Relics: Travels in Nature's Time Machine

Relics: Travels in Nature's Time Machine


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On any night in early June, if you stand on the right beaches of America’s East Coast, you can travel back in time all the way to the Jurassic. For as you watch, thousands of horseshoe crabs will emerge from the foam and scuttle up the beach to their spawning grounds, as they’ve done, nearly unchanged, for more than 440 million years.

Horseshoe crabs are far from the only contemporary manifestation of Earth’s distant past, and in Relics, world-renowned zoologist and photographer Piotr Naskrecki leads readers on an unbelievable journey through those lingering traces of a lost world. With camera in hand, he travels the globe to create a words-and-pictures portrait of our planet like no other, a time-lapse tour that renders Earth’s colossal age comprehensible, visible in creatures and habitats that have persisted, nearly untouched, for hundreds of millions of years.

Naskrecki begins by defining the concept of a relic—a creature or habitat that, while acted upon by evolution, remains remarkably similar to its earliest manifestations in the fossil record. Then he pulls back the Cambrian curtain to reveal relic after eye-popping relic: katydids, ancient reptiles, horsetail ferns, majestic magnolias, and more, all depicted through stunning photographs and first-person accounts of Naskrecki’s time studying them and watching their interactions in their natural habitats. Then he turns to the habitats themselves, traveling to such remote locations as the Atewa Plateau of Africa, the highlands of Papua New Guinea, and the lush forests of the Guyana Shield of South America—a group of relatively untrammeled ecosystems that are the current end point of staggeringly long, uninterrupted histories that have made them our best entryway to understanding what the prehuman world looked, felt, sounded, and even smelled like.

The stories and images of Earth’s past assembled in Relics are beautiful, breathtaking, and unmooring, plunging the reader into the hitherto incomprehensible reaches of deep time. We emerge changed, astonished by the unbroken skein of life on Earth and attentive to the hidden heritage of our planet’s past that surrounds us. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226568706
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/15/2011
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 9.50(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Piotr Naskrecki is an entomologist and a research associate with the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. He is the author of The Smaller Majority.

Read an Excerpt


By Piotr Naskrecki


Copyright © 2011 Piotr Naskrecki
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-56870-6

Chapter One

The Land of the Unexpected

If there ever was a moment in my life when I wished that I could simply close my ears shut, it was when we flew over the foothills of the Nakanai Mountains—the seemingly infinite carpet of thick forest below us, the wisps of the early morning fog clinging to clumps of the tallest trees, the oblique shafts of the still coy sun piercing the darkness below. We skimmed close to the canopy, lifting up only occasionally to avoid hills rising out from the mostly uninterrupted terrain. The view from the helicopter was transcendent of anything that I had seen before, but the roar of the blades held me like claws, not letting me slip into the nearly cataleptic wonderment I was so close to achieving. Never before had I witnessed such raw, undefiled scenery, so primeval, so innocent. I wanted to glide over its surface in silence for hours, breathe in the mist, let my fingers caress the tips of the trees the way I let my hand touch the water when floating slowly in a canoe. I wanted to be marooned in this place, this sanctuary of life still secure in its remoteness and unique for its isolation, but a burst of static in my headphones snapped me out of my reverie. "We found them," said the pilot.

For the last couple of days we had been trying to locate a camp set up by a few members of our group on a high plateau in these mountains covered with nearly impenetrable rainforest, which at this high elevation was obscured by clouds throughout most of each day. We were too late the day before and had to turn back to our lower camp, unwilling to risk flying in poor visibility. But this morning we lifted up right at dawn, and large gaps in the cloud cover allowed us to spot a makeshift landing platform in a small clearing within the thick bamboo and southern beech (Nothofagus) forest. The chopper landed on the edge of a plateau with a view so surreally beautiful and primordial that I instantly understood why cryptozoological myths of dinosaurs surviving in the forests of Papua New Guinea persist to this day.

And why wouldn't they? Few places are more remote, less disturbed, and have ecosystems as rich as this part of the planet. The island of New Guinea, its western half a part of Indonesia and the eastern half making up the main portion of the country of Papua New Guinea, still shelters a fragment of the world that would appear very familiar to our long-gone ancestors. It was not until 1938 that a large society of Stone Age people was first contacted on the island of New Guinea by the explorer Richard Archbold, its 50,000 members blissfully unaware of the existence of the outside world. For over a hundred years this island has been a mecca for anthropologists of various extractions attracted by both the "primitiveness" of its tribes and the sheer number of distinct clans inhabiting the island. In an area about thirteen times smaller than Europe, over 1,000 tribes, each with its own unique language, have until recently lived in exactly the same fashion as their forefathers did thousands of years ago, happily dividing their time between foraging in their pristine forests and head-hunting their foes. There is probably no other place in the world, New York City included, more anthropologically heterogeneous, more finely divided among small, isolationist groups of people. Linguists still ponder the origins of the 1,114 languages spoken to this day on New Guinea (albeit some spoken by only a handful of the last survivors of their line), with strong evidence pointing to multiple colonization events by different groups coming from Australia and Southeast Asia that stretch back to at least 40,000—perhaps even 60,000—years ago. Following the time-honored human tradition of distrusting those who are different from us, this multifarious status quo has been maintained by a nearly constant state of war among neighboring tribes, precluding any possible attempts at collaboration toward common goals, such as building roads or developing large-scale trade across the island. It did not help, of course, that New Guinea is one of the most mountainous terrains on Earth, crisscrossed by deep valleys abutted by swampy, malaria-infested lowlands. But the same factors that contributed to the fragmentation of New Guinea's human societies have had remarkably beneficial effects on its nonhuman inhabitants.

Surpassed in their surface area only by the immense forests of the Amazon and Congo basin, the rainforests of New Guinea are the tropical forests probably the least-impacted by human activity. It is still possible to find places there where no human has ever set foot and animals are trusting and unafraid. But even in places where hunting has made a significant dent in the populations of large mammals and birds, the rest of the ecosystem is often in a pretty good shape, thanks largely to the very low population density of humans. Although many tribes still practice slash-and-burn agriculture, the scale on which they do it is low enough for the forest to quickly regenerate. And while there exists ample archeological evidence that some parts of the island's forest that appear pristine are in fact secondary growth and that slopes of many mountains have been reshaped by ancient agricultural practices, the forests of New Guinea are closer to nature's prehuman condition than virtually any other similar place in the world. For this reason it is not only anthropologists who get positively giddy when talking about New Guinea's diversity. New Guinea, an area legendarily difficult to explore, is renowned for being a place where a biologist is virtually guaranteed to discover new forms of life every time she or he pays a visit. Scientists can only estimate the numbers of species for most groups of organisms that live there, and these estimates are usually higher than those for any comparable area anywhere else on the globe.

Nearly everything about New Guinea seems ancient and prehistoric, and it often is, but the island itself is surprisingly young. As recently as ten thousand to fifteen thousand years ago, at the end of the last glacial maximum, New Guinea was firmly attached to Australia, forming a large continent known as Sahul. The Gulf of Carpentaria that now separates Australia from New Guinea was just Lake Carpentaria on a massive land bridge connecting the two, and faunas and floras mixed freely in both directions. At the same time, island arcs slowly drifting from the north and the west steadily pushed closer to New Guinea, allowing Asian elements to colonize it. Nevertheless, the biological composition of today's New Guinea is much closer to that of Australia than Asia. Its current biological communities are probably very similar to the communities of the ancient Sahul continent and give us an impression of what the land now known as northern Australia might have looked like during the last glacial period. Absent from New Guinea are common in Southeast Asian primates (with the potentially disastrous exception of the recently introduced Asian macaques), and there are no cats or any other large carnivores there. The only native placental mammals living on New Guinea are bats and a good selection of rodents. But the group that dominates the mammalian fauna is the marsupials, which includes tree kangaroos, assorted possums, and charming, big-eyed cuscuses. These are complemented by two species of fascinating, egg-laying, spiny mammals known as echidnas. Most of these mammals are nocturnal and, being mostly active at night myself, I ran across a few of them during my nightly foraging for katydids.

One night after coming back to the camp after a stroll in the forest, I saw a small, unbelievably cute possum ambling along our long, improvised workbench. I gave a shout to Ken Aplin, the expedition's mammal specialist, who became very excited, and together we tried to corner the little furry creature. "Catch him if you can," he yelled, "these possums never bite!" Since I was positioned closer to the animal than Ken I grabbed it, and its sharp teeth immediately sank into my hand, and blood poured over my fingers. "Take the bite. Don't let go," said Ken calmly, proving once again that there is no obstacle, moral or otherwise, that will stop a biologist from obtaining the specimen.

It is, of course, impossible to talk about the biodiversity of New Guinea and not to mention birds-of-paradise. This colorful, fluffy offshoot of a lineage comprised mostly of crows and ravens is represented on the island by thirty-eight of its forty-two known species, and no other group of organisms is considered more emblematic of this part of the world (Raggiana Bird-of-paradise is even depicted on the national flag of Papua New Guinea). I only saw a few glimpses of these birds in the forest, but their calls, especially the otherworldly clacks of the Black Sicklebills delightfully complemented the rich, multilayered, sylvan soundscape during my insect-collecting forays. There is no denying that these birds are as pretty as they come, and their courtship displays are truly spectacular, but to me they were no more than an interesting diversion from the true gemstones hiding in the mossy Eden of New Guinea.

Nobody knows exactly, and it is probably safe to say that nobody ever will, how many species of insects, arachnids, and other invertebrates live on New Guinea and its satellite islands. Interestingly, recent, exquisitely detailed research on insects that feed on rainforest trees in New Guinea, conducted by ecologist Vojtech Novotny and his collaborators, indicate that the numbers of species of these animals might be lower than previously expected—worldwide they seem to be in the range of measly 4 million to 6 million, rather than 30 million, as previously speculated. Their endemism (the degree to which species are restricted to a particular place) also appears to be much lower than initially assumed. It turns out that most plant-eating insects do not like to put all their eggs in one basket; rather than specialize on a single host plant of potentially limited availability, they feed on a plethora of closely related plant species. This means that there is a lot of overlap in insect diversity among various plants, which in turn allows them to disperse over much larger areas. Novotny and his colleagues argue that for the hundreds or even thousands of species of insects associated with a single plant species, no more than 5 are unique to that plant. If this is true, and it probably is, it still means that New Guinea has at least 125,000 species of insects, based on the estimated 25,000 species of vascular plants that can be found there. And this does not include insects that are not associated with plants, nor does it include other groups, such as spiders, mites, snails, flatworms, millipedes, and dozens of others. Consequently, the actual richness of New Guinea terrestrial invertebrates is probably closer to half a million, perhaps even higher. Of these, only a very small percentage has been studied by scientists, and most remain unidentified and unnamed. The job of our team of local and international scientists, as we surveyed some of the most remote areas of Papua New Guinea, was to add more detail to the complex map of this country's biodiversity, a map that for many groups of organisms is still largely blank. We were after new, undiscovered species. But the reasons for our interest in New Guinean biodiversity were not purely academic. Some areas of the country appear to be very good candidates for participation in a new approach to conservation, often referred to as carbon trading. As a part of this scheme, major polluters in developed nations may receive a partial penance for their excessive production of greenhouse gases if they support conservation and reforestation projects in developing nations. This hopefully will lead to the increase in the number and quality of the so-called carbon sinks, ecosystems that are particularly effective at removing from the atmosphere the excess of carbon dioxide, the main cause of climate change. Our biological survey was one of the preliminary steps in assessing whether New Guinea's forests could indeed benefit from this program.

"It's all a bunch of hippie tree-hugging crap," read a tattered T-shirt, probably donated by some charitable organization, worn by an old woman who was watching me with suspicion from the doorway of her hut. "Well, let's hope that she doesn't really mean it," I thought, as we briskly walked through a small village, trailed by an entourage of surprised and slightly scared children and dogs. Our team counted on the villagers' help in setting up camp and getting fresh food during our stay at the first of several sampling stations in the Nakanai Mountains. We began the survey on the island of New Britain, the largest of the Bismarck Archipelago, which is politically and biologically a part of Papua New Guinea. For several weeks we traversed the increasingly remote and difficult terrain, moving up along the escarpment toward a high, virtually untouched and poorly explored plateau. We departed from the shores of Jacquinot Bay, where the coast was still littered with rusted machine guns and other decaying traces of the Allied campaign against the Japanese forces at the end of World War II. While it felt strange and rather disquieting to trip over corroded weaponry while stalking insects in the forest, its presence was possibly an indication of the state of nature in this part of the world—I hoped that if nobody bothered to remove those chunks of metal, perhaps also nobody bothered to cut down trees.

I had extremely high expectations for these mountains, as literally nothing was known about their fauna of frogs, insects, and related organisms. I was certain that we would find new species there; the only question was how many. Over the following days I slowly acclimated myself to the new environment. There is hardly a more exciting time for a biologist than when visiting a new geographic area for the first time. New Guinea was such a new place for me, one that I had wanted to see since the time I built a Play-Doh coral reef in my parents' bathtub at the age of seven or eight. Every inch of the ground, every piece of bark, every twig and leaf were potentially hiding some wonderful living treasures. At night, choruses of voices I had never heard before tempted me to go deeper and deeper into the forest. It took me a while to discover that the high-pitched screech coming from among low-lying ferns was a giant cricket, and a buzzing I took for a katydid turned out to be a tiny frog hiding in a clump of mosses. And how I wished that we had with us a specialist who could tell us more about the amazing fungi we were seeing. On a fallen palm frond bioluminescent mushrooms gave off a bluish, ethereal glow, and I brought them back to the camp and placed in front of my tent. For a few nights they helped me find my way back to it in the dark until a big snail came and ate them all. Phantasmagorical Aseroe mushrooms looked out of place on the forest floor, their appearance more befitting the depths of tropical seas. Jewel-like Gasteracantha spiders hung suspended on orbs spun across low branches on which pygmy grasshoppers nibbled lichens covering their surface, careful to avoid the sticky strands. Large vinegaroons, scorpion-like arachnids that spray attackers with concentrated acetic acid, mingled in the leaf litter with hermit crabs and trap-jawed Odontomachus ants. It was heaven.


Excerpted from Relics by Piotr Naskrecki Copyright © 2011 by Piotr Naskrecki. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier

The Land of the Unexpected
Travels in the Meddle Earth
Mother’s Care
The Southern Kingdom
The Rain Queen’s Garden
Guiana Shield
The Yin and Yang of the Notoptera
The Great Ocean Escape
In the Sagebrush
A Walk in the Estabrook Woods

A Word about Photography

Customer Reviews