Romer’s Gap: Filling The Gap In The Fossil Record

Romer’s Gap is the name given to a gap in the fossil record where there was no fossil evidence of life on land over a huge period.

The connection for us is that we lived in Edinburgh before moving to Cambridge. And that wonderful city has tremendous museums. Specifically, in the National Museum Of Scotland is an exhibit of Balanerpeton Woodi. And it has a very local connection to Edinburgh.

350 million years ago, Scotland was part of a much bigger land mass and was located south of the equator. It was nothing new to us to know that the continents have drifted and changed shape over geological time. But when you are standing in a museum in Edinburgh and read that the land you are standing on drifted a quarter way north of the size of the planet, it’s a feeling of standing on shifting ground.

With that in mind, as it drifted north over the millennia, the land mass brought with it the fossils of small tetrapods, ancestors of every land creature of present times, including man.

Romer’s Gap – The Gap In The Fossil Record

Palaeontologists had built up a record of the emergence of life, but here was a gap in the record. It is Romer’s Gap, named after an American palaeontologist Alfred Sherwood Romer.

The gap in the record was that there was no fossil evidence of life on land over the fifteen-million-years from 345 to 360 million years ago in the early Carboniferous period. .

There was plenty of evidence of life in the sea from 360-million years ago and earlier. And there was evidence of life on land from 345-million years ago and later – but nothing in between.

Romer’s gap is the very period when animals moved from the sea to the land, so a lot depended on showing that progress onto land happened as scientists knew it must have.

Stand Wood: Self-Taught Palaeontologist

A self-taught Edinburgh palaeontologist named Stan Wood began looking in the Borders area in Scotland. He searched for fifteen years before he found what are now recognised as the oldest land-based animal fossils in the world.

From 2008-2011, he uncovered fossil animal skeletons, along with millipedes, scorpions and plants in sites in Scotland.

Here is Balanerpeton Woodi. It looked like a salamander and it was about a foot long.

A fossil of Balanerpeton Woodi that helped fill in Romer's Gap - the gap in the fossil record from 345 to 360 million years ago in the early Carboniferous period

Here’s a close-up of one of its hind feet.

A fossil of one of the feet of Balanerpeton Woodi that helped fill in Romer's Gap - the gap in the fossil record from 345 to 360 million years ago in the early Carboniferous period

And a close-up of its head showing the flattened salamander-like shape. You can even see the top of its spinal column and the shoulder blade girdle.

A fossil of the head of Balanerpeton Woodi that helped fill in Romer's Gap - the gap in the fossil record from 345 to 360 million years ago in the early Carboniferous period

Stan donated his fossil discoveries to Edinburgh Museums and his discoveries led on to Project Tweed. Teams from the Universities of Cambridge, Leicester and Southampton, the British Geological Survey and National Museums of Scotland are working through material at a microscopic level. They are investigating everything from plant spores to micro-skeletons to build up a picture of life during Romer’s Gap.

Just thinking about greeting cards that feature flowers on this site, the anemone comes to mind. But it’s a youngster in the evolutionary scale, being a mere 130 million years since it first appeared.

Solving Romer’s Gap gave Stan Wood an international reputation as a palaeontologist. That helped him in business because he owned Mr Wood’s Fossils, a shop at the top of the Grassmarket in Edinburgh that specialised in fossils. The shop is still there, now owned and run by the former manager, Matt Dale.

Matt Dale took over as manager in 1998. He had been working with fossils in museums in Glasgow following a geology degree and an advanced degree in Museum Studies. Then with Stan’s health failing, Matt bought the business in 2006 and continued it following Stan’s death in 2012.

Matt is in the shop most days. That is unless he is at trade shows in France and the USA, or out in the field looking for fossils. Or he would be were it not for the pandemic. Who knows when you dear reader will be reading this. Will the pandemic still be about or will it be a memory?

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