The fossil vertebrates collections are founded upon the material accumulated during this century by three major personalities in Vertebrate Palaeontology, Sir Clive Forster-Cooper, F.R. Parrington and D. M. S. Watson. They represent key material that has been used, alongside modern specimens, to interpret the evolutionary development and radiation of the fishes, reptiles and early mammals.
Through the personal collections of Sir Clive Forster-Cooper, a former Director of the Museum, the Museum has representative material of many important fossil fish taxa, including excellent specimens of Eusthenopteron which have often been figured in the literature. The fish collections have recently been added to by acquisition of Cretaceous fossil fishes from the Santana Formation of Brazil, many of which show undescribed features of soft tissue preservation and are the subject of current research.
In the 1930s and ’40s, another former Director, F. R. Parrington, made extensive collections of amphibians, reptiles and synapsids from southern Africa, especially Tanzania. The specimens document such critical stages in vertebrate evolution as the diversification of synapsids, the evolution of mammalian and reptilian hearing, and the early archosaurs. In the years before his retirement, Parrington worked on material from Triassic/Jurassic deposits in Wales and the West Country, which illuminate the origin of mammals and contain some of the earliest known mammal specimens.
The collection of D.M.S. Watson, like that of Parrington, represents the early evolution of palaeozoic tetrapods but in addition it also documents the Tertiary evolution of the mammals. Watson was a particularly influential figure in the growth of vertebrate palaeontology in this country. The collection includes figured specimens that represent many of the important evolutionary transitions and address major controversies in the subject. Important material of early Mesozoic tetrapods was deposited in the collections by N.C. Fraser, who worked in the Museum in the 1980’s. This collection documents the lizard-like sphenodontids, which previously were a rather poorly studied group.
More recently, research in the Museum has been augmented by the collection of early tetrapod material from the Devonian of Greenland, made by our present curator, Jenny Clack (on loan from MGUH). Material from this provenance has been paramount in generating new ideas about the origin of tetrapods and the fish-to-tetrapod transition, and has allowed a renaissance of thought and effort in this area. The UMZC is particularly fortunate to possess material of both Acanthostega and Ichthyostega, including figured and cited material of the former. It is one of only two Museums in the world where this material is housed, the other being the Geological Museum in Copenhagen (MGUH).
Finally, the Museum has purchased a suite of tetrapod fossils over the last 10 years from the site of East Kirkton, near Bathgate in Scotland. This material is Viséan (Early Carboniferous) in age, and represents the earliest known terrestrial assemblage of animals. All the tetrapod taxa from the locality are new to science, and the Museum has specimens representing most of them, including two named holotypes and other material which has yet to be published. The locality gives unique information about the early diversification of tetrapods and the evolution of terrestriality.