First Animals Online | University of Oxford

First Animals Online

First Animals exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History traces the dramatic steps in which all the animal body plans we see today - how an animal is put together and the way it develops from embryo to adult - have emerged. The exhibition is also a chance to see the unique fossil remains that reveal a burst of evolutionary activity called the Cambrian explosion, 540 million years ago. First Animals Online will bring the exhibition into your home...

Frankie Dunn, Research Fellow at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, tackles the tricky question 'What is an animal?'

Find more videos from the First Animal series here

Next events:

The why, what, when and how of the first animal skeletons

July 1, 7pm-8pm

Dr Duncan Murdock will discuss the first animals to build skeletons, and what they did with them.

Half a billion years ago a bewildering array of animals evolved, bristling with shells, teeth and spines during a Cambrian explosion of skeletons. Dr Murdock will explain the 'what, when and how' of when life got hard for animals, changing the world forever, and discuss the 'why' of what caused this remarkable evolutionary event.

Dr Duncan Murdock is a Research Fellow at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Dr Murdock’s research is focused on using the fossil record to understand the early evolution of skeletons in animals. 

​​​​​​​*Please note, this lecture may not be suitable for young children, but is suitable for adults and young people – beginners and experts welcome!

Find out more about this event here

The Cambrian Explosion and the evolutionary origin of animals – insights from the far north​​​​​​​

July 15, 7pm-8pm

Prepare to journey back in time more than half a billion years…

Professor Paul Smith, Director of Oxford University Museum of Natural History and Professor of Natural History, will look at the beginning of animal life, with particular attention to the Sirius Passet fossil site in the north of Greenland. The exceptionally preserved fossils from this site have been key in the development of our understanding of the ‘Cambrian Explosion’. Paul will discuss evidence for the timing of the origin of animals, as well as the evolution of modern marine ecosystems and food webs.

​​​​​​​If you would like an introduction to the topic before this live talk, find out more about when animals first appeared in this short video here

Beginners and experts are welcome, and while the talks may not be suitable for young children, they are appropriate for adults and young people.

Online lectures are presented live, and there are opportunities for attendees to interact and ask questions to our expert speakers.

Find out more about this event here

Fun facts

Is Charnia really an animal?

Charnia may look like a plant, but new research is providing definitive evidence that it was an animal. It is a key species of the Ediacaran period – one of the oldest, widest-ranging, and geologically longest-lived – and often appears in varying sizes in the same location. Find out more about Charnia.

Catch up:

Did you miss previous First Animals Online events?

You can catch up with the First Animal Online series here.

The Chronicles of Charnia: An introduction to Charnia - one of the oldest fossil animals

Watch the talk from June 17 here

A picture of Charnia - one of the oldest fossil animals

Animals today rule the land, seas and skies, but this was not always the case.

Most major animal groups appear in the fossil record during a major evolutionary radiation event over 500 million years ago; an event that palaeontologists call the ‘Cambrian Explosion’.

However, the evolutionary origins of animals are likely to be significantly more ancient.

Approximately 700 million years ago the Earth sunk into an ice age so severe it is sometimes known as ‘Snowball Earth’. When palaeontologists initially examined the rocks deposited after the ice sheets receded, they found a variety of strange and unusual fossils which increasing evidence suggests were ancient animals.

In this talk, ​​​​​​​Dr Frankie Dunn will introduce you to these fossils - specifically to the long-extinct Rangeomorpha - to which Charnia (a genus of frond-like lifeforms from The Ediacaran Period, pictured above) belongs, that appear to have lived and died in the wake of Snowball Earth.

​​​​​​​Dr Frankie Dunn is a palaeontologist and an Early Career Research Fellow at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and Merton College. Frankie’s research focuses on the origin and early evolution of animals and particularly on fossil record of the late Ediacaran Period (approximately 570-540 million years ago). The aim of this research is to understand how animal body plans evolved in deep time, before the divergence of the living animal lineages.

Virtual palaeontology: bringing the first animals to life in 3D?

Watch this talk from June 10 again here

Palaeontology has been transformed by the development of methods for creating 3-D models of fossils, which are providing important new insights into past lifeforms. Modern X-ray imaging allows researchers to study the internal anatomy of specimens at astonishing, micrometre-scale resolutions without causing any damage to the fossil itself.

Moreover, computer models and simulations enable scientists to test long-standing theories regarding the palaeobiology of extinct organisms.

In this talk, Dr Imran Rahman introduces some of the new techniques that are being applied to the oldest fossil animals. He will also discuss the challenges and opportunities facing this virtual world of palaeontology.

Endless Worms Most Beautiful

You can also catch up with Endless Worms Most Beautiful with Dr Luke Parry from June 3 here

An introduction to the amazing history of annelids. Earthworms

A worm-like body shape is present in many distantly related animals, having evolved separately multiple times. Among these different types of worm, the segmented annelids are perhaps the most familiar, encompassing earthworms and leeches as well as a staggering diversity of different forms that live in the ocean.

These marine worms, called polychaetes for their bristly bodies, show a range of very different lifestyles from reef building filter feeders to voracious ambush predators. Despite their soft and non-durable bodies, special fossil deposits with exceptional preservation reveal their anatomy in great detail, with rare examples preserving evidence of ancient guts, muscles and even remains of nervous systems and brains.

In his talk Dr Luke Parry explores the fossil record of annelids, from their origins over 500 million years ago to extinct forms not seen in the modern ocean, such as armoured worms and giant predatory polychaetes.

Dr Luke Parry is a palaeontologist based in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford and is an early career research and teaching fellow at St. Edmund Hall. 

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Find out more about the First Animals exhibition

Find more videos from the First Animal series here