Moving onto Land



When the first animals evolved, dry land was probably devoid of any kind of life, except possibly bacteria. Without terrestrial plants, land-based animals would have had nothing to eat. But when plants took up life on land over 400 million years ago, that situation changed, and animals evolved that could make use of this new source of food. The first land animals included primitive wingless insects and probably a range of soft-bodied invertebrates that have not left fossil remains. The first vertebrates to move onto land were the amphibians, which appeared about 370 million years ago.

For all animals, life on land involved meeting some major challenges. Foremost among these were the need to conserve water and the need to extract oxygen from the air. Another problem concerned the effects of gravity. Water buoys up living things, but air, which is 750 times less dense than water, generates almost no buoyancy at all. To function effectively on land, animals needed support.

In soft-bodied land animals such as earthworms, this support is provided by a hydrostatic skeleton, which works by internal pressure. The animal's body fluids press out against its skin, giving the animal its shape. In insects and other arthropods, support is provided by the exoskeleton (external skeleton), while in vertebrates it is provided by bones. Exoskeletons can play a double role by helping animals to conserve water, but they have one important disadvantage: unlike an internal bony skeleton, their weight increases very rapidly as they get bigger, eventually making them too heavy to move. This explains why insects have all remained relatively small, while some vertebrates have reached very large sizes.

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