Vertebrate paleontology is concerned with the evolution and paleobiology of animals with backbones. These belong to phylum Chordata and include fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Michigan research in vertebrate paleontology started in 1907 when Ermine Cowles Case was appointed a professor of historical geology and paleontology.
The vertebrate paleontology collection includes approximately 80,000 cataloged specimens. These include late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic reptiles and amphibians, representing some of the earliest fully terrestrial vertebrate communities. Collections also include large early Cenozoic mammal collections from the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming used to document some of the best known cases of gradual evolutionary change over geological time. The museum holds unique specimens representing the early diversification of primates and whales, including numerous steps in the evolutionary transition of whales from terrestrial mammals with hindlimbs to aquatic animals lacking external hindlimbs. Important collections of late Cenozoic fishes demonstrate long records of diversification within major lacustrine systems. Finally, late Cenozoic mammal collections include the best record of human association with extinct Ice Age mastodons found anywhere on the continent.