Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Rotting fish heads: Novel studies of decomposition shed new light on our earliest fossil ancestry

Date:
February 1, 2010
Source:
University of Leicester
Summary:
Decaying corpses are usually the domain of forensic scientists, but palaeontologists have discovered that studying rotting fish sheds new light on our earliest ancestry.

These are three rotting fish heads. A sequence of images showing how the characteristic features of the body of amphioxus, a close living relative of vertebrates, change during decay. Colors are caused by interference between the experimental equipment and the light illuminating the specimens.
Credit: Mark Purnell, Rob Sansom, Sarah Gabbott, University of Leicester

Decaying corpses are usually the domain of forensic scientists, but palaeontologists have discovered that studying rotting fish sheds new light on our earliest ancestry.

The researchers, from the Department of Geology at the University of Leicester, devised a new method for extracting information from 500 million year old fossils -they studied the way fish decompose to gain a clearer picture of how our ancient fish-like ancestors would have looked. Their results indicate that some of the earliest fossils from our part of the tree of life may have been more complex than has previously been thought.

Their findings were published on Jan 31, ahead of print in Advance Online Publication (AOP) of the science journal Nature.

Dr Rob Sansom, lead author of the paper explains: "Interpreting fossils is in some ways similar to forensic analysis -- we gather all the available clues to put together a scientific reconstruction of something that happened in the past. Unlike forensics, however, we are dealing with life from millions of years ago, and we are less interested in understanding the cause or the time of death. What we want to get at is what an animal was like before it died and, as with forensic analysis, knowing how the decomposition that took place after death altered the body provides important clues to its original anatomy."

This is something that palaeontologists sometimes overlook, according to Sansom, "probably because spending hundreds of hours studying the stinking carcasses of rotting fish is not something that appeals to everyone." But the rewards are worth the discomfort.

Fish-like fossils from half a billion years ago are recognised as being part of our evolutionary history because they possess characteristic anatomical features, such as a tail, eyes and the precursor of a backbone. Sansom continues: "It seems contradictory, but decomposition is an important part of the process by which animals become preserved and fossilized, so by knowing how these important anatomical features change as they rot, we are better able to correctly interpret the most ancient fossils representing the lowest branches of our part of the evolutionary tree."

"These fossils provide our only direct record of when and how our earliest vertebrate ancestors evolved" adds Dr Mark Purnell, one of the leaders of the study. "Did they appear suddenly, in an evolutionary explosion of complexity, or gradually over millions of years? What did they look like? -- in what ways did they differ from their worm-like relatives and how did this set the stage for later evolutionary events? Answers to these fundamental questions -- the how, when and why of our own origins -- remain elusive because reading the earliest vertebrate fossil record is difficult."

The scarcity of branches in this part of the evolutionary tree could reflect rapid, explosive evolution or the simple fact that, because they lacked bones or teeth, the earliest vertebrates left few fossils.

This is the area in which Dr Sarah Gabbott, who with Purnell conceived the Leicester study, is an expert: "Only in the most exceptional circumstances do soft-tissues, such as eyes, muscles and guts, become fossilized, yet it is precisely such remains that we rely on for understanding our earliest evolutionary relatives: half-a-billion years ago it's pretty much all our ancestors had."

The results published in Nature, show that some of the characteristic anatomical features of early vertebrate fossils have been badly affected by decomposition, and in some cases may have rotted away completely. Knowing how decomposition affected the fossils means our reconstructions of our earliest ancestors will be more scientifically accurate.

The work was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Leicester. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Robert S. Sansom, Sarah E. Gabbott, Mark A. Purnell. Non-random decay of chordate characters causes bias in fossil interpretation. Nature, 2010; 463 (7282): 797 DOI: 10.1038/nature08745

Cite This Page:

University of Leicester. "Rotting fish heads: Novel studies of decomposition shed new light on our earliest fossil ancestry." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 February 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100131142434.htm>.
University of Leicester. (2010, February 1). Rotting fish heads: Novel studies of decomposition shed new light on our earliest fossil ancestry. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 20, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100131142434.htm
University of Leicester. "Rotting fish heads: Novel studies of decomposition shed new light on our earliest fossil ancestry." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100131142434.htm (accessed August 20, 2014).

Share This




More Fossils & Ruins News

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Disquieting Times for Malaysia's 'fish Listeners'

Disquieting Times for Malaysia's 'fish Listeners'

AFP (Aug. 19, 2014) Malaysia's last "fish listeners" -- practitioners of a dying local art of listening underwater to locate their quarry -- try to keep the ancient technique alive in the face of industrial trawling and the depletion of stocks. Duration: 02:29 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Mother And Son Find Woolly Mammoth Tusks 22 Years Apart

Mother And Son Find Woolly Mammoth Tusks 22 Years Apart

Newsy (Aug. 15, 2014) A mother and son in Alaska uncovered woolly mammoth tusks in the same river more than two decades apart. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Fossils Reveal Ancient Flying Reptile With 'Butterfly Head'

Fossils Reveal Ancient Flying Reptile With 'Butterfly Head'

Newsy (Aug. 14, 2014) Newly found fossils reveal a previously unknown species of flying reptile with a really weird head, which some say looks like a butterfly. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Clearing WWII's Explosive Legacy in the Pacific

Clearing WWII's Explosive Legacy in the Pacific

AFP (Aug. 11, 2014) The hulks of tanks can still be found rusting in the jungles of Palau, but the fierce fighting that scarred the Pacific island nation in WWII has left a more dangerous legacy - unexploded bombs that pose a constant risk to locals. Duration: 00:47 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins