Some 165 years ago, virtually everyone on this planet believed that the world and all the living creatures would have never existed if not for the higher forces. Yet long before that, Greek philosophers had already presumed life forms could evolve.
A revolution in human thinking took place in the mid-19th century, right after the publication of Charles Darwin's writing. In his worldwide known book, he told how life on Earth had emerged and why flora and fauna on our planet were so diverse. Nowadays, although two centuries have passed since then, scientists are still looking for the answers on the origins of terrestrial life, supplementing accumulated knowledge with new research data.
Some of the oldest known traces of life - impressions of soft tissues of the planet's first multicellular organisms - are exhibited at the Mining Museum in St. Petersburg. These organisms had no skeletal structures, not even a shell or carapace. Their soft parts, therefore, are rarely preserved and hence hardly ever found in the rock.
Traces of protozoans are showcased here, too. However, their structures, which are stromatolites formed by cyanobacteria colonies, are too small and can be observed only with a microscope. Because of the bacteria and their ability to photosynthesise, the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere soared.
Fossil remains of animals having a skeleton in some form are much better preserved. One of the first known groups of arthropods is trilobites. They had their upper body protected by armour, which fossilised over time.
Then the Devonian Period came, also known as the Age of Fishes, spanning 60 million years. Throughout that time, lots of fish species emerged - starting from small crossopterygians and ending with large-sized armoured fish. It was thought crossopterygians had been driven to extinction, but a population of theirs had survived, and in 1938 it was discovered in the Indian Ocean. The Mining Museum exhibits the shoal that after death sank to the bottom and was covered with sand. It kept the scales unaffected by water currents and well-preserved, with contours outlined in great detail.
Another showpiece is a tooth that once belonged to Megalodon, an extinct shark species and the world's largest fish ever existed on Earth. Before it was officially described, the fish's teeth had been considered solidified tongues of snakes and dragons. It was only in the mid-17th century that a Danish natural scientist made an assumption that they belonged to an ancient animal. The planet's most giant marine predator is estimated to have been up to 16 metres in length and weighed over 35 tonnes.
Tridacna, a giant bivalve mollusc, has survived to this day and inhabits waters of tropical regions. This organism may reach enormous proportions, all thanks to the warmth and abundance of food. Just as other clams do, tridacna can produce pearls, sometimes growing impressively huge.
There is a legend that Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher, placed an amulet onto which the faces of Buddha and Confucius were carved inside the pearl. Over time, the decoration item accumulated nacre, while Tzu's successors kept continuously moving it into larger shells. When the time had come to place the ornament into tridacna shell, a storm broke out, and the mollusc, with the pearl inside it, transported by ship was lost. It was retrieved in 1934 when found near Palawan Island and raised from the bottom of the South China Sea. One of the world's largest pearls was named 'the Pearl of Allah', or, alternatively, 'the Pearl of Lao Tzu', because it resembled the turbaned head of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad. The find measures 238 millimetres in diameter and weighs 1,280 carats. Its estimated price, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, is $40 million.
During the reign of dinosaurs, the most widespread marine aminals were ammonites. These molluscs varied in size greatly - ranging from several centimetres to two metres in diameter.
Parapuzosia seppenradensis is one of the largest known ammonite species. It was discovered in Germany at the end of the 19th century, with the first preserved sample having a partly broken shell. Scientists assume that while alive its weight must have reached 1.5 tons, and had the specimen been fully intact its diameter would equal 2.55 metres. A century ago, one could buy ammonites in a pharmacy, as they were advertised as 'snake stones curing all kinds of diseases'.
Ichthyosaurus is another creature living in the sea depths. This predator looked similar to dolphins and was a live-bearing animal. Mystriosaurus is a distant ancestor of now-existing crocodiles, which can be easily guessed seeing how much alike are their skull structures and habitus.
Rhinoceroses, bison, mammoths, cave lions and bears are some of the animals that inhabited Eurasia during the last 800 000 years and became extinct with the start of the glacial epoch.
Cave bears lived during the most recent period of glaciation and were named so because their bones were mostly found in caves. There are few locations in Russia where remains of this species were found, with one of the largest being the Secrets Cave in the Urals. Over 30,000 fossilised bones were found there. Cave bears died out because the climate changed. As the forestal area diminished sharply, the animal species had no food to feed on.
A skeleton of a wild bison, once inhabiting Belovezhskaya Pushcha, shows what indigenous wisents looked like; the animal was killed at the present-day territory of the forest in the early 19th century. Belovezhskaya Pushcha, also known as Białowieża Forest, is as of now not only a wildlife area with relict primaeval forests but a bison habitat too.
The Mining Museum's collection would not be that large if it were not for Ivan Yefremov, a Soviet palaeontologist. Yefremov is a graduate of Leningrad Mining Institute, science fiction author, and the founder of taphonomy, an entirely new branch of palaeontology. Many American researchers called Yefremov the father of modern palaeontology, who merged geological and palaeontological data into a single science.