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Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind (2011)

by Richard Fortey

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4391558,018 (3.69)16
Former Natural History Museum (London) paleontologist Fortey gives us the stories of those plants, animals, and other creatures that have survived from Earth's early days--the planet's "true marathon runners."

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» See also 16 mentions

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A look at creatures who have persisted through time. Fortey makes even the plants personable and interseting, though humans do not fare so well under his microscope. A bit pessimistic, or perhaps, realistic, but full of a love for living things ( )
  cspiwak | Mar 6, 2024 |
This ended up with 4 stars because I struggle with timelines that stretch over billions of years. I find the science riveting, but when the text starts throwing around Ages and Periods like Cretaceous and Mesozoic and Mesoproterozoic like we'd talk about events that happened to us last week, my eyes glaze over and my comprehension rate plummets through the floor.

Still Fortey deserves better; he's an excellent writer, one who mixes personal anecdotes with hard science very well. He only slipped up once and made evolution sound like a sentient decision making process on the part of the specimen in question, but perhaps he was only making a point.

In this book he visits a list of life (flora, fauna, and microscopic) whose branch on the tree of life has survived the ages, evolving through catastrophic events only to wind up in the here and now, where humans will likely figure out a way to kill them off. Except, sadly, for the cockroaches, and, happily, the sea monkeys. He ties these fascinating species of today to their ancestors of the past and discusses where current thinking places them on the tree of life: are they closer to the trunk (truly amongst the first) or are they closer to the tips of the branches (the newcomers, or - in our case - the party crashers).

This is one of those books that, because of their built-in uniqueness in flora and fauna, the antipodean part of the world becomes the star. There are a lot of critters featured here that are found in New Zealand and Australia. Not taking anything away from my home country, these were my favourites. I need to be on the lookout for the velvet worm, and I have a new appreciation for the extreme mothering practices of the Echidna. I think seeing a lungfish might be kinda cool.

Fortey does get one thing wrong: he says no mammal is venomous. I don't know if this is because the book was written before the slow loris was found to have venom glands, or if that discovery just stayed under his radar. It's a small thing in the overall body of knowledge in the book and has no consequence in the context of the subject matter under discussion.

Not an easy reading book, but one that's worth the time and effort. ( )
  murderbydeath | Jun 4, 2022 |
Interesting book. I would have liked more biology and less "travelogue", but otherwise ok. ( )
  ElentarriLT | Mar 24, 2020 |
"The mind seemed to grow giddy looking so far into the abyss of time" - John Playfair, geologist of the 1770s.

One of the ways to look back in evolutionary (and even geological) time is to look closely at the organisms known as "living fossils," or currently living plants and animals that have extremely close analogues in the fossil record. Organisms as diverse as bacteria, Archaeans, vendobionts, velvet worms, horseshoe crabs, gingkos, and echidnas all have their stories to tell and insights to provide into where we came from and where we may be going.

I found this to be a very accessible guided tour of evolutionary biology and paleobiology, and learned a lot. Along the way, Fortey describes organisms that thrive in water with a temperature of 80 degrees Celsius and a pH of 2 (strong enough to dissolve iron), mammals that lay eggs, "dinobirds," and giant salamanders as long as a man can spread his arms. Not to mention the microorganisms that originally oxygenated the atmosphere and build and live in structures that can easily be seen with the naked eye and even touched. After reading all these accounts and more, I would say the author is very right when he states that "The day people stop searching is the day nothing will be found."

There is also the story of how the first eukaryotes acquired mitochondria and chloroplasts, and genetic analysis shows that there were multiple endosymbiosis events. There are algae with red chloroplasts (the Rhodophyta) and algae with genetically different green chloroplasts (Chlorophyta), and every known species of land plant is descended solely from the Chlorophyta.

Also, I loved the colored plates showing each of the "living fossils" discussed and their fossilized predecessors.
( )
  Jennifer708 | Mar 21, 2020 |
An excellent foray into biological history- the living facsimiles of ancient phyla for starters, then delving into the survivors of various mass extinctions (in fact, it was originally published as Survivors in Great Britain). A bit on the drier side of popular science books, but still fascinating. ( )
  Daumari | Dec 30, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
Richard Fortey’s “Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms” begins, as all serious books of science should, at an orgy.


The good news about “Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms” is that Mr. Fortey is as vivid and charming about live things as he’s long been about dead ones, perhaps even more so.


Yet his book is not only well built and witty but emotionally profound too. It’s the work of a survivor appraising other survivors. “The inescapable truth is that luck for old-timers will eventually run out,” he writes. “It always does.”

What angers Mr. Fortey is the way humans are hastening not just their own end but that of everything else on earth. “The extinction event that is happening right now is the first one in history that is the responsibility of a single species,” he declares. “There’s no meteorite this time, no exceptional volcanic eruptions, no ‘Snowball Earth,’ just us, prospering at the expense of other species.”

In the meantime Mr. Fortey’s book is an inducement to be as awake and observant as possible. A wallflower at life’s orgy, he’s delivered a book that’s a squirming eyeful.
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Former Natural History Museum (London) paleontologist Fortey gives us the stories of those plants, animals, and other creatures that have survived from Earth's early days--the planet's "true marathon runners."

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Average: (3.69)
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