by Carl Strang
The first animals which unambiguously connect to present day forms appear in the fossil record early in the Paleozoic Era, which began 542 million years ago, billions of years after the planet first formed. Here are some notes from studies of this era published in 2014.
Cong, Peiyun, et al. 2014. Brain structure resolves the segmental affinity of anomalocaridid appendages. Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature13486 They studied the brain structure of Lyrarapax unguispinus, a fossilized relative of Anomalocaris, and found it was both simpler than those of its contemporary prey, and very similar to those of today’s onychophorans, or velvet worms, terrestrial southern hemisphere forest floor predators with unusual antennae that connect to the brain in the same way that the pair of grasping appendages connected to the brain of Lyrarapax. The similarities suggest a common ancestry.
Jourdan, F., et al. 2014. High-precision dating of the Kalkarindji large igneous province, Australia, and synchrony with the Early-Middle Cambrian (Stage 4-5) extinction. Geology 42 (6): 543. DOI: 10.1130/G35434.1 From a ScienceDaily article. The first major extinction event, which took out 50% of species in the Middle Cambrian, was caused by a mass volcanic eruption in Australia according to this study.
Morris, Simon Conway, and Jean-Bernard Caron. 2014. A primitive fish from the Cambrian of North America. Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature13414 New Burgess shale fossils from the Cambrian of 505mya (million years ago) show detail in one of the earliest fishes, Metaspriggina, in which branchial arches are revealed as paired, with the first pair slightly thicker than the others (a step toward the first jaw). They had large eyes, and probably were good swimmers.
Shubin, Neil H., Edward B. Daeschler, and Farish A. Jenkins, Jr. 2014. Pelvic girdle and fin of Tiktaalik roseae. PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1322559111 From a ScienceDaily article. They describe the anatomy of the rear part of this fish, previously known only from anterior portions. This animal was transitional toward terrestrial life, living in a delta environment where the ability to cross over land from stream to stream was advantageous. It was large, as much as 9 feet long, with large teeth making it somewhat reminiscent of a crocodile. It was lobe-finned, had a flexible neck, and rudimentary lungs. Its well-developed shoulder girdle previously was known, but it had been assumed that it crawled with only its front fins. The surprise was that the pelvic girdle also is developed, with a ball and socket joint and strong hind fins, so these fish had rudiments of four, rather than just two legs.
Ezcurra, M.D., T.M. Scheyer, and R.J. Butler. 2014. The origin and early evolution of Sauria: reassessing the Permian saurian fossil record and the timing of the crocodile-lizard divergence. PLoS ONE 9(2): e89165. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0089165 They took a close look at Permian fossils in an attempt to resolve debate on when the split happened between the reptilian line leading to crocodiles, dinosaurs and birds on the one hand (archosauromorphs) and lizards and snakes on the other (lepidosauromorphs). They concluded that only the former have been found in the Permian, and place the earliest possible time for the split at 254.7 million years ago (very late Permian).