For most of us, the story of mammal evolution starts after the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs, but over the last 20 years, scientists have uncovered new fossils and used new technologies that have upended this story.
In Beasts Before Us, palaeontologist Elsa Panciroli charts the emergence of the mammal lineage, Synapsida, beginning at their murky split from the reptiles in the Carboniferous period, three-hundred million years ago. They made the world theirs long before the rise of dinosaurs. Travelling forward into the Permian and then Triassic periods, we learn how our ancient mammal ancestors evolved from large hairy beasts with fast metabolisms to exploit miniaturisation, which was key to unlocking the traits that define mammals as we now know them.
Elsa criss-crosses the globe to explore the sites where discoveries are being made and meet the people who make them. In Scotland, she traverses the desert dunes of prehistoric Moray, where quarry workers unearthed the footprints of Permian beasts from before the time of dinosaurs. In South Africa she introduces us to animals, once called 'mammal-like reptiles', that gave scientists the first hints that our furry kin evolved from a lineage of egg-laying burrowers. In China, new complete skeletons reveal mammals that were gliders, shovel-pawed Jurassic moles, and flat-tailed swimmers.
Beasts Before Us radically reframes the narrative of our mammalian ancestors and provides a counterpoint to the stereotypes of mighty dinosaur overlords and cowering little mammals. It turns out the earliest mammals weren't just precursors, they were pioneers.
Elsa Panciroli is a palaeontologist who studies the evolution and ecology of extinct animals – particularly mammals from the time of dinosaurs. She is a researcher based at the University of Oxford and an associate researcher at the National Museum of Scotland. Elsa has published multiple papers in academic journals, and her work takes her around the world collaborating with scientists in China, the US, South Africa and Europe to understand the origin of major animal groups.
Elsa is a keen science communicator and travels extensively across the UK delivering public talks on palaeontology and the origin of mammals. Her freelance writing includes extensive articles for online and print publications, including monthly pieces on topics in evolution and palaeontology for The Guardian, and educational articles for Palaeontology Online and Biological Sciences Review. She is a graduate of the BBC's Expert Woman training programme, and frequently contributes to radio and podcast programmes, such as Crowdscience, The John Beatty Show and Our Lives.