Spectacular Images of Ancient Life

Exceptionally preserved fossils of long-extinct animals represent another convergence of Life (the jump of imagination to picturing the live animals is greatly reduced by the state of preservation), Art (the fossils are often aesthetically beautiful) and Earth (they are part of the geological record).

X-radiograph of Helianthaster rhenanus, 12 cm across, showing 14 arms, from the Devonian of Bundenbach

One ever-popular group of extinct animals, the trilobites, are only very rarely preserved with their limbs and antennae intact and even more occasionally show preservation of their soft guts. A page of such examples, ranging in age from Early Cambrian to Late Devonian (a number of these being the best examples known) can be seen here: The Whole Trilobite.

Some of my favourite occurrences of exceptional fossil preservation are:

-       - the Devonian slates around the town of Bundenbach in Germany, where astonishing details are captured in pyrite, allowing the preparation of astonishing X-radiographs

A complete 37 cm pycnogonid (sea spider) from the Devonian of Bundenbach

-       - the Cretaceous platy limestones of Lebanon in which very early precipitation of calcium phosphate preserved even the fine anatomical details of ancient octopus corpses

This complete Cretaceous octopus shows remarkable preservation of internal anatomy

-       - the diverse biotas encapsulated in amber, from Cretaceous and Cenozoic rocks

This is probably the most spectacular Cretaceous mantis known, 27 mm long in Burmese amber

There are many more cases, spanning more than half a billion years of Earth history and from time to time a new "Window onto the past" is discovered. I find this one of the most satisfying areas of the Earth sciences.


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