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The Story of the Animals and Plants that Time Has Left Behind

by Richard Fortey

Pub Date: April 11th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-307-26361-2
Publisher: Knopf

A leading natural scientist’s search for animals and plants that have survived nearly unchanged for millions of years.

 “Deep history is all around us,” writes Fortey (Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, 2008, etc.), formerly a senior paleontologist at London’s Natural History Museum. “In the life of the planet, the latest model does not always invalidate the tried-and-tested old creature.” In this fascinating, well-written book, he 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. At Delaware Bay, he watches the mating orgy of horseshoe crabs, which for millennia have laid and fertilized their eggs along the shoreline. On New Zealand’s North Island, in a rotting pine log, he finds the elusive caterpillar-like velvet worm, which survived the same event that killed the dinosaurs. Detailing the appearance and behavior of each species, Fortey explains each life form’s place in evolutionary history. In Shark Bay, Australia, he finds living stromatolites (mounds built by microscopic organisms) dating back 3.5 billion years. With occasional outbursts of “And there it is!” he tracks down many other creatures, including the lizard-like tuatara on a log in New Zealand “looking as if it were resting after a stroll from the Triassic,” and the echidna, an oddly shaped mammal living on Australia’s Kangaroo Island. Evolution goes on, writes the author. These species are not exactly the same as those in the distant past, but they are here and alive now.

Informative, engrossing and delightful.