Environment Research Council. Such costly drilling is rare in palaeontology, but the researchersbelieve it will pay dividends. Microfossils from the core will serve as an index that can be used togauge the age of nearby fossil sites and how they relate to each other, potentially demystifying the riseof the amphibians.Elsewhere, palaeontologists are making progress understanding the most devastating extinction of them all. Up to 96 per cent of all marine species and 70 per cent of terrestrial vertebrates died out inthe end-Permian extinction, 252 million years ago. The next 20 million years saw the rise of thearchosaurs, the "ruling reptiles" that gave rise to all birds, crocodiles, dinosaurs and pterosaurs. Thefirst archosaur fossils appear at the start of the Triassic. Soon afterwards, the group seems to havesplit into lines leading to dinosaurs and crocodiles, and this is where things have been a little hazy.
, dating from around 247 million years ago, was only identified as an early relative of crocodiles in 2011 (
, vol 6, p e25693). Footprints of a dinosaur or a dinosauromorph, itsclose cousin, found in Poland in 2010 are even older. But until very recently, the oldest known dinosaurfossil was just 230 million years old.Last year, a specimen some 10 to 15 million years older than that turned up.
came as asurprise, not least because it had been sitting in the collection of the Natural History Museum inLondon for decades. Both it and
were identified as missing links thanks to a growingdatabase of early archosaur specimens. With software to compare physical traits across manyspecies, we can make connections not immediately obvious from skeletons. For example,
has a sail on its back, but computer analysis revealed many less obvious features thatput it among the crocodilians.
was spotted as a potential missing link by Sterling Nesbittof the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, who does fieldwork at the Manda beds in Tanzaniawhere it was unearthed. Sure enough, his computer-aided analysis revealed it to be an early dinosauror close relative (
, vol 9, p 20120949).Nesbitt is also using a more commonplace tool that could have been a boon to past fossil hunters.Before returning to the Manda beds last year, he and his colleagues consulted Google Earth. "It turnsout we had been walking past a big outcrop, maybe 30 metres off the path, but we could not see itthrough the tall grass," he says. When they got back to the site, they found that the outcrop waspacked with fossils.Despite these successes, one group of archosaur descendants remains elusive. Pterosaurs evolvedin the early or mid Triassic, but they had hollow bones, and their ancestors were probably small andlightly built, so fossils are rare. "Nobody really knows where pterosaurs came from," says StephenBrusatte of the University of Edinburgh, UK. "We are missing a pterosaur archaeopteryx." (See"Ancient poster child".)Like amphibians and archosaurs, modern mammals evolved following a mass extinction: the asteroidimpact 66 million years ago thought to have killed off the dinosaurs. But the mammals that emerged inthe subsequent 10 million years "are still an enigma", says Thomas Williamson of the New MexicoMuseum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque. Recent digs have turned up some links tomodern groups, including ankle bones that show the oldest known primate,
, was climbingtrees 65 million years ago in what is now Montana. But other connections remain tenuous, and theoldest fossils of groups such as bats and whales do not appear until much later. Williamson andBrusatte are using techniques similar to those employed in the hunt for early archosaurs to try tounderstand how mammals appeared and diversified.Meanwhile, the hunt continues at a handful of fossil beds where early mammals are preserved withsoft tissue intact. In 2009,
, a 47-million-year-old fossil, was found in the Messel pit site nearDarmstadt, Germany.Nicknamed Ida, it made a big splash as a possible missing link in the lineageleading to humans. We now know it was on a side branch that went extinct, but
nonethelessgives important insight into the anatomy of early primates.As genetics has helped disentangle the origins of the earliest life forms, so it has cast light on themysteries of our own evolution. For example, we now know that the split between the human andchimp line happened far earlier than was once thought. Using mutation rates as a molecular clock