The New York Times
Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behindby Richard Fortey
From one of the world’s leading natural scientists and the acclaimed author of Trilobite!, Life: A Natural History of Four Billion Years of Life on Earth and Dry Storeroom No. 1 comes a fascinating chronicle of life’s history told not through the fossil record but through the stories of organisms that have survived, almost unchanged, throughout time. Evolution, it seems, has not completely obliterated its tracks as more advanced organisms have evolved; the history of life on earth is far older—and odder—than many of us realize.
Scattered across the globe, these remarkable plants and animals continue to mark seminal events in geological time. From a moonlit beach in Delaware, where the hardy horseshoe crab shuffles its way to a frenzy of mass mating just as it did 450 million years ago, to the dense rainforests of New Zealand, where the elusive, unprepossessing velvet worm has burrowed deep into rotting timber since before the breakup of the ancient supercontinent, to a stretch of Australian coastline with stromatolite formations that bear witness to the Precambrian dawn, the existence of these survivors offers us a tantalizing glimpse of pivotal points in evolutionary history. These are not “living fossils” but rather a handful of tenacious creatures of days long gone.
Written in buoyant, sparkling prose, Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms is a marvelously captivating exploration of the world’s old-timers combining the very best of science writing with an explorer’s sense of adventure and wonder.
The New York Times
"A lively writer with a penchant for slightly goofy jokes, a vast storehouse of arcane knowledge, and an inexhaustible fund of enthusiasm for his subject, Fortey is the perfect interpreter and guide to the marvels and mysteries of archaic existence." —The Boston Globe
"[A] delightful account . . . even those squeamish about worms will find Fortey’s enthusiastic excavations charming." —PW (starred)
"In this fascinating, well-written book, [Fortey] offers a worldwide tour of places whose lands and waters shelter extraordinary forms of life that have overcome mass extinctions, sea-level changes, ice ages and other obstacles to survive into the present. Taking great joy in his trip back in time, Fortey plays both adventurer and detective as he searches for these ancients . . . Informative, engrossing and delightful." —Kirkus (starred review)
"A magnificent book . . . Fortey’s intense, humane passion for everything that lives and has lived is amply proven on every page . . . This book (like all his others) demonstrates that Fortey is, principally, not a scientist who can write, but a writer who does science." —Literary Review
"Erudite and engaging." —Times Literary Supplement
"A wide-ranging survey . . . Fortey keeps the long discussion lighthearted . . . Instructive and entertaining." —Booklist
"Fortey leads us on a ramble that is not only global but takes us through aeons, to look at creatures that haven’t changed much for hundreds of millions and in some cases billions of years . . . It’s a great story, and no one is better equipped to tell it than Fortey . . . Excellent natural history." —The Guardian
"Fortey has a unique way with the most humble of life forms, an infectious curiosity that can slide into near rapture, coupled with a lack of presumption that many of his peers I the field of evolutionary biology lack entirely." —London Evening Standard
"An exploration of the world that went before. Fortey retains his characteristic ability to paint vivid word pictures of times long ago and places far away…Passionate, clear and comprehensive." —The Telegraph
"Fortey tells a series of fascinating stories that serve to bring alive what is for most of us an unfamiliar past. Under his tutelage, fossils of all kinds—survivors or not—seem to come alive." —Financial Times
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Read an Excerpt
These anomalous forms may almost be called living fossils; they have endured to the present day, from having inhabited a confined area, and from having thus been exposed to less severe competition.
—Charles Darwin: The Origin of Species
Evolution has not obliterated its tracks as more advanced animals and plants have appeared through geological time. There are, scat- tered over the globe, organisms and ecologies which still survive from earlier times. These speak to us of seminal events in the history of life. They range from humble algal mats to hardy musk oxen that linger on in the tundra as last vestiges of the Ice Age. The history of life can be approached through the fossil record; a narrative of forms that have vanished from the earth. But it can also be understood through its survivors, the animals and plants that time has left behind. My intention is to visit these organisms in the field, to take the reader on a journey to the exotic, or even everyday, places where they live. There will be landscapes to evoke, boulders to turn over, seas to pad- dle in. I shall describe the animals and plants in their natural habitats, and explain why they are important in understanding pivotal points in evolutionary history. So it will be a journey through time, as well as around the globe.
I have always thought of myself as a naturalist first, and a palaeon- tologist second, although I cannot deny that I have spent most of my life looking at thoroughly dead creatures. This book is something of a departure for me, with the focus switched to living organisms that help reveal the tree of life (see endpapers). I will frequently return to considering fossils to show how my chosen creatures root back into ancient times. I have also broken my usual rules of narrative. The logical place to start is at the beginning, which in this case would mean with the oldest and most primitive organisms. Or I could start with the present and work backwards, as in Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale. Instead, I have opted to start somewhere in the mid- dle. This is not perversity on my part. It seemed appropriate to start my exploration in a place, biologically speaking, that is familiar to me. The ancient horseshoe crabs of Delaware Bay were somehow fit- ting, not least on account of their trilobite connections. Amid all the concern about climate change and extinction, it is encouraging to begin with an organism whose populations can still be counted in their millions. From this starting point somewhere inside the great and spreading tree of life I can climb upwards to higher twigs if I wish, or maybe even delve downwards to find the trunk. Let us begin to explore.
Meet the Author
Richard Fortey was a senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London until his retirement in 2006. He is the author of several books, including Fossils: The Key to the Past; The Hidden Landscape, which won the Natural World Book of the Year in 1993; Life: A Natural History of Four Billion Years of Life on Earth; Trilobite!, which was short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize; Earth: An Intimate History; and Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum. He has won the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing About Science from Rockefeller University and the Michael Faraday Prize from the Royal Society. He was president of the Geological Society of London during its bicentennial year in 2007 and is a Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature. He lives in Oxfordshire.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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It can be taken as certain that every organism alive today can potentially be found represented in the fossil record by the remains of the identical or nearly identical species. Hence, in some sense, all living things are "living fossils." Thus, the central theme of Fortey's Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms is an oxymoron. This point does not evade Fortey any more than it evaded Darwin who was also aware of the phrases absurdity. Like much else in natural science, the term "living fossil" is, in fact, shorthand for "organisms found alive today whose remains can be found in nearly identical form in the fossil record of many millions of years ago." As a subset of that definition Fortey, himself, suggests "true living fossils" as those organisms well-known in the fossil record and eventually discovered to be still alive and well in historical times - in that order. Fortey doesn't let the ambiguity of the term stop him however. After quickly dismissing the issue, he launches into a world-wide tour of several dozen examples, "true" or not. Fortey's text deals with many more organisms than just horseshoe crabs and velvet worms. The prize-winning author of several other paleontological popular works such as Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution, Fortey writes in a distinctive and engaging style, if a bit peripatetic. Obviously in great command of his subject, the author often jerks the less-informed reader about as he grabs relevant (to him) examples out of thin air. Most of the book is spent describing the anatomy, physiology and ecology of one after another of both plant and animal "living fossils" Deeper analysis of the evolutionary significance of these sort-of-special organisms is reserved for the last chapter in which Fortey hesitatingly ascribes the survival of these "living fossils" not necessarily to any specific, common advantageous characteristic of the group, but simply to luck - being at the right place through geologic time. The ebook that is reviewed here is subject to a common limitation of electronic text media - all of the illustrations are addendum at the end of the book instead of being integrated into the text. Given Fortey's poetic and effusive writing this is a constant annoyance. Richard R. Pardi Environmental Science William Paterson University
I read the first chapter at work and it is amazing. I was telling everyone what I learned. I love this stuff, I'm thinking about getting his other books now too
Scattershot method, but entertaining survey of some of the oldest surviving organisms on the "tree of life".
A thoroughly engaging and light-hearted description of the animals of the title. It transforms the reader into an armchair naturalist. It is like having a section of the American Museum of Natural history put into one's livingroom.
As Barnes and Noble has failed to deliver this gift in several weeks, I have no idea what my friend thought of it.