so I'm going to begin with them. What on earth,...

My what strange teeth you have Grandma

Without them you'd be in a sorry state. Leap out of bed first thing in the morning and, thanks to gravity, you'd end up on the floor as a rather sad pile of floppy skin and quivering muscle. Luckily, you do have bones. You, along with all other humans, belong in the group of animals known as 'vertebrates' or 'backboned animals'. This includes mammals, reptiles (snakes and lizards), amphibians (like frogs) and fish. The first vertebrates were very strange. This was because...

Fossil air mattresses

To find out what the first animals actually looked like, we have to travel a little further in time, down to your wrist - that's about 550 million years ago. We've found a lot of very strange-looking fossils from this period. They are called 'Ediacaran' fossils, and were named after the nearest settlement to where they were first found in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. They are the remains of very strange creatures, rather like air mattresses and tyres, though a bit smaller. Some...

Thanks

I am very grateful to my wife, Sue Radford, and my children, Jamie, Katie and Tim McNamara, for reading the book and gently telling me when I was getting too fanciful with my writing. Thanks to Marcus Good for help with websites. Thanks to Sarah Brenan for her very careful and perceptive editing of the manuscript, and for finding such a talented artist as Andrew Plant, who clearly sees ancient life in the same way that I do. I am also grateful to Cheryl Silcox and the students of Helena Valley...

Hot air Animals had conquered the

Easy Animal Who Can Fly Air Drawings

The first to do this were insects. The earliest insects were very similar to silverfish. Silverfish are those shiny little insects that you sometimes see scurrying out from under a book or some old paper. They can't fly, so they are easy to catch. But you try catching a fly or a dragonfly. It zips past you so fast you can hardly see it. The insects that took to the air were better able to escape their predators. Some of the earliest insects got very, very big. This would have also helped...

Tracking trails and traces

Not all fossils are parts of a creature, like bones or shells. Some, such as dinosaur footprints, or the trails left in the sand by some little worm, are trace fossils. If your daffodil bed somehow amazingly got preserved for million of years and turned into rock, then the cat's diggings would be a trace fossil. They may not tell us much about what the animals looked like, but trace fossils tell us a lot about how they behaved. No, I don't mean whether they were good or bad,...

Then one of evolutions miracles

Fish began to grow bony jaws, and these coats of teeth moved from covering the fish's body to living in their bigger mouths. Now the teeth could be used for biting. With strong jaws and pointed teeth, these new fish became predators, feeding on smaller, toothless fish, and probably on prawn-like crustaceans. One thing these early fish still didn't have was a real backbone. They did have one of sorts. But the trouble was that instead of being made of hard bone, like your leg or arm...

Trilobite biscuits

There is another reason why one type of animal that lived at this time is often found fossilised. And that's because of how it grew. These animals were trilobites. They were once very common, but they all died out became extinct about 250 million years ago. This is about where your fingers join on to your hand, just before the first dinosaurs appeared on Earth. Trilobites belong in the same group as insects, spiders, crabs and prawns - the arthropods. All these types of animals have 'segmented'...

Gogo fish

The best examples of fossil fish anywhere in the world are in Australia, in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. These are called the Gogo fish. You probably imagine that collecting fossils is all about hitting a rock as hard as you can with a hammer and hoping that it breaks in half to reveal a fossil. Well, that's how fossils are usually found. But it's a lot harder to get the best out of the Gogo fish. The fossilised bone is locked inside a hard lump of limestone rock. If you hammer...

Sail of the century

These mammal-like reptiles spread right across a single great land mass called Pangaea, between 320 and 220 million years ago. We've finally arrived at your fingers. One of the first mammal-like reptiles was one of the most peculiar. Known as Dimetrodon, it was about the size of a dog, but with shorter, stubby legs, like a crocodile. The really odd thing was the huge, fin-like sail on its back. Extremely long, thin spines stuck up from the animal's backbones. Between them was a thin membrane,...

Digging for fossil worms

Wiwaxia Mars

Let's go back to Tuesday 31 August 1909. A man was looking for fossil trilobites high in the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia in Canada. His name was Charles Doolite Walcott, and with the help of his wife and son he had been finding trilobites in this area for some years. As Mrs Walcott was riding along a narrow track on a steep mountainside, her horse suddenly stumbled on a large rock. Walcott jumped off his horse and smacked the rock hard with his hammer. Inside were the fossilised remains...