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Gaining Ground: The Origin and Early Evolution of Tetrapods Hardcover – June 1, 2002

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Editorial Reviews


"This well-illustrated microcosm of vertebrate paleontology provides exciting glimpses of what research in this field is about." -- F. S. Szalay, University of New Mexico, Choice, December 2002

Clack (University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, UK) offers an esoteric and interesting volume that treats a critical period in vertebrate evolution from both the paleontological and ecological perspective. It is, as the author prefaces, a summary of her researches in early tetrapod paleontology. The transition of vertebrates from an aquatic to a terrestrial environment has been rightfully considered one of the most important changes that have taken place in the morphological and behavioral transformation of vertebrate animals. The demands of this transition affected all the various organ systems of the lineages that undertook this evolutionary adventure. As paleontological discoveries continued throughout the past 150 years, so did the ideas about the nature of this transformation. In the context of tracing old ideas and presenting new ones based on an ever-increasing fossil record, Clack presents details of the evolutionary modifications for the skull and limbs and provides excellent characterizations of the Devonian and Carboniferous environments, the context of most of the paleontological evidence. This well-illustrated microcosm of vertebrate paleontology provides exciting glimpses of what research in this field is about. General readers; lower-division undergraduates through faculty.F. S. Szalay, University of New Mexico, Choice, December 2002

"The questions of our ancestry are far-reaching and oft argued. In Gaining Ground, Clack offers a new synthesis that demystifies many of the puzzles and cuts straight to the facts." --

About the Author

JENNIFER A. CLACK is Reader in Vertebrate Palaeontology and Senior Assistant Curator, University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, and author of numerous papers on Devonian and Carboniferous life. A shorter version of Gaining Ground was published in Japanese in 2000.


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Product Details

  • Series: Life of the Past
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Indiana University Press; 1st edition (June 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0253340543
  • ISBN-13: 978-0253340542
  • Product Dimensions: 7.3 x 1 x 10.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,254,517 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Joe Zika TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 10, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Gaining Ground: The Origin and Evolution of Tetrapods written by Jennifer A. Clark is a book on comparative anatomy of tetrapods on Earth.
The origin and evolution of tetrapods started about 370 million years ago, something strange and significant happened on Earth. That time, part of an interval of Earth's history called the Devonian Period by scientists such as geologists and paleontologists, is known popularly as the Age of Fishes. After about 200 million years of earlier evolution, the vertebrates... animals with backbones... had produced an explosion of fishlike animals that lived in the lakes, rivers, lagoons, and estuaries of the time. The strange thing that happened during the later parts of the Devonian period is that some of these fishlike animals evolved limbs with digits, fingers and toes. Over the ensuing 350 million years or so, these so-caled tetrapods gradually evolved from their aquatic ancestry into walking terrestrial vertebrates, and these have dominated the land since their own explosive radiation allowed them to colonize and exploit the land and its opportunities. The tetrapods, with limbs, fingers, and toes, include humans, so this distant Devonian event is profoundly significant for humans as well as for the planet.
This book tells the story of the evolution of tetrapods from their fish ancestry and puts the sequence of events into its ecological context. The story if founded on an understanding of the evolutionary relationships between tetrapods and their fishy relatives... their phylogeny... and traces the family tree of tetrapods from its roots to the point at which the major groups of modern tetrapods branch off from its original trunk.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Edward F. Strasser on November 23, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Other reviews on this page describe the contents well, so I'll focus on my own experience in the hope that it will be helpful to others with similar backgrounds. I have no formal education in science past the high-school level. I learn about science by reading and Scientific American is my favorite source, although I sometimes read more technical material. Gaining Ground falls into the "more technical" category.

One thing I found is that I can't keep track of all the terminology. For example, Clack describes changes in the structures of skulls and that involves a lot of bones I had never heard of before. But by concentrating on the things that I could keep track of, I could follow her basic points. For example, as our ancestors moved to land, where the buoyancy of water no longer kept their heads from sagging, the many skull bones were consolidated into a smaller number for strength. I'll never remember the names of all the bones, but I'll always remember why they changed. The same is true of the separation of the skull from the shoulder girdle and the formation of the neck, and of various other changes. I was content with the fact that there was much I couldn't follow because there was much that I could follow and learn from. And I enjoyed reading it.

Since I read the book, an article by Clack appeared in Scientific American (Dec. 2005) giving an overview of the origin of tetrapods, without most of the technical detail. It is excellent and I will tuck a copy into the book before I read it the next time. If you're unsure about buying the book, read the article. Then tuck a copy into the book as soon as you get it.

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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on May 23, 2005
Format: Hardcover
. . . along with some ribs, vertebrae and shoulder bones. But it's the skull that captures the most attention. The multitude of variations that occurred as animals moved in delicate steps from water onto land that make the story most interesting. And Jenny Clack's story of our four-legged forebears is a wondrous tale. Ever since Charles Darwin explained the nature of life's evolution, the question of how sea creatures moved to the land has been an enigma. Consider the many issues involved: walking, breathing air instead of filtering water, hearing in air instead of water, how to feed - and where, and protecting eggs. Clack shows how these topics were addressed by slow, incremental changes in body plan, with changes in one area integrated with those in another.

Walking on land meant not only building bones strong enough to support the body, but muscles to drive them. The humerus, the single bone in your upper arm, not only had to be stronger, it had to have joints for a new form of movement. A stride is far different from the flapping of a fin, so the paddling fin had to change. Clack discounts the older, simpler views that the "lobe-finned" fish just developed better "legs". Moving from the sea requires more than just crawling up the beach. There had to be an intermediate step. Clack finds that step in brackish lagoons and shallow, meandering rivers. There, the new four-legged creatures learned to walk on silty soils and learn to mix air and water breathing methods.

It was a reinforcing cycle as the change in surroundings developed new capacities. Diet went from fish to insects. No longer able to simply swallow prey as fish do, tetrapods began feeding on insects and their own smaller cousins.
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