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At the feet of the dinosaurs

The time from 230 to 200 million years ago was critical in the origin of terrestrial ecosystems. Groups such as dinosaurs and pterosaurs emerged at this time, but so too did the first members of 'modern' vertebrate groups such as the teleost fishes in the sea, and the frogs, lepidosaurs, crocodylomorphs, and mammals, on land.

In a multi-year project, palaeontologists at the University of Bristol are working on numerous localities around Bristol, in south-west England and south Wales. Fossils are preserved in the marine bonebeds of the Rhaetic as well as in coeval fissure deposits that sample terrestrial animals. The work can be time-consuming, involving careful collecting, laboratory processing of the sediment, and work under the microscope to identify isolated teeth, scales, bones, and other elements.

The work is done by undergraduates and Masters students as their first experience of research. Each student is assigned a site, works through the collection, identifies specimens, and writes and illustrates the paper.

The Rhaetic was a key time in the history of life, shortly after the origin of the dinosaurs and just before the Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction. The first microvertebrates from the area were reported in the 19th century, and much has been discovered since then about the fishes and tetrapods that lived in the shallow seas and on land at the time.

This research programme is part of the Bristol Dinosaur Project, a mixed research and educational enterprise. We take the Bristol dinosaur, Thecodontosaurus, out to the public, especially schools. But it is also important that this is an ongoing research project, where new discoveries are being made and published. Even though Thecodontosaurus was discovered in 1834, and named in 1836 - only the fourth dinosaur ever to be named from anywhere in the world, there is still much to be discovered!

Dicynodon Illustration courtesy of John Sibbick.
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