The search for truth through a scientific lens is allowing us to reconstruct the history of human origins from the fossils of our ancestors. The story is certainly incomplete and its narrative is continually reformed after new findings from fossil records. The same happens in the animal and vegetable world.
In the case of dinosaurs, these probably represent the most incredible creatures that ruled the planet for more than 160 million years. From the size of a hummingbird to the wingspan of trucks and buildings, these ferocious sauropsids once fought for terrestrial dominance, but ended up extinct some 65 million years ago.
Fortunately, thanks to fossils, the solid evidence behind our image of life on Earth, we have a good source of information about prehistoric life on our planet.
In some cases, these fossils tend to be preserved in the strangest way and in the most unusual places we could imagine. Many paleontologists have been digging and discovering these fossils in various geographic locations from the 17th century to the present day. And it is that knowing when and where the oldest fossils of different species appeared gives us new details about the evolutionary tree of the planet.
However rare and impressive they may be, not all fossils are equally famous, or have had the same profound effect on paleontology and our understanding of life during these remote times. Today we review the most outstanding fossils in the world.
1The oldest known fossil
A team of scientists presented the oldest fossils in the world: ruins of colonies of ancient bacteria known as stromatolites in 3,700 million year old rocks in Greenland, being 200 million years older than the fossil stromatolites of 3,48 billion years discovered in the Pilbara region in northwestern Australia.
Molecular clocks, the mutation rate of genetic material, suggest that life on Earth began about 4 billion years ago, so having fossils as old as Greenland’s stromatolites indicate that life on Earth may have started quite a bit fast: these would be the first organisms on Earth.
2The oldest known fish: Metaspriggina
These 505-million-year-old fossils discovered in Canada represent the oldest known fossil record of fish and fortunately, contain incredible details of the animal’s facial features. The discovery of Metaspriggina , published in Nature in 2014, was remarkable, since the first fish fossils of the Cambrian period are very rare and poorly conserved. However, these fossils have well-defined eyes and nasal structures, and a series of exceptionally well-preserved arches near the front of their bodies, which are early evidence of the jaws.
3Multicellular life: 2,230 million years
These algae- like fossils found in rocks of 1.56 million years in China are the first known examples of organisms formed by many cells, multicellular life: the beginning of a complex life.
The discovery was made public in 2016 in the journal Nature Communications . Until this discovery, we had not seen large multicellular life forms in the fossil record until 600 million years ago, so it was an incredibly important finding leaving us with this headline: Complex multicellular life emerged 600 million years ago.
However, in 2017 we rewrote the story. The results of a comprehensive genetic analysis of current organisms by MIT scientists suggested that eukaryotes, the group comprising animals, plants and protists, had been present on Earth for at least 2,330 million years, right at the time that oxygen began to be a frequent and permanent element in the atmosphere. These tests place eukaryotes on Earth since 2.330 million years ago. This new estimate precedes the earliest fossil evidence in 800 million years.
C hen partial femur Megalosaurus was unearthed in England in 1676, a professor at the University of Oxford identified it as belonging to a human giant. It would not be until 1824 when William Buckland gave this genus its distinctive name, and it would take almost 20 more years for the Megalosaurus to be definitively identified as a dinosaur by the famous paleontologist Richard Owen. Thus, the megalosaurus femur was the first dinosaur described and baptized.
For hundreds of years before the eighteenth century, people in central and western Europe had been digging up strange-looking bones along the beds of lakes and riverbanks. What made the spectacular skeleton of the marine reptile Mosasaurus important was that it was the first fossil to be positively identified by the naturalist Georges Cuvier as belonging to an extinct species. From this moment on, scientists realized that they were dealing with creatures that lived and died millions of years before humans appeared on earth. The Mosasaurus fossil, a species that lived during the Maastrichtian in the Cretaceous period between 70-66 million years ago, was discovered in 1764.
We arrived at the dinosaur that looks like a duck. 2017 was a great year for paleontologists; one of those that stood out is the fossil of a theropod dinosaur, studied non-invasively with high-tech 3D scanning, which showed surprising characteristics similar to those of birds.
The theory that birds descend from dinosaurs is now commonly accepted among vertebrate paleontologists. However, no one could have predicted Halszkaraptor escuilliei,a new species of non-avian theropod dinosaur from Mongolia described in 2017 and published in the journal Nature. Its long neck, which constitutes 50% of the total length from snout to tail and the longest for any Mesozoic theropod dinosaur, is a reminiscence that we can observe in some birds, such as swans. The morphology of the Halszkaraptor suggested a semi-aquatic lifestyle and seems to be the first non-avian dinosaur that could move both on land and in water. He lived 71 and 75 million years ago.
7Lucy, the most famous fossil in the world
Lucy, a 3.2 million year old Australopithecus afarensis named after the Beatles song ” Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, is perhaps the most famous fossil in the world. It was discovered in the Afar region of Ethiopia in 1974 and remains one of the most complete skeletons of a human ancestor walking upright, with approximately 40% of its bones intact. Their discovery allowed scientists to determine for the first time that the ability to walk upright was prior to the great brains of modern humans. Lucy’s brain is the size of a chimpanzee and is the most obvious proof of the mono-male link.
The remains of this hominid are currently kept in a safe in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia.
The I guanodon was the second dinosaur after the Megalosaurus to receive a formal name for its genus; more importantly, its numerous fossils (first investigated by Gideon Mantell in 1820) precipitated a heated debate among naturalists about whether or not these ancient reptiles existed. Georges Cuvier and William Buckland, for example, claimed that these bones belonged to a rhino but, the English biologist and paleontologist Richard Owen prevailed with reality identifying the Iguanodon as a true dinosaur.
The Iguanodon lived in the early Cretaceous period, approximately 130-120 million years ago, in what is now Europe.
The Hadrosaurus is very important, more for historical than paleontological reasons: it was the first almost complete dinosaur fossil excavated in the United States, and one of the few that was discovered on the east coast (found in the Woodbury Formation of New Jersey) instead of in the west. Named by the American paleontologist Joseph Leidy in 1858, the Hadrosaurus lent its nickname to a large family of duck-billed dinosaurs, the hadrosaurs, a species that lived about 80 million years ago, in the Campanian, in what is now North America .
In 1860, Charles Darwin published his fantastic treatise on evolution, ‘On the Origin of Species’. Luckily, in the following years a series of spectacular discoveries took place in the limestone deposits of Solnhofen, Germany: complete and exquisitely preserved fossils of an ancient creature, Archeopteryx, which seemed to be the perfect “missing link” between the dinosaurs and birds Since then other fossils have been unearthed but none has had an impact as deep as this dove-sized dinosaur. The Archeopteryx, which lived in the Upper Jurassic period about 150 million years ago, in what is now southern Germany, represents the dinosaur-bird link.
11The best preserved dinosaur fossil in the world
Borealopelta markmitchelli is a species of armored herbivore that lived about 110 million years ago, in what is now Alberta (Canada). This dinosaur, similar to a pineapple, was 5.5 meters long and had to weigh 1.2 tons. It is one of the best fossils of its kind ever found, and it offered us an unprecedented picture of the anatomy and life of armored dinosaurs. This armored dinosaur(relative of the famous ankylosaurus) represents a rarity; this terrestrial animal floated for many kilometers out to sea before sinking, intact, buried and finally recovered millions of years later. As we say, it is one of the best preserved dinosaurs that has been discovered: not only the main skeleton is almost complete, but also bones and bone plates that make up its armor are preserved.
12The boy from Turkana
It is the most complete skeleton discovered so far. The Turkana child, an almost complete fossil – just missing hands and feet – of 1.6 million years old, of what some scientists call Homo ergaster, an early African population of Homo erectus, is considered the most complete skeleton of a prehistoric human never found. The boy, who was discovered in 1984 in the Turkana region of Kenya, measures 160 cm, which indicates that the hominids had become considerably taller since the days of Lucy, 3.2 million years ago. It is believed that the cause of the child’s death was a generalized septicemia from the infection of a tooth.
Because of a historical peculiarity, most of the fossils of dinosaurs unearthed at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century belonged to relatively small ornithopods or slightly larger theropods. The discovery of Diplodocus in the Morrison formation of western North America in 1877 marked the beginning of the era of giant sauropods, which have since captured the imagination of the public to a greater extent than dinosaurs such as the Megalosaurus or the Iguanodon. The Diplodocus lived at the end of the Jurassic period, about 155.7-150.8 million years ago, in the Kimmeridgian and the Titonian, in what is now North America.
Coelophysis was named in 1889 (by the famous paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope). However, this primitive dinosaur that lived at the end of the Triassic and early Jurassic periods, approximately 203 to 196 million years ago, did not cause popular sensation until 1947, when the American paleontologist Edwin H. Colbert discovered innumerable skeletons of Coelophysis entangled in the fossil site of Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. This discovery showed that at least some genera of small theropods traveled in vast herds, and that large populations of dinosaurs, carnivores and herbivores were frequently drowned by sudden floods.
The American paleontologist and dinosaurologist Jack Horner is known to be the inspiration for the character of Sam Neill in the movie Jurassic Park, but in paleontology circles, this expert is famous for discovering the extensive nesting grounds of Maiasaura, a medium-sized hadrosaur that he roamed the American West in vast herds that he lived at the end of the Upper Cretaceous period, approximately 80 to 70 million years ago, in the Campanian, in the current North America. Taken together, the fossilized nests and fairly well-preserved skeletons of Maiasaura – baby, juvenile and adult – show that at least some dinosaurs had an active family life and did not necessarily abandon their young after they were born.
16The largest human fossil site in history
We make a mandatory stop at the Atapuerca field in Burgos (Spain). With more than 400,000 years old, Sima de los Huesos is the largest human fossil site in history. In 1976 the first human fossils were found, but it was difficult to imagine the great amount of paleontological material that lay buried among its sediments. The site is full of human bones attributed to Homo heidelbergensis (considered the ancestor of Homo neanderthalensis), with an age of about 300,000 years. It houses 2,000 bones belonging to at least 32 individuals. “All the human species that lived in Europe are represented in Atapuerca that, after more than 40 years of excavations, 99% of the fossils are still buried, there are still several decades of work in this magical place and it will take much more time to extract all the information enclosed in these fossils.
17The most complete skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex
Sue is called and is the largest, the most complete and best preserved Tyrannosaurus Rex ever discovered. Baptized in honor of paleontologist Susan Hendrickson, who discovered the remains in South Dakota in 1990, Sue is the sample of one of the largest carnivores that has walked on Earth 67-65 million years ago.
The Field Museum in Chicago, which exhibits the fossils (which it bought at an auction for 8.4 million dollars) announced that it will dismantle the 12.3 meter tyrannosaur and reassemble it according to the latest knowledge about the ferocious predator of the period Cretaceous It will be exposed again in 2019.
Nyasasaurio , the oldest known dinosaur. The fossils of the dinosaur – found in the 1930s in Tanzania – the size of a labrador dog, with a tail and a meter, belong to a reptile that lived in the Middle Triassic, between 10 and 15 million years before the eoraptor and herrerasaurus, the most primitive dinosaurs of the late Triassic period (230-225 million years ago). It is believed that it measured 2 to 3 meters long, and weighed between 20 and 60 kilos.
19The largest dinosaur in history
The fossils discovered in the center-north of the province of Chubut (Patagonia Argentina) of the Patagotitan mayorum, which lived in the middle of the Cretaceous period, approximately 101 million years ago, in what is today the south of South America, They show the greatest dinosaur in history. The size of the femurs found indicates that an adult could measure about 40 meters from head to tail. It could reach 80 tons in weight, as if we were joining the weight of 14 African elephants. Undoubtedly, the largest terrestrial animal in the history of planet Earth.
20The oldest flowering plant in the world
Montsecchia Vidalii is the oldest example of a flowering plant. It lived in marshes 130 million years ago, spreading abundantly in freshwater lakes in what are now mountainous regions of Spain. The fossil exceeded in five million years another aquatic plant, Archaefructus sinensis, which lived in what is now China, as its remains are dated to the Barremian age of the Lower Cretaceous.
21The first dinosaur fossil with preserved hair
The Sinosauropteryx was the first of a spectacular series of dinosaur discoveries in China’s Liaoning quarry. The fossil reveals the unmistakable impression of primitive hair-like feathers; It was the first time that paleontologists directly identified this feature in a dinosaur. Unexpectedly, an analysis of the remains of Sinosauropteryx showed that it was only related in isolation to another famous feathered dinosaur, Archeopteryx, which led paleontologists to revise their theories about how and when dinosaurs became birds. This dinosaur lived in the middle of the Cretaceous period, approximately 120 million years ago.
We say goodbye with the first known mammal: the Rurasodon eurasiaticus. This species of extinct mammal, measured 17 centimeters and weighed 80 grams. Its appearance should be similar to that of a rat or a contemporary squirrel and lived 160 million years ago in the territory that is now China. Despite its small size had a series of anatomical features that allowed him to move with agility in different areas and have an omnivorous diet (could feed on both plants and animals). His discovery was published in 2013 in the journal Science.