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

  • Richard Fortey
  • Knopf
  • 352 pp.

Though fossils can’t be living, the author describes a variety of organisms on Earth that offer us a glimpse of the past.

Reviewed by Forest J. Gahn

Every bone, every cell in our bodies is a record of life history. A central premise of Richard Fortey’s latest book, Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms, is that all species on Earth have a unique, but not mutually exclusive, biography worth sharing. As a paleontologist, the author is trained to use fossils to interpret the record of Earth’s life, but as a natural historian, he more broadly incorporates the living and the dead to tell the tale of the biosphere.

Extant species of ancient pedigree that seemingly refuse to evolve are commonly termed “living fossils.” In this book, Fortey restricts the definition of living fossils to organisms that were first found as fossils and only later discovered alive, while noting that the phrase is a “paradox and an oxymoron rolled into one.” Fossils can’t be living, of course, and yet there are many organisms on Earth today that offer a glimpse of the past.

Fortey begins with a visit to Delaware Bay and the horseshoe crabs that congregate there by the thousands to mate and lay eggs. Opening with arthropods, he argues, is a deviation from the norm. Rather than commencing at the beginning of life’s narrative, he starts near the middle of the story. Such segmented denizens provide a seemingly irresistible starting point given Fortey’s particular penchant for trilobites, extinct relatives of horseshoe crabs. Indeed, many of his other books begin with trilobites, including Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth and Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum. He’s even dedicated an entire book to his favored topic in Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution. Nearly every chapter of Horseshoes includes references to trilobites, and they’re featured on the dust jacket.

Often portrayed as a literary David Attenborough, Fortey describes his chosen subjects in vibrant, intimate detail. After a protracted sojourn at Delaware Bay, Fortey ventures across the globe to encounter organisms with ancient roots, including velvet worms (which aren’t worms at all) in New Zealand, archaeans in Yellowstone, brachiopods and gingkos in China, the Wollemi pine in Australia, lampreys in Lithuania, tinamous in Ecuador and cockroaches in his kitchen.

As Fortey visits species in their natural habitats, he settles into a writing scheme that is engrossing but borderline formulaic. First he describes the habitat of the organisms, artfully engaging the senses. This is followed by a first encounter that invokes curiosity and wonder. Finally, he places the species into an evolutionary and historical context. Superimposed over this is a circuitous string of anecdotes that add interest and humor, but sometimes detract from the essence of his purpose. Regardless, it’s a fun ride. It’s almost as if you’re one of Fortey’s students on a great global field trip that’s running a little behind schedule.

Although Horseshoes is a grand adventure in natural history, it’s a little light on science. Those interested in the more technical aspects of evolution and ecology will probably find the works provided in the “Further Reading” section of value. The book appears to target readers of casual interest in the natural world, but Fortey does not shy away from scientific language. Helpful are a geologic timescale, glossary and numerous illustrations.

Horseshoes is more than a world tour of the seemingly defunct. Fortey addresses the roles of climate change, movement of Earth’s tectonic plates, and mass extinctions in the history of life. Many natural phenomena have driven the rise and demise of species, and although some organisms have remained conservative in their form and function for millions, if not billions, of years, they’ve continued to evolve. Fortey argues that it’s a fallacy to view “living fossils” as organisms that defy evolution.

Humans commonly perceive themselves as the pinnacle of life, but Fortey suggests that we are not adaptively superior to bacteria or invertebrates, organisms that precede us by millions of years: “Jellyfish can be as inventive as mammals, in their own spineless and quivering way.” He also laments that anthropocentrism and a disregard for other species leads to practices such as shark-finning and inadequate conservation efforts. Comparing humans to cockroaches, he is reminded of “another animal that is too numerous, that seems to guzzle everything immoderately and may finish up turning on his fellows.” Again referring to jellyfish: “Bells and dangling tentacles will see us impertinent humans disappear into oblivion.”

Forest J. Gahn is an invertebrate paleontologist who specializes in the evolutionary ecology of marine life, especially echinoderms. He is currently working as a professor of geology at Brigham Young University in Idaho.

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