Rotten Fish & Fossils


Mark Purnell, Rob Sansom and Sarah Gabbott

Without fossils we would know little about the amazing journey that life on our planet has taken, evolving from oceans full of green slime through to the myriad of animals and plants we share our existence with today. Fossils are mainly familiar to us as bones, teeth and shells - the durable mineralised parts of animals. But happily for palaeontologists, and for our understanding of evolution, rare and remarkable fossils preserve the parts of animals that usually decay away after death. Guts, eyes, livers, brains, skin and other decay-prone anatomy all occur in the fossil record making up 'soft-bodied' exceptionally-preserved fossils.

But there’s a problem – when they are preserved in rock such fossils often look nothing like they did when the animal was alive. This makes it difficult to interpret these fossils in terms of their anatomy and crucially where they should sit on the evolutionary tree. Getting this right is important so such fossils can play their part in revealing the story of evolution on Earth.

Soft-bodied fossils appear different to the once-living animals because during fossilisation two-processes - decay and preservation - result in the loss or modification of anatomical features. How do we see through this filter to read fossils correctly?

In this lecture Professor Gabbott will explain why rotting animals in the laboratory is one very useful way forward, helping us to interpret the anatomy of animals from their fossil counterparts. She will also show how analysing the chemistry of exceptionally-preserved fossils helps us to understand their journey from flesh to fossil!

Our online lecture series features researchers presenting a range of topics in natural history. Beginners and experts are welcome, and while the talks may not be suitable for young children, they are appropriate for adults and young people. Our online lectures are presented live, and you will have opportunities to interact with other attendees and ask questions to our expert speakers.

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