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Ancient fossils shed light on anatomical changes accompanying evolution of first land vertebrates
Date:7/6/2009

Durham, NC -- Cartoon depictions of the first animals to emerge from the ocean and walk on land often show a simple fish with feet, venturing from water to land. But according to Jennifer Clack, a paleontologist at the University of Cambridge who has studied the fossils of these extinct creatures for more than two decades, the earliest land vertebrates also known as tetrapods were more diverse than we could possibly imagine.

"Some looked like crocodiles, some looked like little lizards, some like moray eels, and some were snake-like," said Clack. "They occupied all sorts of niches and habitats. And they varied tremendously in size from about 10 cm long to 5 meters."

Long before mammals, birds, and even dinosaurs roamed the Earth, the first four-legged creatures made their first steps onto land, and quickly inhabited a wide range of terrestrial environments. These early land vertebrates varied considerably in size and shape, said Clack.

To understand the anatomical changes that accompanied this diversity, Clack teamed up with two biologists who work on living fishes Charles Kimmel of the University of Oregon, and Brian Sidlauskas of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in North Carolina.

The researchers focused on 35 early tetrapods that lived between 385 and 275 million years ago. As a proxy for body size and shape, they examined the dimensions of a number of bones in a region of the skull known as the palate. By tracing changes in the length and width of interlocking bones in this part of the skull, the researchers hoped to get a more fine-grained picture of skeleton evolution as a whole.

"I tend to think the genetic instructions for making a skeleton come from how you make individual bones first, and then how you fit those bones together as a refinement of that," said developmental biologist Charles Kimmel, who was the first author on the paper.

When they mapped the changes in bone leng
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Contact: Robin Ann Smith
rsmith@nescent.org
919-668-4544
National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent)
Source:Eurekalert  

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