In this gallery we explore the distant origins of life on Earth, from the very first traces in muddy pools to the rapid development of marine life and the first land animals.
Some of the earliest forms of life on Earth that we are able to identify are only known to us indirectly, through traces left in the rocks. The first organisms were tiny, single-celled creatures like the algae found in ponds or in fish tanks. They formed a film over the surface of mud, and because they were sticky they trapped layers of mud, making layered structures that we call stromatolites. They still exist today in a few places around the world. The fossils may not be the actual organisms, but are the structures they left behind after they had died.
Earliest Life - mysteries of the Ediacara Mountains
In rocks that date back about 600 million years some very curious fossils have been discovered. The first ones were discovered in the Ediacara Mountains in southern Australia, and appear to be some of the earliest forms of more complex life on Earth. The fossils are chambered structures, some leaf-shaped, others rounded, as well as a few trails left by animals moving across the sea floor. Other extremely rare traces suggest that there were tiny organisms living in the plankton and between grains of sand on the sea floor. Some of these fossils can be seen in this display area.
The Burgess Shale
In this display we bring to life the remarkable discoveries of Professor Whittington and his colleagues. Their painstaking work on these important trace fossils tells an amazing story about early life on Earth.
The rich diveristy of the Cambrian and Ordovician is depicted in this part of the gallery, where you can find examples of graptolites, corals, sponges and trilobites.
As time and life progressed so did the complexity, range and variety of sea creatures. Silurian rocks, notably those in Europe and North America offer a vivid image of teeming oceans, a superabundance of life on the sea floor, and the development of large and complex reef structures. Reefs are the underwater equivalent of tropical rainforests providing shelter for an enormous diversity of life including some of the earliest types of fish.
More information about Silurian reefs can be found in the Museum's online learning resource Exploring the Wenlock Reef
On to Land: Life in the Devonian
A remarkable phase in Earth history, the Devonian marks a time when both plants and backboned animals began to colonise land as well as watery habitats. In this display you can find evidence of early land plant fossils, as well as some remarkable fossils from Greenland that show evidence of " fish with legs " - animals that developed some of the key features that made land life possible.
Rocks from the Carboniferous identify the clear rise in abundance of land plants. So successful were the early land plants that they spread widely across the land, not only as fern-like plants, but also as a variety of tree-like forms that created the first forests to cover the Earth. Compare the fossils in this display with the leaf shapes common today in tropical forests. The rotted carcasses of billions of these trees and ferns created the coal reserves that we mine today.
The World's Largest Spider
At about 50cm diameter, Megarachne is the largest known spider ever to have walked the Earth. Discovered in Argentina, the fossil was compressed between layers of Carboniferous rock. On display in this part of the gallery are a cast of the original fossil, and a full-size model of this giant.
This display was designed and produced by the Sedgwick Young Design Squad (SYDS).
Latest news: Was Megarachne really the world's largest spider? Read more ...
The Permian and Triassic: Footprints in the sand
This was a time of extraordinary changes on a global scale. All the continents moved together to form a single 'supercontinent' that we call Pangea. This new continent created some powerful weather conditions, including widespread aridity. This created deserts in major parts of the world. On land, despite the inhospitable climates, we find tracks and traces of creatures well adapted to survive in the blistering heat of the sun.