‘What is an animal?’ – fascinating exhibition goes on display at Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Sirius Passet - The inhospitable landscape of Sirius Passet, Greenland, has yielded some of the earliest complete animal fossils in the world. This locality, along with others, is helping us to unpick the story of the origins of animal life. Credit: Paul Smith

A fascinating new exhibition at Oxford University Museum of Natural History is challenging challenge its visitors to question ‘What is an animal?’

The visitor journey begins by travelling back in time 600 million years, to when the very origins of all animals – including humans – began to develop in the world’s oceans.

Pseudoiulia cambriensis – The long, segmented body and multiple pairs of legs of Pseudoiulia have been compared to those of myriapods, the group containing millipedes. But without a preserved head, we cannot be sure.

The exhibition will tell this story like never before. For the first time ever, incredibly well-preserved specimens, each hundreds of millions of years old, will travel to Oxford from sites across the globe. This includes a significant loan of 55 fossils from Yunnan University in Chengjiang, China, along with other evidence from Burgess Shale, Canada and Sirius Passet, Greenland.

Ediacaran scene – Reconstruction of a shallow sea in what is now Namibia, around 543 million years ago, right before the start of the Cambrian period. We see some of the first animals to build mineralised skeletons, the stacked cones of Cloudina and the stalked Namacalathus, living on a microbial reef. On the nearby sea floor, we see the feeding traces left behind from worm-like animals grazing or mining organic matter from the mud. Finally, the petal-shaped Swartpuntia, one of the last examples of the soft-bodied Ediacaran fauna that will soon be replaced by the more familiar animals of the Cambrian. Credit: Mighty Fossils

One of the highlights of First Animals will certainly be the interactive Cambrian Diver installation, which will allow users to explore a 360-degree ocean in a virtual submersible craft, with digital reconstructions bringing creatures to life. Visitors will also be able to immerse themselves in a Cambrian ocean virtual reality experience, First Life VR, complete with narration by natural history legend Sir David Attenborough.

For further information visit www.oum.ox.ac.uk/firstanimals/