Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind.
Richard Fortey, a paleontologist who specialized in trilobites (a group of extinct arthropods) at the Natural History Museum in London, is the award-winning author of Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth (1997), Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution (2000), The Hidden Landscape: A Journey into the Geological Past (1993), Earth: An Intimate History ([EXCELLENT] Mar/Apr 2005), and Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum ([EXCELLENT] SELECTION Nov/Dec 2008).
THE TOPIC: In his life's work, Richard Fortey focused on the fossil record. Here, he sets himself the task of exploring the "living fossils," or those "messengers from deep geological time" that have survived nearly unchanged throughout the earth's cataclysms over the last 450 million years (including the breakup of continents and two mass extinctions). His search for such messengers (many of them invertebrates) takes him around the world--from Yellowstone's hot springs to the West Australian seas. In the New Zealand rainforests, he examines the elusive velvet worm as well as the reptilian tuatara; he searches for a ferreret (a Mallorcan midwife toad) in the Sierra de Tramontana in Mallorca and watches as the hardy horseshoe crab scrambles to mate in Delaware Bay. Showing how each living fossil fits into the evolution of life, Fortey argues that his survivors offer "a precious legacy of information from distant days and vanished worlds."
Knopf. 352 pages. $28.95. ISBN: 9780307263612
Boston Globe [EXCELLENT]
"A lively writer with a penchant for slightly goofy jokes, a vast storehouse of arcane knowledge, and an inexhaustible fund of enthusiasm for his subject, Fortey is the perfect interpreter and guide to the marvels and mysteries of archaic existence. ... Fortey's descriptions of these places are charming little exercises in travel writing and constitute one of the great pleasures of the book." CHRISTINA THOMPSON
NYTimes Book Review [EXCELLENT]
"[I]t's not always easy to tell where you are in the world, and from what geological period the beast at hand comes. That worm in the mud flat is where? And derives from the Ordovician? Or is it the Devonian? But even suffering some befuddlement, the reader is inspired to take the very long view." CONSTANCE CASEY
"The view afforded will probably be most intriguing to those already possessing an appetite for natural science, but novices will delight in Fortey's personable and apt descriptions. The chitinous peaks of a horseshoe crab's shell are 'rather like the perky eyebrows I associate with clerics of a certain age'; seaweed 'swirls like a saucy Spanish skirt.'" CHLOE SCHAMA
Wall Street Journal [EXCELLENT]
"The global scope and frequent-flier pace of Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms, added to the fact that Mr. Fortey is reduced to being a reporter now and then, can make for a more frenetic read than his previous, more meditative works on creatures he knows intimately, and from rocks, no less. Still, half the book is taken up with single-celled organisms and invertebrates, which is a good thing." JENNIE ERIN SMITH
"Time travel becomes possible in [these] pages. ... Several ancient plants, fish, and amphibians later, Fortey has assembled what amounts to a menagerie of resistance: organisms that have stood the test of evolutionary time by arriving at a unique survival strategy and sticking to it, millennia be damned." BOB GRANT
Survival, Richard Fortey writes, "is a matter of carrying on a line of inheritance through the rebuffs thrown up by history, where luck may well play a part, but will be of no avail unless the enduring organism has appropriate qualities." This might sound like the start of a formidable scientific tome, but Fortey makes Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms accessible--relevant, even--to the lay reader. Think of it as armchair time travel from a lively, somewhat eccentric, but above all engaging and knowledgeable avuncular professor. Sure, it's possible to confuse one geological period with another or lose track of Fortey's live subjects, numerous as they are. But his infectious enthusiasm will captivate even those who thought they knew all about archaea and stromatolite formations--or those of us who simply want to learn more.