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Major Transitions in Vertebrate Evolution

New discoveries of ancient vertebrates, filling in gaps in the fossil record, are quickly eroding the traditionally recognized differences between the principal groups of vertebrates—for example, between dinosaurs and birds—and radically changing our understanding of the evolutionary history of the major group of animals to which our species belongs. This book describes this changing scientific landscape and contributes to the revolution in our knowledge of the developmental mechanisms that underlie evolutionary transformation.

About the Authors

Jason S. Anderson is a vertebrate paleontologist and Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary. He is Associate Editor of the Journal of Paleontology.

Hans-Dieter Sues is a vertebrate paleontologist and Associate Director for Research and Collections, National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution.


"Major transitions present some of the most fascinating, and least understood, problems in the history of vertebrates. Indeed, some biologists have devoted their careers to understanding the origins of birds from theropod dinosaurs and the transition from aquatic vertebrates to tetrapods. This edited volume offers updates on several landmark transitions in the evolution of vertebrates by an outstanding lineup of authors. The editors' introduction to the volume hints at some evolutionary developmental biology ("evo-devo") content but, with the possible exception of one of the ten chapters, this book is decidedly aimed at paleontologists. The volume begins with a thorough and lavishly cited review of vertebrate skeletal tissue types, and subsequent chapters primarily address the origins of major lineages through phylogenetic systematics and comparative morphology. These chapters include treatments of: the earliest vertebrates; jawed vertebrates and the innovation of paired appendages; evolutionary relationships of modern amphibians; the origins of amniotes, snakes, and birds; evolutionary radiations of early mammals; and the aquatic transition of cetaceans. An additional chapter offers a new conceptual framework to analyze links between developmental and morphological transformations, and will be especially interesting to students of limb development. Notably, some of these chapters challenge previous assumptions about the concurrent appearance of suites of traits, such as large eyes, jaws, teeth, a stomach, and paired fins in gnathostomes (jawed vertebrates). In this and other cases, new fossil data contradict long-standing interpretations that such structures evolved in concert and were originally functionally integrated. A standout among the ten chapters is Michael Caldwell's contribution on the evolution of snakes. He includes an intriguing review of the history of snake paleontology and systematics, and seamlessly incorporates developmental data into his discussion of evolutionary morphology. In summary, Major Transitions in Vertebrate Evolution presents thorough and much-needed updates on several critical episodes in vertebrate history. Paleontologists and systematists will appreciate the depth of morphological and phylogenetic analyses, although the density of some chapters might challenge the stamina of even specialist readers. Biologists in other fields (for example, evolutionary developmental biology) will likely find many parts of the book less approachable. —The Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol 83 Michael D. Shapiro, Biology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah"—

"In this day of virulent creationist assaults on science, especially paleontology and evolutionary biology, it is valuable to have an up-to-date summary and synthesis of the important transitions in vertebrate evolution whose very existence the creationists must deny. Major Transitions in Vertebrate Evolution, edited by Jason S. Anderson and Hans-Dieter Sues, has its origins in a symposium at the 2003 Society of Verte- brate Paleontology meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota. Thus, unsurprisingly, it is a fairly technical volume aimed at the specialist audience, and assumes a fairly strong background in vertebrate paleontology, anatomy, and embryology. However, for those who have the training to understand the chapters, it is one of the most complete and current summaries of the topics discussed in the volume. Major Transitions in Vertebrate Evolution is beautifully produced, with numerous color plates in the center, and typographical errors or problems in the reproduction of the halftones were very nearly absent. The volume is complete and up-to-date on the transitions within the vertebrates, although it does not give a complete picture because it focuses on the lower vertebrates. In particular, many more well-documented examples exist of transitional fossils in the synapsids, and especially within the placental mammals. These would have been nice to include in a complete volume, but at 422 pages of dense, technical text, it was probably too much to ask that this volume be comprehensive. However, any scientist who wants to get a quick update on the current thinking about the transitions mentioned above would do well to consult the chapters in this book."—Donald R. Prothero, Department of Geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California., BioScience, February 2008 / Vol. 58 No. 2

"[This] book is a fine snapshot of current research on vertebrate macroevolution. 2010 No. 31"—The Systematist

". . . This book is an outstanding contribution to evolutionary biology and paleontology. . . . Essential."—Choice

". . . this is a useful volume – the individual chapters offer a combination of reviews and important new data that will interest an audience that should extend beyond vertebrate palaeontology to zoologists and evolutionary biologists.2009"—Paul M. Barrett, Geological Magazine

"...the volume as a whole offers a good deal more than just overviews of new fossils, namely a window into the contemporary Zeitgeist of vertebrate palaeontology itself... Major Transitions in Vertebrate Evolution reviews the rapidly growing knowledge in several of the most pertinent cases, and it also epitomises much that is good about the present state of the art.157 2009"—T.S. Kemp, Zoological Jrnl Linnean Society

"Very topical, particularly from an evo—devo perspective. The authors are top—notch, each appropriate to the topics under consideration."—David S. Weishampel, Center for Functional Anatomy and Evolution, Johns Hopkins University

"The topic is one of the most fascinating aspects of the general field of vertebrate paleobiology. The range of chapters and the reputation of the authors as experts in their fields make this a significant contribution."—Bruce MacFadden, Florida Museum of Natural History
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