The story of skeletons

What links the narwhal’s tusk, ancient trilobites, Richard III (and his drinking habits), tumbleweed, an argonaut, and the outstretched fourth finger of a pterosaur?

They are among the cast of characters that feature in a new book by University of Leicester professors Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams’ titled Skeletons: The Frame of Life, which describes the extraordinary forms of skeleton that have emerged and evolved on Earth – and that have shaped the kind of world that we live in today.

Source: Wikimedia Commons; The jaws of the giant shark Megalodon. It lived during the Miocene and Pliocene, and may have been as much as 18 m long (or 3x the length of a modern Great White Shark)
“The skeletons range from ones so tiny – as in some marine plankton – that an electron microscope is required to see them, to some piles of skeletons that are so huge that one needs to go into outer space to take in their full extent,” says Professor Zalasiewicz.

“Their span in time is yet more vast: over half a billion years ago, skeletons were already sophisticated, providing armour and support for bizarre and mysterious organisms, and developing marvelous structures such as the crystal eyes of trilobites and the whole-body ‘teeth’ of the earliest bony fishes.”

The book shows that skeletons do tell tales. In the case of Richard III, the researchers argue, his wine-drinking was betrayed by the kind of nitrogen in his bones, while his childhood travels left clues of strontium in his teeth.

There are smaller skeletons that tell even larger stories, such as the Icelandic clam that lived for over 300 years and recorded the monstrous eruption of the Indonesian volcano Tambora in its shell, and the yet tinier amoeba-like foraminifera that grow minute shells which track the growth and collapse of polar icecaps, thousands of kilometres away.

Professor Williams said: “Skeletons have an ancient and distinguished past – and perhaps are on the cusp of an extraordinary future, too. Skeletons explains how humans are hunting some kinds of skeleton to extinction, while altering the shape of others, and also building completely new skeleton forms, from the timber leg of a pirate captain to the robotic limbs of today. Where will this fast-paced evolution take us? If it leads to outer space, what kinds of skeleton might we find on other planets? 

“The book suggests that space explorers might do well, here, to look for lessons among Earth’s ancient rocks. The Earth’s oldest skeletons might point the way to the far and distant future.”