Drawn to life

A set of illustrated cartoons of the heads of eleven people with their names handwritten underneath

By Rachel Simpson

Worms, fish and … Greenland? Hugely different topics which all have one thing in common – the Museum’s First Animals exhibition online lecture series. Running every other Wednesday from May until September 2020, this series provided a fantastic insight into a wide range of topics about how the first animals lived, died, and are studied. And illustrator Rachel Simpson tells us how she drew her way through them all…

I came across this lecture series just before the first talk and I knew I had to sign up. Drawing along to lectures is a hobby I seem to have developed in the past few months as we went into lockdown and didn’t have much to do. It’s the perfect combination for me – an opportunity to listen to interesting topics and brush up on my live drawing skills at the same time. There’s no pause button, there’s no asking the webinar speaker to just go back a few slides and hold on a minute whilst I draw; it’s fast paced, it’s inspiring and it’s a great way to just create art.

Barma Booties used on the rocks at Mistaken Point, and my first drawing of the series.

I’ve done some illustration work with the Museum before so I knew that it was going to be fun. In 2018, I worked with Dr Jack Matthews illustrating Ediacaran Fossils as part of a collaborative university project between the University of Plymouth and the Museum. I was also lucky enough to be able to go to Newfoundland and see some of the fossils myself, again with Jack. This was such an incredible opportunity and opened up a whole new world of science/art collaborative work which I didn’t know about before.

The First Animals series kicked off with Jack’s talk titled Don’t walk on the rocks! – an interesting insight into how protective “Barma Booties” (some rather funky socks worn to protect fossil sites such as Mistaken Point, Newfoundland) might actually be damaging to the fossils they’re meant to be protecting. Having been to Mistaken Point myself and worn these socks, it was interesting to hear about their possible impact and to learn about the experiments conducted to prove this fact.

Of course, at the same time as Jack was talking, I was scribbling away in my sketchbook trying to form some sort of visual response to the talk. At the end of the hour I’d managed a portrait of Jack and a family of Barma-Booted tourists trampling on the fossil site. It was a start. The beginning of my lecture drawings and a point at which I can retrospectively say started a new hobby.

Annelid worms drawn with Tombow brush pens.

Over the following weeks we heard about worms from Dr Luke Parry; 3D reconstruction from Dr Imran Rahman; The Chronicles of Charnia by Dr Frankie Dunn; and the first animal skeletons from Dr Duncan Murdock. Luckily for me, all the speakers kindly included photos and descriptions of the topics they were discussing which meant that I was never short of visual inspiration for my drawings. After all, it’s hard to try and draw an annelid worm if you’ve never seen one before.

I love to look at the fossils being discussed and then try to draw a little character or creature inspired by them. They’re not scientifically accurate, nor are they always anatomically correct, but they have character and begin to bring to life the essence of something that’s been dead for many millennia. The fossils are obviously stone-coloured so I take as many liberties as possible when it comes to colour. I like to make them as vibrant and colourful as I can, so although they probably didn’t look like that, that’s how I like to think they looked.

Within my wider practice I like to use stamps as the basis of my illustrations. These however, are time consuming to make and therefore not very suitable for when I’m drawing along to lectures. As a result I’ve found myself using brush pens and pencils to make my lecture illustrations. If you’re interested in art, or thinking about getting into art, brush pens will be your best purchase. They create a wonderful quality of line and are quick and easy to use. Whereas a ballpoint pen will give you one line of a certain weight and thickness, brush pens are versatile and depending on the pressure applied, the line quality will change.

For the first few lectures I only used brush pens, but later on I decided to use coloured pencils as well, to add depth to the drawings. As I got more used to drawing in lectures I found that I was making more illustrations per talk. Early on, I managed to finish maybe a double page in my sketchbook but towards the end of the series I was filling four double pages! It’s amazing what a little bit of practice can do.

As the weeks went by the talks continued and we heard about the evolutionary origin of animals from Museum director Professor Paul Smith; an introduction to taphonomy, the study of fossilisation, by Professor Sarah Gabbott; and how the first animals moved by Professor Shuhai Xiao.

During this time I became a lot more confident drawing the specimens; looking back I can see that this was the period in which my work developed the most. My drawings began to have more character and life. The landscape drawings were slowly becoming more realistic and detailed. This was great news for me as this whole endeavour began as a way to practice my drawing skills in a timed environment.

Paul Smith’s lecture has to be my favourite of them all. He gave a wonderful talk all about the Evolutionary Origin of Animals and talked us through his fieldwork expedition to Greenland. How I would have loved to have been on that trip!

It was during Paul’s talk that I made one of my favourite drawings from the series – the plane – and coincidentally it was also at this point that I bought myself some new polychromo pencils. I started using these pencils in my illustrations on top of the Tombow brush pens. The pencils added a softer layer on top of the solid base colour from the brush pens and meant that I could add more details, shading and most importantly, the characterful eyes I love to add to my drawings.

Buoyed by this development in my drawings, and some lovely responses to my work on Instagram and Twitter, I raced through the next few weeks of talks and made twelve pages of drawings over the next four talks. Professor Derek Briggs told us all about extraordinary soft-bodied fossils; Professor Gabriela Mángano told us about the trace fossil record; and Professor Rachel Wood gave us her thoughts about what triggered the Cambrian Explosion.

Another of my favourite drawings from the series was from Derek Briggs talk about extraordinary soft-bodied fossils. Here, I made a small series of drawings based on some of the animals mentioned in the talk and as soon as I’d finished drawing them I wished that they were real and that I could pop them in a fish tank and keep them as pets. These drawings got the best response on social media too and it’s wonderful now to look back and compare these drawings to the work I was creating at the beginning of the series.

Two images of coloured drawings of extinct marine creatures side by side
Comparison between week 2, Luke Parry’s talk (left), and Week 9, Derek Briggs’ talk (right): What a difference 16 weeks of drawing practice makes!

The First Animals series may be over but keep your Wednesday evenings free because there are more talks to come! The next series, “Visions of Nature”, starts on 8 October so make sure you join us then! A huge thank you to all the speakers, to Jack for hosting and to the Museum for running the events.

To see more of Rachel’s illustrations visit www.rachelerinillustration.co.uk.

When life got hard

By Dr Duncan Murdock, Research Fellow

Whether you’re a great white shark with a deadly conveyor belt of teeth, a deep sea snail with a coat of armour or a coral building the Great Barrier Reef one polyp at a time, mineralized skeletons are a crucial part of many animals’ way of life. These hard skeletons – shells, teeth, spines, plates and bones – are all around us.

The fossil record is full of the remains of the skeletons of long-extinct critters, so much so that entire layers of rocks can be composed almost completely of them. But this has not always been the case…

A piece of 425 million year old sea floor containing the skeletons of trilobites, brachiopods, bryozons, corals and gastropods preserved as limestone

Travel back some 570 million years to a time known as the Ediacaran and the picture is very different. Although there were large-bodied creatures that were possibly animals, they were entirely soft-bodied. Then, right at the end of the Ediacaran Period, the first animals with hard skeletons evolved, creating strange tubes, stacked cones, and other bizarre forms such as Namacalathus, which resembles a baby’s rattle!

Some of the first animals with skeletons, Cloudina and Namacalathus alongside the soft-bodied Ediacaran fauna. Reconstruction based on rocks from Namibia, Southwest Africa, from 543 million years ago. Image: Mighty Fossils.


In the following few tens of millions of years, in the early part of the Cambrian Period, a whole host of animals burst onto the scene baring their ‘teeth’, hiding in their shells, and bristling their spines. In fact, we can trace the origin of almost every kind of animal skeleton to this relatively short window of the Earth’s past.

In my research, I have compiled the evidence for how and when these skeletons first appear. Three key observations have emerged. First, skeletons evolved independently many times in different animal groups. Second, there is both direct and indirect evidence, such as exceptionally preserved fossils and trace fossils, for entirely soft-bodied examples of animal groups that later evolved skeletons. And lastly, the first animal skeletons are less complex and more variable than later examples.

Added to what we know about how living animals build their skeletons, this all points to one explanation: Animal skeletons evolved independently in different groups by utilising a common ‘toolkit’ of genes, inherited from their common ancestor but used in different ways in different skeletons.

In other words, the soft-bodied ancestors of animals with hard parts had inherited all they needed to build simple skeletons that were then honed into the array of shells, teeth, spines, plates and bones we see today. For these skeletal pioneers, armed with their genetic ‘toolkit’, the environmental and ecological pressures of the early Cambrian prompted the evolution of similar, but independent, responses to their changing world – when life got hard.

Murdock, DJE. 2020. The ‘biomineralization toolkit’ and the origin of animal skeletons, Biological Reviews, is available for free here.

Top image: Tiny fragments of early skeletons, shells and spines, from around 510-515 million years ago.


Diving into deep time

Our current First Animals exhibition is extending its run until 1 September, and to mark the extension our Research Fellow Imran Rahman takes a look at how animal life in the ancient oceans was brought to life in our Cambrian Diver interactive installation.

One of the biggest challenges in developing the First Animals exhibition lay in visualising rare fossil specimens as ‘living’ organisms, transforming them from two-dimensional imprints in the rock into three-dimensional animated computer models.

Many of the specimens on display in First Animals were collected from sites of exceptionally well-preserved fossils called Lagerstätten. These deposits preserve the remains of soft-bodied organisms that are almost never seen in the fossil record; things such as comb jellies and worms, as well as soft tissues such as eyes, gills and muscles. Even so, most of these fossils are flattened and two-dimensional, which makes it very difficult to reconstruct what they looked like in life.

Vetulicola cuneata from the Chengjiang fossil site had a large body with triangular openings on either side and a segmented tail. Its three-dimensional shape is uncertain.

To help exhibition visitors visualise the animals in a living environment we worked closely with Martin Lisec and his team at Mighty Fossils to create a set of detailed computer models of a key set of animals. We have worked with Martin before on the video of a Jurassic sea inhabited by plesiosaurs and other marine animals for our Out of the Deep display. That was very successful, but our idea for First Animals was even more ambitious: to create a unique interactive installation called the Cambrian Diver.

The material focused on the Chengjiang animals from the Cambrian of Yunnan province, China, which provides the most complete record of an early Cambrian marine community, from approximately 518 million years ago. Using fossil evidence of the organisms thought to have lived at the time we selected 12 species that were representative of the diversity of the Chengjiang biota.

The first phase was collecting as many materials as possible to be able to create 3D models. As usual, we started with rough models, where we set basic dimensions, shapes and proportions of body parts. Once approved, we moved to very detailed models for the animations, artworks and textures for less detailed models to be used within the interactive application. – Martin Lisec, Mighty Fossils

Images showing a preliminary 3-D model of the lobopodian Onychodictyon ferox in multiple views, with annotations in yellow highlighting changes suggested by Museum researchers.

To provide two-dimensional templates for Mighty Fossils to work from we scoured the scientific literature for the most recent accurate reconstructions available for each of the species.

The predatory arthropod Amplectobelua symbrachiata is a good example. We drew heavily upon a 2017 paper by Dr Peiyun Cong and colleagues, which included a very detailed reconstruction of the head region. This reconstruction shows that the underside of the head of Amplectobelua consisted of a rod-shaped plate, a mouth made up of two rows of plates, and three pairs of flaps with spiny appendages, all details that are included in our 3D model.

Scientific reconstruction (left) and our 3D model (right) of the arthropod Amplectobelua symbrachiata. Left-hand image modified from Cong et al. (2017).

Colour and texture were another consideration. To inform these we looked at living species that are thought to have similar modes of life today. For Amplectobelua, a free-swimming predator, we examined the colouration of modern marine predators such as sharks. Many sharks have countershading, with a darker upper side of the body and a lighter underside, which acts as camouflage, hiding them from potential prey.

We reconstructed our Amplectobelua model with similar countershading camouflage, with blue and red colouration inspired by the peacock mantis shrimp, a brightly coloured predatory arthropod that lives in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

3-D model of Amplectobelua in angled upper (top) and lower (bottom) views, showing countershading.

The next vital step was establishing how the animals moved and interacted with one another. This is a major challenge because in many cases there are no modern equivalents for these extinct early animals. For Amplectobelua we inferred that the flaps on the sides of the body were used for swimming, with the tail fan helping to stabilize the animal as it moved through the water. This agrees with previous interpretations of swimming in closely related animals such as Anomalocaris.

The models were built and textured by Mighty Fossils using the 3D gaming engine Unity. The video below is an accelerated sequence showing how the elements of the model are layered together.

The finished, animated and annotated Amplectobelua model is shown below, and can be zoomed and rotated. All the models generated by Mighty Fossils for the First Animals exhibition are gathered in a collection on our Sketchfab page.

Once animated models of all 12 species were created we placed them in a realistic marine environment. Study of the rocks preserving the Chengjiang fossils suggests these animals lived in a relatively shallow, well-lit sea, perhaps 50 metres deep and characterised by a flat, muddy seafloor. A continuous shower of organic particles is thought to have filled the water column, as in modern oceans.

Reconstruction of the Cambrian seafloor with ‘marine snow’

Based on present-day marine ecosystems, we infer that the number of immobile suspension feeders would have been much greater than the number of predators. As a result, we included multiple individuals of the suspension feeders Cotyledion, Saetaspongia and Xianguangia, which were tightly grouped together, but only a small number of the active predators Amplectobelua and Onychodictyon.

This scene is now populated with animals, including two predators: Amplectobelua (swimming) and Onychodictyon (centre)

The final step involved setting up a camera and user interface to allow visitors to discover the various animals in our interactive environment. For this we worked with creative digital consultancy Fish in a Bottle to identify eight locations, each focused on a different animal.

As the video above shows, users can navigate between locations by touching an icon on the screen, and when the Cambrian Diver sub arrives at a location information about the animal, its mode of life and its closest living relatives is presented on-screen. A physical joystick allows users a 360-degree rotation to look around the scene, and explore the ancient watery world.

This project was significantly bigger than the Out of the Deep work we had done previously with the Museum, mainly because of the complicated approval procedure needed for 20 individual 3D models. Along with three large illustrations, two animations and the interactive application this was a big workload! Fortunately, we managed to finish the whole project on time for the opening of the exhibition. – Martin Lisec

Abigail Harris - artwork showing reconstruction of Cambrian ocean animal life

Cambrian creation

Abigail Harris - artwork showing reconstruction of Cambrian ocean animal life

by Abigail Harris

Over the past few months our researchers have been working with University of Plymouth illustration student Abigail Harris, who has delved into the weird and wonderful world of some of the earliest animals. Here, Abigail tells us about the process that led to the creation of her Cambrian artwork, inspired by our First Animals exhibition.

I first visited the Museum in April this year when I was given the opportunity to collaborate with scientists as part of a module in my BA in at the University of Plymouth. Things kicked off with a short talk about the Ediacaran and Cambrian geological periods, when Earth’s first animal life started to appear.

I quickly narrowed my interest down to fossils from the Cambrian period which are more complex life forms, more similar to life today. A collection of small fossils from the Chengjiang fossil site in Yunnan province, China was the inspiration for some initial observational drawings.

Abigail Harris - sketches for artwork showing reconstruction of Cambrian ocean animal life
A sketchbook page showing initial sketches and observations of Onychodictyon
Final illustration of Cotyledion

After returning to Plymouth University, I began to develop these initial sketches and observations, continuing to research the Chengjiang material and learning more about the characteristics of some of the creatures preserved as fossils.

I wanted to create an under-the-sea ecology reconstruction showing a diversity of life forms, focusing on Onychodictyon, Cotyledion, Cricocosmia, Luolishania, and Paradiagoniella.

A five-step process was used for each reconstruction. Initially, I would sketch the fossil as I saw it, then I would research the characteristics and features of that animal, making a list of things to include in my drawing. A second drawing would then include all of these characteristics, not just what was initially visible in the fossil.

These rough sketches were then sent to the scientists for feedback, helping me to redraw and paint the illustrations with watercolour, before scanning and digitally editing each painting. Lastly, I created a background and added my illustrations.

Initial under under the sea ecology reconstruction.

Although the reconstructions were not completely finished by the time of my project deadline, I returned to the Museum in July and was given a tour of the First Animals exhibition by Deputy Head of Research Imran Rahman, as well as the opportunity to discuss how to improve my artworks for accuracy.

Another round of sketching and painting led to the final piece, shown at the start of this article, complete with an added digital background of the seafloor, and darkened to reflect the murky world of a Cambrian ocean, 50 metres below the surface.

Exceptional Chinese fossils come to Oxford in new partnership

by Imran Rahman, Deputy Head of Research

China is world-famous for its unique and exceptionally preserved fossils, which range from some of the oldest animals on Earth, to spectacular feathered dinosaurs. We are therefore very excited to announce that the Museum, along with other institutions from across Europe, is a partner in a major new venture with Yunnan University in China: the International Joint Laboratory for Palaeobiology and Palaeoenvironment.

Collaboration between this Museum and Yunnan University dates back to the 1990s, driven by the work of Professor Derek Siveter – a former Senior Research Fellow and current Honorary Research Associate at the Museum. He collaborated with Professor Hou Xianguang, director of the International Joint Laboratory for Palaeobiology and Palaeoenvironment, to study fossils from the internationally renowned Chengjiang biota, which was discovered by Hou Xianguang in 1984.

Museum researchers Duncan Murdock, Jack Matthews and Derek Siveter (l-r) visit the Precambrian-Cambrian Section

The Chengjiang fossil site is important and exciting because it preserves both the soft and hard parts of a range of early animals. This fossil record captures the rapid diversification of life about 520 million years old – in an event referred to as the Cambrian explosion. Derek Siveter was instrumental in a successful bid to have the Chengjiang biota designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012, preserving it for future generations.

In December 2018, Museum researchers Duncan Murdock, Imran Rahman and Jack Matthews travelled with Derek to Kunming, China, for the first meeting of the International Joint Laboratory for Palaeobiology and Palaeoenvironment. The lucky researchers spent three days on field trips to the region’s most spectacular fossil sites, including Lufeng World Dinosaur Valley and the Chengjiang biota itself, followed by two full days of scientific talks and discussions.

The International Joint Laboratory is funded by the Ministry for Education of China and includes the University of Leicester, the Natural History Museum, London, the University of Munich, and the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology, along with Oxford University Museum of Natural History and Yunnan University.

The arthropod Haikoucaris ercaiensis. Sometimes referred to as a ‘short-great-appendage’ arthropod, Haikoucaris had a pair of prominent grasping appendages adjacent to the head (right-hand side of this image). Credit: Scott Billings
The arthropod Leanchoilia illecebrosa. Sometimes referred to as a ‘short-great-appendage’ arthropod, Leanchoilia illecebrosa had a pair of prominent grasping appendages adjacent to the head (right-hand side of this image). Credit: Scott Billings

A significant first outcome of this new partnership will be the loan of iconic Chengjiang fossil specimens from Kunming to Oxford for our First Animals exhibition which opens on 12 July and runs until February 2020. Most of these fossils have never been outside of China before, and some have never been seen by the public before. We invite you to visit First Animals to see these exceptional fossils first hand!

The arthropod Saperion glumaceum. Saperion had a flattened, segmented body and jointed appendages (not visible in this specimen). Credit: Scott Billings.
The arthropod Saperion glumaceum. Saperion had a flattened, segmented body and jointed appendages (not visible in this specimen). Credit: Scott Billings.

Top image: The comb jelly Galeactena hemispherica. Unlike modern comb jellies, which are soft-bodied animals, Galeactena and its relatives had hardened ‘spokes’ on the sides of the body (appearing as dark bands in this photograph). Credit: Scott Billings.