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A History of Life in 100 Fossils

A new book takes readers on a journey through life on Earth by telling the stories of some of the most iconic fossils ever discovered.

From evidence of the first microbes to the last human ancestor, the book explores what the world’s most famous fossils reveal about the evolution of life on Earth.

A History of Life in 100 Fossils is written by Museum palaeontologist Dr Paul Taylor and Dr Aaron O’Dea of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution in Panama.

Watch the video above to see more of Dr Taylor's favourite fossils and hear him tell the stories behind them.

The majority of the fossils in the book are held at the Natural History Museum, London or the Smithsonian Institution's main hub in Washington DC, USA.

Dr Taylor, who has been a palaeontologist at the Museum since 1979, said they were inspired to create the book because fossils are 'fantastic iconic objects'.

Beauty and substance

The authors chose the 100 fossils based on several criteria. Many are significant because they are the first examples of major plant or animal groups.

Others have interesting stories associated with them, either about evolution or about the people and circumstances surrounding their discovery or interpretation.

The specimens also had to be beautiful for inclusion in the book. 'An awful lot of fossils are grey and are in grey rocks, and don’t look very pretty,' said Dr Taylor. 'We tried to look for colourful ones or ones that had interesting shapes.'

Quite contrary

One of Dr Taylor’s favourite fossils in the book is an unusual snail species, Neptunea contraria, which is commonly found in Pleistocene age rocks in East Anglia.

A specimen of Neptunea contraria

A rare left-handed snail species, Neptunea contraria

Almost all snails have shells that coil clockwise as they grow, and these species are referred to as right-handed. But the shells of a few species, such as N. contraria, coil in an anti-clockwise direction and these unusual species are considered left-handed.