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. Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time Has left Behind 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.
I love Richard Fortey’s science writing. Two of his books are among my absolute favourites (Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth and Dry Storeroom No. 1). Perhaps because there’s an awful lot of stuff happening in my life right now, I didn’t get into this book in quite the same way as those two.
Still, it’s an extremely enjoyable book if you are a fan of paleontology and natural history. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of a “living fossil” and Fortey explores it thoroughly in this book (while explaining that the whole idea of a living fossil is a bit off-base—they may look the same, but many things will still have changed over the millennia). I am more than a little envious of Mr. Fortey, as I would dearly love to travel to see some of the creatures that he visited for this book. I mean, Horseshoe Crabs? Sign me up to go see them at spawning time! Wouldn’t you like to hold a Lungfish in Northern Australia? Or is it just me?
What I truly appreciate about Fortey’s writing is the enormous depth and breadth of knowledge of paleontology. Now, he does shine brightest when talking about invertebrates, as you would expect of a trilobite specialist, but he’s a dab hand at fish too and obviously an enthusiastic naturalist when it comes to plants and birds. I am amazed how much natural history knowledge resides in one person’s skull.
Add to that the charm of quoting poetry and literature in meaningful ways, making allusions to dance and art, and one has to admit that this is a well-rounded scholar.
Recommended for those who are fascinated with paleontology in all its glory.