Hall of Vertebrate Origins
The Hall of Vertebrate Origins traces the evolution of vertebrates, or animals with backbones, back more than 500 million years. Explored here are groups within the vertebrate family that exhibit crucial physical developments, including animals with jaws (gnathostomes), limbs (tetrapods), openings in the palate (sauropsids), openings in front of the eye on the muzzle (archosaurs), and watertight eggs (amniotes).
The Hall of Vertebrate Origins displays some 250 fossil specimens of the earliest vertebrates, animals that lacked a fully developed backbone but had a distinct head with a braincase; fishes, the most diverse group of vertebrates today; amphibians and their extinct early relatives, the first vertebrates to walk on land; crocodiles, turtles, lizards, snakes, and their relatives, the first animals to live their lives entirely on land; giant marine reptiles such as plesiosaurs, mosasaurs, and ichthyosaurs; and flying reptiles known as pterosaurs, the first flying vertebrates.
This hall also features several exhibits that allow visitors to touch the fossilized remains of long-extinct animals. These “touch fossils” include a 100-million-year-old fish; the tooth of one of the largest sharks ever to have lived; and a vertebra from a marine animal known as a plesiosaur.
Evolution of sharks can be traced back over 400 million years. The most famous extinct shark is Carcharodon megalodon. This animal, which lived in the seas 10 million years ago, easily dwarfed modern white sharks.
Coelacanths were thought to have disappeared from the fossil record about 70 million years ago, but in 1938 a fisherman caught a living coelacanth off the coast of South Africa. About 200 more specimens have been found in the western Indian Ocean since then.
Dunkleosteus terrelli boasted a 20-foot-long body covered with bony plates of armor. Fossil records indicate that this huge fish, one of the first large jawed vertebrates in the ocean, was an aggressive predator.
Pterosaurs are actually reptiles and were the first vertebrates to evolve flight capabilities. Pterosaurs varied greatly in size, ranging from sparrow-sized to having a wingspan of 40 feet.
The Museum's Stenopterygius quadriscissus specimen is world-famous because of the well-preserved outlines of the animal's skeletal structure as well as softer body parts. Stenopterygius quadriscissus evolved a highly modified body for aquatic life.