Feature

Book of the week: Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind by Richard Fortey

The author, a paleontologist, wonders why some species survived while their near-relatives died out.

(Knopf, $29)

“What makes a survivor?” asked Jennie Erin Smith in The Wall Street Journal. As a paleontologist, Richard Fortey spent four decades studying life-forms that didn’t make the cut. So when he retired several years ago from London’s Natural History Museum, he decided to turn his eye to those that have endured. Fortey’s fascinating new field book begins in a dark, dank mud bank on Delaware Bay, where he sits, he writes, “with my notebook and a fluttering heart.” He’s there to observe the mating of horseshoe crabs, those near-relatives of the long-departed trilobite. Having persisted some 250 million years after their ancestors fell by the evolutionary wayside, horseshoe crabs are, for lack of a better description, living fossils. Why them? It’s a question that Fortey lingers over as he scours the globe, digging in the ooze for creatures with connections to deepest history. 

“‘My notebook and a fluttering heart’—what a phrase,” said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. Fortey is “equal parts naturalist and poet.” One moment, he’s comparing the traits of two arthropods, the next he’s likening the horseshoe crab’s spiny head shield to the eyebrows of clerics, and its pincers to the appendages of Edward Scissorhands. He’s equally lyrical with velvet worms, lungfish, musk oxen, jellyfish—anything that can’t seem to be killed off. After a time, “you want to lug him home to explain the mysteries of your own backyard.” Not that he never hits a dull patch; “your enthusiasm about sponges, for example, will not equal his.” But while this book never supplies a unifying theory about the secrets of species survival, it proves to be “not only well built but emotionally profound, too.” Fortey, now in his 60s, recognizes that time runs out even for the survivors.

That’s not about to bring him down, said Christina Thompson in The Boston Globe. Fortey exhibits an insatiable capacity for wonder even though there’s a gloomy thought never far from his mind—that we humans are the perpetrators of a planetwide extinction event that already rivals any caused by meteorites or glacial upheaval. Fortey’s answer is to keep marveling at what surrounds us. In fact, his descriptions of the locales he visits—from Mallorca to Ecuador to the geysers of Yellowstone—“constitute one of the great pleasures” of a book that speaks “to the 10-year-old fossil-collector trapped in us all.” As he cheerfully exhorts us, “There is still so much to learn.”

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