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§ 1

Giant Amphibians and Coal-measures

The Carboniferous period was marked by a mild moist climate and a luxuriant vegetation in the swampy low grounds. It was a much less strenuous time than the Devonian period; it was like a very long summer. There were no trees of the type we see now, but there were forests of club-mosses and horsetails which grew to a gigantic size compared with their pigmy representatives of to-day. In these forests the jointed-footed invaders of the dry land ran riot in the form of centipedes, spiders, scorpions, and insects, and on these the primeval Amphibians fed. The appearance of insects made possible a new linkage of far-reaching importance, namely, the cross-fertilisation of flowering plants by their insect visitors, and from this time onwards it may be said that flowers and their visitors have evolved hand in hand. Cross-fertilisation is much surer by insects than by the wind, and cross-fertilisation is more advantageous than self-fertilisation because it promotes both fertility and plasticity. It was probably in this period that coloured flowers—attractive to insect-visitors—began to justify themselves as beauty became useful, and began to relieve the monotonous green of the horsetail and club-moss forests, which covered great tracts of the earth for millions of years. In the Carboniferous forests there were also land-snails, representing one of the minor invasions of the dry land, tending on the whole to check vegetation. They, too, were probably preyed upon by the Amphibians, some of which attained a large size. Each age has had its giants, and those of the Carboniferous were Amphibians called Labyrinthodonts, some of which were almost as big as donkeys. It need hardly be said that it was in this period that most of the Coal-measures were laid down by the immense accumulation of the spores and debris of the club-moss forests. Ages afterwards, it was given to man to tap this great source of energy—traceable back to the sunshine of millions of years ago. Even then it was true that no plant or animal lives or dies to itself!

The Acquisitions of Amphibians.

As Amphibians had their Golden Age in the Carboniferous period we may fitly use this opportunity of indicating the advances in evolution which the emergence of Amphibians implied. (1) In the first place the passage from water to dry land was the beginning of a higher and more promiseful life, taxed no doubt by increased difficulties. The natural question rises why animals should have migrated from water to dry land at all when great difficulties were involved in the transition. The answers must be: (a) that local drying up of water-basins or elevations of the land surface often made the old haunts untenable; (b) that there may have been great congestion and competition in the old quarters; and (c) that there has been an undeniable endeavour after well-being throughout the history of animal life. In the same way with mankind, migrations were prompted by the setting in of prolonged drought, by over-population, and by the spirit of adventure. (2) In Amphibians for the first time the non-digitate paired fins of fishes were replaced by limbs with fingers and toes. This implied an advantageous power of grasping, of holding firm, of putting food into the mouth, of feeling things in three dimensions. (3) We cannot be positive in regard to the soft parts of the ancient Amphibians known only as fossils, but if they were in a general way like the frogs and toads, newts and salamanders of the present day, we may say that they made among other acquisitions the following: true ventral lungs, a three-chambered heart, a movable tongue, a drum to the ear, and lids to the eyes. It is very interesting to find that though the tongue of the tadpole has some muscle-fibres in it, they are not strong enough to effect movement, recalling the tongue of fishes, which has not any muscles at all. Gradually, as the tadpole becomes a frog, the muscle-fibres grow in strength, and make it possible for the full-grown creature to shoot out its tongue upon insects. This is probably a recapitulation of what was accomplished in the course of millennia in the history of the Amphibian race. (4) Another acquisition made by Amphibians was a voice, due, as in ourselves, to the rapid passage of air over taut membranes (vocal cords) stretched in the larynx. It is an interesting fact that for millions of years there was upon the earth no sound of life at all, only the noise of wind and wave, thunder and avalanche. Apart from the instrumental music of some insects, perhaps beginning in the Carboniferous, the first vital sounds were due to Amphibians, and theirs certainly was the first voice—surely one of the great steps in organic evolution.


Photo: British Museum (Natural History).


The wing is made of a web of skin extended on the enormously elongated outermost finger. The long tail served for balancing and steering. The Pterodactyls varied from the size of sparrows to a wing-span of fifteen feet—the largest flying creatures.


From Knipe's "Nebula to Man."


Total length about 9 feet. (Remains found in Cape Colony, South Africa.)


From Knipe's "Nebula to Man."


(From remains found in Cretaceous strata of Wyoming, U.S.A.)

This Dinosaur, about the size of a large rhinoceros, had a huge three-horned skull with a remarkable bony collar over the neck. But, as in many other cases, its brain was so small that it could have passed down the spinal canal in which the spinal cord lies. Perhaps this partly accounts for the extinction of giant reptiles.


Photo: "Daily Mail."


The Duckmole or Duck-billed Platypus of Australia is a survivor of the most primitive mammals. It harks back to reptiles, e.g. in being an egg-layer, in having comparatively large eggs, and in being imperfectly warm-blooded. It swims well and feeds on small water-animals. It can also burrow.

Evolution of the Voice

The first use of the voice was probably that indicated by our frogs and toads—it serves as a sex-call. That is the meaning of the trumpeting with which frogs herald the spring, and it is often only in the males that the voice is well developed. But if we look forward, past Amphibians altogether, we find the voice becoming a maternal call helping to secure the safety of the young—a use very obvious when young birds squat motionless at the sound of the parent's danger-note. Later on, probably, the voice became an infantile call, as when the unhatched crocodile pipes from within the deeply buried egg, signalling to the mother that it is time to be unearthed. Higher still the voice expresses emotion, as in the song of birds, often outside the limits of the breeding time. Later still, particular sounds become words, signifying particular things or feelings, such as "food," "danger," "home," "anger," and "joy." Finally words become a medium of social intercourse and as symbols help to make it possible for man to reason.

§ 2

The Early Reptiles

In the Permian period reptiles appeared, or perhaps one should say, began to assert themselves. That is to say, there was an emergence of backboned animals which were free from water and relinquished the method of breathing by gills, which Amphibians retained in their young stages at least. The unhatched or unborn reptile breathes by means of a vascular hood spread underneath the egg-shell and absorbing dry air from without. It is an interesting point that this vascular hood, called the allantois, is represented in the Amphibians by an unimportant bladder growing out from the hind end of the food-canal. A great step in evolution was implied in the origin of this ante-natal hood or fœtal membrane and another one—of protective significance—called the amnion, which forms a water-bag over the delicate embryo. The step meant total emancipation from the water and from gill-breathing, and the two fœtal membranes, the amnion and the allantois, persist not only in all reptiles but in birds and mammals as well. These higher Vertebrates are therefore called Amniota in contrast to the Lower Vertebrates or Anamnia (the Amphibians, Fishes, and primitive types).

It is a suggestive fact that the embryos of all reptiles, birds, and mammals show gill-clefts—a tell-tale evidence of their distant aquatic ancestry. But these embryonic gill-clefts are not used for respiration and show no trace of gills except in a few embryonic reptiles and birds where their dwindled vestiges have been recently discovered. As to the gill-clefts, they are of no use in higher Vertebrates except that the first becomes the Eustachian tube leading from the ear-passage to the back of the mouth. The reason why they persist when only one is of any use, and that in a transformed guise, would be difficult to interpret except in terms of the Evolution theory. They illustrate the lingering influence of a long pedigree, the living hand of the past, the tendency that individual development has to recapitulate racial evolution. In a condensed and telescoped manner, of course, for what took the race a million years may be recapitulated by the individual in a week!

In the Permian period the warm moist climate of most of the Carboniferous period was replaced by severe conditions, culminating in an Ice Age which spread from the Southern Hemisphere throughout the world. With this was associated a waning of the Carboniferous flora, and the appearance of a new one, consisting of ferns, conifers, ginkgos, and cycads, which persisted until near the end of the Mesozoic era. The Permian Ice Age lasted for millions of years, and was most severe in the Far South. Of course, it was a very different world then, for North Europe was joined to North America, Africa to South America, and Australia to Asia. It was probably during the Permian Ice Age that many of the insects divided their life-history into two main chapters—the feeding, growing, moulting, immature, larval stages, e.g. caterpillars, and the more ascetic, non-growing, non-moulting, winged phase, adapted for reproduction. Between these there intervened the quiescent, well-protected pupa stage or chrysalis, probably adapted to begin with as a means of surviving the severe winter. For it is easier for an animal to survive when the vital processes are more or less in abeyance.

Disappearance of many Ancient Types

We cannot leave the last period of the Palæozoic era and its prolonged ice age without noticing that it meant the entire cessation of a large number of ancient types, especially among plants and backboneless animals, which now disappear for ever. It is necessary to understand that the animals of ancient days stand in three different relations to those of to-day. (a) There are ancient types that have living representatives, sometimes few and sometimes many, sometimes much changed and sometimes but slightly changed. The lamp-shell, Lingulella, of the Cambrian and Ordovician period has a very near relative in the Lingula of to-day. There are a few extremely conservative animals. (b) There are ancient types which have no living representatives, except in the guise of transformed descendants, as the King-crab (Limulus) may be said to be a transformed descendant of the otherwise quite extinct race to which Eurypterids or Sea-scorpions belonged. (c) There are altogether extinct types—lost races—which have left not a wrack behind. For there is not any representation to-day of such races as Graptolites and Trilobites.

Looking backwards over the many millions of years comprised in the Palæozoic era, what may we emphasise as the most salient features? There was in the Cambrian the establishment of the chief classes of backboneless animals; in the Ordovician the first fishes and perhaps the first terrestrial plants; in the Silurian the emergence of air-breathing Invertebrates and mud-fishes; in the Devonian the appearance of the first Amphibians, from which all higher land animals are descended, and the establishment of a land flora; in the Carboniferous the great Club-moss forests and an exuberance of air-breathing insects and their allies; in the Permian the first reptiles and a new flora.