When I saw the cover of Richard Fortey’s book “Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms” at the bookstore I was instantly intrigued by the artwork. When I read the tagline I was hooked. “The story of the animals and plants that time has left behind”? I want to know that story! I wasn’t disappointed, and I highly recommend this book! You’ll learn amazing things that may change your perspective on your place in the story of life on earth.
Richard Fortey was a senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London and has written several other books on subjects like fossils, natural history, and museums. Fortey doesn’t just talk about the facts of the amazing creatures he describes from an outsider’s perspective, he actually travels to various locations to see the organisms in person. He goes to Delaware to see horseshoe crabs, animals whose lineage has lived on almost unchanged for hundreds of millions of years. He travels to New Zealand to examine elusive velvet worms and to Yellowstone National Park to find bacteria of ancient origins that live in the harsh hot springs. Ultimately he discusses a wide range of survivors from fish and fungi to plants and even some mammals.
This book will provide you with plenty of cool facts and pictures, but more importantly it will help you understand evolution more deeply and give you a deeper sense of the vast spans of time in which life has spent evolving on our planet. Is the phrase “living fossil” accurate? And why do some animals survive for such long periods of time without seeming to change at all? This book will help you answer these questions.
One of my favorite parts of the book is when Fortey is visiting a place called “Mistaken Point” in Canada, the exposed sedimentary rock of an ancient seafloor where numerous fossilized impressions of strange soft bodied organisms are visible. After discussing the history of the fossils Fortey writes; “The waves surge and retreat from the stacked-up sea floors that once built Mistaken Point. This continually punished land will inevitably succumb to erosion, and the record of ancient life buried by chance so long ago beneath clouds of volcanic ash will be returned to the sea as a billion tiny particles. In the end, only the sea endures, it is the greatest survivor of them all. Even the continents mutate and remake themselves, driven by the internal engines of the earth powering slow but inexorable movements of tectonic plates. Mountain ranges are elevated and then reduced to rubble, but life can outlast mere Himalayas.” I read this paragraph over and over, because it fills me with such a profound sense of the immensity of time and change on earth, and the power of life to endure change.
Another part I found particularly profound was Fortey’s discussion of how early photosynthesizing organisms transformed the atmosphere of our planet over vast spans of time, making it possible for us to live and breathe oxygen and be protected from the sun’s radiation today. He states; “The slow transformation of the ocean and air took more than 2 billion years. Life captured and tamed the sun’s energy; a planet cannot be transformed except by slow and relentless labor on a vast scale. It is not human nature to acknowledge the work of others, and it is unlikely that many of our species will give due recognition to the contribution of numberless green threads thinner than hair from a baby’s cranium.” It’s humbling to take a moment to picture the countless tiny organisms that lived on earth so long ago and the relatively simple actions they took year after year after year, that made life possible for the rest of us.
So in conclusion, if you’re interested in evolution and awesome organisms you should definitely check out this book! You can get it here on Amazon. Check out our post from earlier this week featuring a quote by Richard Fortey on the importance of museums.