Let's now return to our problem of how to find relatives of the first fish to walk on land. In our grouping scheme, these creatures are somewhere between the "Everythings" and the "Everythings with limbs." Map this to what we know of the rocks, and there is strong geological evidence that the period from 380 million to 365 million years ago is the critical time. The younger rocks in that range, those about 360 million years old, include diverse kinds of fossilized animals that we would all recognize as amphibians or reptiles. My colleague Jenny Clack at Cambridge University and others have uncovered amphibians from rocks in Greenland that are about 365 million years old. With their necks, their ears, and their four legs, they do not look like fish. But in rocks that are about 385 million years old, we find whole fish that look like, well, fish. They have fins, conical heads, and scales; and they have no necks. Given this, it is probably no great surprise that we should focus on rocks about 375 million years old to find evidence of the transition between fish and land-living animals.
We have settled on a time period to research, and so have identified the layers of the geological column we wish to investigate. Now the challenge is to find rocks that were formed under conditions capable of preserving fossils. Rocks form in different kinds of environments and these initial settings leave distinct signatures on the rock layers. Volcanic rocks are mostly out. No fish that we know of can live in lava. And even if such a fish existed, its fossilized bones would not survive the superheated conditions in which basalts, rhyolites, granites, and other igneous rocks are formed. We can also ignore metamorphic rocks, such as schist and marble, for they have undergone either superheating or extreme pressure since their initial formation. Whatever fossils might have been preserved in them have long since disappeared. Ideal to preserve fossils are sedimentary rocks: limestones, sandstones, silt-stones, and shales. Compared with volcanic and metamorphic rocks, these are formed by more gentle processes, including the action of rivers, lakes, and seas. Not only are animals likely to live in such environments, but the sedimentary processes make these rocks more likely places to preserve fossils. For example, in an ocean or lake, particles constantly settle out of the water and are deposited on the bottom. Over time, as these particles accumulate, they are compressed by new, overriding layers. The gradual compression, coupled with chemical processes happening inside the rocks over long periods of time, means that any skeletons contained in the rocks stand a decent chance of fossilizing. Similar processes happen in and along streams. The general rule is that the gentler the flow of the stream or river, the better preserved the fossils.
Every rock sitting on the ground has a story to tell: the story of what the world looked like as that particular rock formed. Inside the rock is evidence of past climates and surroundings often vastly different from those of today. Sometimes, the disconnect between present and past could not be sharper. Take the extreme example of Mount Everest, near whose top, at an altitude of over five miles, lie rocks from an ancient sea floor. Go to the North Face almost within sight of the famous Hillary Step, and you can find fossilized seashells. Similarly, where we work in the Arctic, temperatures can reach minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. Yet inside some of the region's rocks are remnants of an ancient tropical delta, almost like the Amazon: fossilized plants and fish that could have thrived only in warm, humid locales. The presence of warm-adapted species at what today are extreme altitudes and latitudes attests to how much our planet can change: mountains rise and fall, climates warm and cool, and continents move about. Once we come to grips with the vastness of time and the extraordinary ways our planet has changed, we will be in a position to put this information to use in designing new fossil-hunting expeditions.
If we are interested in understanding the origin of limbed animals, we can now restrict our search to rocks that are roughly 375 million to 380 million years old and that were formed in oceans, lakes, or streams. Rule out volcanic rocks and metamorphic rocks, and our search image for promising sites comes into better focus.
We are only partly on the way to designing a new expedition, however. It does us no good if our promising sedimentary rocks of the right age are buried deep inside the earth, or if they are covered with grass, or shopping malls, or cities. We'd be digging blindly. As you can imagine, drilling a well hole to find a fossil offers a low probability of success, rather like throwing darts at a dartboard hidden behind a closet door.
The best places to look are those where we can walk for miles over the rock to discover areas where bones are "weathering out." Fossil bones are often harder than the surrounding rock and so erode at a slightly slower rate and present a raised profile on the rock surface. Consequently, we like to walk over bare bedrock, find a smattering of bones on the surface, then dig in.
So here is the trick to designing a new fossil expedition: find rocks that are of the right age, of the right type (sedimentary), and well exposed, and we are in business. Ideal fossil-hunting sites have little soil cover and little vegetation, and have been subject to few human disturbances. Is it any surprise that a significant fraction of discoveries happen in desert areas? In the Gobi Desert. In the Sahara. In Utah. In Arctic deserts, such as Greenland.
This all sounds very logical, but let's not forget serendipity. In fact, it was serendipity that put our team onto the trail of our inner fish. Our first important discoveries didn't happen in a desert, but along a roadside in central Pennsylvania where the exposures could hardly have been worse. To top it off, we were looking there only because we did not have much money.
It takes a lot of money and time to go to Greenland or the Sahara Desert. In contrast, a local project doesn't require big research grants, only money for gas and turnpike tolls. These are critical variables for a young graduate student or a newly hired college teacher. When I started my first job in Philadelphia, the lure was a group of rocks collectively known as the Catskill Formation of Pennsylvania. This formation has been extensively studied for over 150 years.
Its age was well known and spanned the Late Devonian. In addition, its rocks were perfect to preserve early limbed animals and their closest relatives. To understand this, it is best to have an image of what Pennsylvania looked like back in the Devonian. Remove the image of present-day Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, or Harrisburg from your mind and think of the Amazon River delta. There were highlands in the eastern part of the state. A series of streams running east to west drained these mountains, ending in a large sea where Pittsburgh is today.
It is hard to imagine better conditions to find fossils, except that central Pennsylvania is covered in towns, forests, and fields. As for the exposures, they are mostly where the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) has decided to put big roads. When PennDOT builds a highway, it blasts. When it blasts, it exposes rock. It's not always the best exposure, but we take what we can get. With cheap science, you get what you pay for.
And then there is also serendipity of a different order: in 1993, Ted Daeschler arrived to study paleontology under my supervision. This partnership was to change both our lives. Our different temperaments are perfectly matched: I have ants in my pants and am always thinking of the next place to look; Ted is patient and knows when to sit on a site to mine it for its riches. Ted and I began a survey of the Devonian rocks of Pennsylvania in hopes of finding new evidence on the origin of limbs. We began by driving to virtually every large roadcut in the eastern part of the state. To our great surprise, shortly after we began the survey, Ted found a marvelous shoulder bone. We named its owner Hynerpeton, a name that translates from Greek as "little creeping animal from Hyner." Hyner, Pennsylvania, is the nearest town. Hynerpeton had a very robust shoulder, which indicates a creature that likely had very powerful appendages. Unfortunately, we were never able to find the whole skeleton of the animal. The exposures were too limited. By? You guessed it: vegetation, houses, and shopping malls.
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