Filling the gap - news story - 23 Feb 2016

Exciting discoveries in Scotland

A long-stending mystery of the fossil record is gradually being solved, with a series of discoveries in Scottish rocks. At the beginning of the Carboniferous period, there had been a fifteen million year stretch so poorly represented by fossil evidence that it had been named Romer's Gap, after Alfred Romer, the American palaeontologist who pointed it out. It was a significant time, too - at the beginning, a crucial group of animals, the tetrapods, were aquatic; anatomically unsuited to a life on land. By the end, however, these animals appeared largely terrestrial, and had developed limbs and other features enabling them to fill diverse ecological niches out of the water.

What had happened in this 'gap', and why wasn't there much evidence of it? Many thought global environmental conditions at the time were not condusive to fossilisation. Others thought that we probably just hadn't been looking in the right places. Stan Wood was among this latter group, and was determined to get to the bottom of it. He began a twenty year campaign, searching for sites of appropriate age and depositional conditions. Eventually, he found what he had been looking for. Along with his friend Tim Smithson, he made a series of discoveries in the Scottish Borders that would prove incredibly important.

From these sites, they produced, along with the vital tetrapod material they had been particularly interested in, a diversity of fauna and flora in abundance. They had filled Romer's Gap. This was only the beginning of a long process, however. The fossils they had found would be carefully scrutinised, reconstructed and discussed. Then the pieces of the puzzle had to be put together to fully explain the processes that had taken place 350 million years ago. 

To this end, the TW:eed Project was founded; a collaborative affair involving research teams from Universities of Cambridge, Leicester and Southampton, together with the British Geological Survey and National Museums of Scotland. Extensive fieldwork has been carried out since, with tremendous results. There is still a great deal to do, but already a picture is beginning to emerge of this crucial evolutionary stage, millions of years ago.

Last week, Fossil Hunters, an exhibiton documenting Stan and the work of the TW;eed Project opened at the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street. It runs until August, and will then go on tour around the UK. Please go and see it if you can.