Nicholas L. M. Allen
Apr 19, 2023
My visit to the Royal Tyrrell Museum has reignited my love of prehistoric animals.
I have always been a fan of prehistoric animals, ranging from the massive dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus Rex, that roamed the earth, to the very first shrew-like creature to roam the forest floor, the first mammal.
All species that came before us have always fascinated me, especially how little we truly know about some of these ancient animals. With this in mind, I imagine you can guess what place I was super excited to visit this past Easter Monday. That’s right, the Royal Tyrrell Museum.
Located in Drumheller, my family decided to stop there on the holiday for a visit. Even though my nephews were there, I’m sure I was still the most amazed of our group. It had been years since I was last at the museum and it had some wonderful new exhibits to explore.
There was an incredible armoured dinosaur specimen that was so well preserved you could make out minor details in its armour. Another of the newer exhibits held a juvenile T-Rex, which was jarring after only ever seeing full-size fossils/skeletons before.
My favourite of the areas in the museum will forever be the early mammal section. Seeing how the mammal-like reptiles called Synapsids became mammals millions of years ago is incredible, especially the similarities some of the ancient animals still share with modern-day ones.
The group of Synapsids that would give way to mammals were called Therapsids and featured the first sets of teeth to have separated molars, incisors and canines.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “because the characteristics that separate reptiles and mammals evolved at different rates and in response to a variety of interrelated conditions, at any point in the period of transition from reptiles to mammals, there were forms that combined various characteristics of both groups.”
This means early mammals were difficult to distinguish from the reptiles around them and only became more noticeable as they took on the more obviously mammal traits we are aware of today, such as hair for insulation. It is even recognized that if some of these early Therapsids were alive today, scientists would still have trouble determining whether to call it a reptile or mammal.
One group of mammals that I find has the most interesting path when it comes to evolution is the whale. The first ancestor of modern whales was a typical land animal. It had little resemblance to modern whales except for the skull, which featured a bony wall in the inner ear region according to an article titled “The evolution of whales” on evolution.berkeley.edu.
They only began to develop paddle-like feet as they began to take on a more aquatic lifestyle. With that, the tail became longer and saltwater and freshwater isotopes began to be found inside the fossils. Showing us that the first whales lived in estuaries or bays between freshwater and the open ocean.
Another adaptation these animals went under was the movement of their nostrils from the front of the skull to the top. The “blowhole” as we call it today.
Then, because it came from the land, it had to find a way to move quickly with a spine that did not move side to side. This resulted in the horizontal movement of the tail fin compared to fish that move vertically.
As the whales shed more and more of the traits they developed on land, they became the versatile giants of the ocean they are today.
Prehistoric animals sure are fascinating.