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


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





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.

Product Details

The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind
Fortey, Richard
General Nature
Nature Studies-General
evolution;biology;science;paleontology;non-fiction;natural history;popular science;animals;horseshoe crabs;botany;zoology;nature;geology
Publication Date:
9.58 x 6.7 x 1.6 in 1.625 lb

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Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind Used Hardcover
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Product details 352 pages Knopf Publishing Group - English 9780307263612 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Compared to sponges and cyanobacteria, human life is in its infancy. In this delightful account, former Natural History Museum (London) paleontologist Fortey (The Hidden Landscape: A Journey into the Geological Past) 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.' We encounter the horseshoe crab sealing off wounds with its strange blue blood, the leisurely lungfish surfacing for a puff of air before returning to sweep the mud of Australia's Mary River, and the rainbow of extremophile bacteria huddling within the sulphuric maws of Yellowstone's boiling geysers. Fortey examines factors that might have contributed to these species' longevity and, mourning the threat from climate change and invasive species that looms over these ancient organisms, contemplates what these creatures might teach us 'as a metaphor for the brevity of human history in the face of true persistence.' In his quest, Fortey treks to a variety of far-flung locales, from the quaint fishing villages perched on Delaware Bay to the stark, windswept cliffs of Mistaken Point on the coast of Newfoundland, and misty Chinese mountain peaks ribbed with primeval stands of gingko trees. Despite the odd title, even those squeamish about worms will find Fortey's enthusiastic excavations charming. Agent: David Godwin Associates Limited." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Synopsis" by , One of the world's most gifted natural scientists--acclaimed author of Dry Storeroom No 1, Life, Earth, and Trilobite--now gives us a fascinating book that reveals what the narratives of living creatures tell us about the history of evolution.


Evolution does not simply obliterate its tracks as more advanced organisms evolve. Scattered across the globe, organisms and ecosystems that survive from far earlier times can speak to us of seminal events in the history of life. It is these animals and plants that Richard Fortey visits in the field, taking the reader on a voyage to the exotic, and sometimes everyday, places in which they live. Landscapes are evoked, boulders are turned over, seas are paddled as he explains the importance of understanding plants and animals as pivotal points in evolutionary history itself. Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms is a journey across the globe and across time that weaves a rich and brilliantly delineated tapestry of how life and our planet have evolved together.

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