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Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 10, 2012

4.4 out of 5 stars 39 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"Mr. Fortey is as vivid and charming about live things as he's long been about dead ones, perhaps even more so. Reading this book is like stepping into the field with a man who's equal parts naturalist and poet, equal parts E.O. Wilson and Paul Muldoon. It's a bewitching combination . . . You begin to love Mr. Fortey as much as he loves horseshoe crabs. You want to throw him over your shoulder, like a big stuffed animal won at a fair, and lug him home to explain the mysteries of your backyard . . . His book is not only well built and witty but emotionally profound too . . . an inducement to be as awake and observant as possible." —The New York Times

"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." —The Boston Globe   

"[A] delightful account . . . even those squeamish about worms will find Fortey’s enthusiastic excavations charming." —PW (starred)

"In this fascinating, well-written book, [Fortey] offers a worldwide tour of places whose lands and waters shelter extraordinary forms of life that have overcome mass extinctions, sea-level changes, ice ages and other obstacles to survive into the present. Taking great joy in his trip back in time, Fortey plays both adventurer and detective as he searches for these ancients . . . Informative, engrossing and delightful." —Kirkus (starred review) 

"A magnificent book . . . Fortey’s intense, humane passion for everything that lives and has lived is amply proven on every page . . . This book (like all his others) demonstrates that Fortey is, principally, not a scientist who can write, but a writer who does science." —Literary Review
"Erudite and engaging." —Times Literary Supplement

"A wide-ranging survey . . . Fortey keeps the long discussion lighthearted . . . Instructive and entertaining." —Booklist
"Fortey leads us on a ramble that is not only global but takes us through aeons, to look at creatures that haven’t changed much for hundreds of millions and in some cases billions of years . . . It’s a great story, and no one is better equipped to tell it than Fortey . . . Excellent natural history." —The Guardian
"Fortey has a unique way with the most humble of life forms, an infectious curiosity that can slide into near rapture, coupled with a lack of presumption that many of his peers I the field of evolutionary biology lack entirely." —London Evening Standard
"An exploration of the world that went before. Fortey retains his characteristic ability to paint vivid word pictures of times long ago and places far away…Passionate, clear and comprehensive." —The Telegraph
"Fortey tells a series of fascinating stories that serve to bring alive what is for most of us an unfamiliar past. Under his tutelage, fossils of all kinds—survivors or not—seem to come alive." —Financial Times

About the Author

Richard Fortey was a senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London until his retirement in 2006. He is the author of several books, including Fossils: The Key to the Past; The Hidden Landscape, which won the Natural World Book of the Year in 1993; Life: A Natural History of Four Billion Years of Life on Earth; Trilobite!, which was short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize; Earth: An Intimate History; and Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum. He has won the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing About Science from Rockefeller University and the Michael Faraday Prize from the Royal Society. He was president of the Geological Society of London during its bicentennial year in 2007 and is a Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature. He lives in Oxfordshire.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (April 10, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307263614
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307263612
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #163,731 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I bought this based on a recent NY Times review. Sad to say, I wasn't familiar with his other books. I often buy books based on good reviews that end up becoming treasured additions to my library, and very rarely find an author with whom I was previously unfamiliar whose entire oeuvre I then purchase--this is one of those very few. This book will become one of my gift-giving ideas, and I can't wait to read the rest of his works. I only hope, now that he's officially retired from his day job, that he's writing another book. Maybe it'll be published before next weekend so I can avoid yard work then as well.

The book is an engaging description of extinct organisms and so-called "living fossils" compared to their closest living (or recently living) counterparts, and how they fit into the evolution of life, as far back as the fossil record allows (which is a labored and poor synopsis on my part). Fortey traces back the "tree of life" to the earliest branch points, or as early as possible, and discusses those branch points using examples such as the titular crab and worm. Indeed, the horseshoe crab and velvet worm in this case are distinct examples and more or less metaphors; this book is NOT about those two organisms alone. So, if you're looking for a how-to guide for raising, viewing, or eating either, this isn't it.

It's much too short at approximately 300 pages, and many details are glossed over or assumed as understood. It's also one of the most well-written and engaging books on natural science I've ever read; I started it in the morning, and didn't stop until I finished it that night. Then I pulled out some Dawkins, Gould and Darwin, and began to read sections of both along with different sections of Fortey's book.
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Format: Hardcover
Fortey is a wonderful science writer. Having read his "Trilobite," "Life," and "Earth: An Intimate History," and loved the first two (the last, not so much), this newest book sounded fabulous. I'm something of a fanatic about evolutionary history, and there hasn't been (to my knowledge) another book devoted to primitive living organisms. This is an extremely interesting subject; anybody who knows what a velvet worm is will likely be hooked. The problem? The subject is simply too technical to be covered in a general-interest book like this, which lacks detailed black and white illustrations, and which does not include chapters devoted to communicating some of the basic scientific principles that will support the rest of the book. Fortey knows that, so he ended up writing a book that uses lots of anecdotes and a dizzying array of writing devices to make it charming and accessible to a general audience. But in the end, the personal anecdotes and breezy writing can't really compensate for the lack of scientific content, which should be the star.

At no point does Fortey seriously discuss what it means for these organisms to be 'primitive' or 'living fossils.' He superficially mentions some of the issues, and talks about the irony of the name 'living fossils,' but the kind of rigorous discussion of cladistics and genetic drift that you would need to have a serious understanding, well, they are absent, as if Fortey purposefully decided it would be too much for a general readership. The science is just not there. Instead there are lively anecdotes. The best way I can summarize this book is that it's like an Attenborough production about primitive organisms was set to print. "Look at this brachiopod. It's an odd one, eh?
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This fascinating account of the history of species that are living today, but have ancient origins, is so well told that it is hard to put down. Not only does it discuss horseshoe crabs, which I knew about, but representatives of every class of life including worms, fungi, plants, bacteria, archaea, and on and on. I like to draw and paint pictures of organisms and their environments from the past, but I worry that I have the plants and backgrounds right for the time. Now I know better that I am often safer than I knew. If I paint a Triceratops, I can safely add water lilies to the magnolias in the background. It's the kind of book that answers lots of questions you didn't even know you had. I only wish there were more pictures or drawings as the text goes along so I don't have to keep hopping in and out of Google search to find images as I read.
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Format: Hardcover
Creationists who think themselves clever sometimes spout this argument: "If evolution is true, and humans came from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?" There is just too much wrong in this question for an easy science-oriented response. The creationist who wanted to come closer to asking an intelligent question might think of asking, "If evolution is true, then why are there still horseshoe crabs?" After all, horseshoe crabs have hung around and look about the same as their fossils from 450 million years ago (of course, a strict reading of the Bible precludes any such age); if evolution has been at work, where are their changes? Richard Fortey has the answer in _Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind_ (Knopf). He seems to have a special affection for horseshoe crabs because they have some similarities to the trilobites that were the focus of his paleontological research (and about which he wrote in _Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution_). However, less well-known animals like velvet worms are here, and mounds of stromatolites (formed by blue-green bacteria), sponges, ginkgoes, lungfish, lampreys, platypuses, cockroaches, and many more. Fortey has tried to get to see most of these animals in their natural habitat, so the book is a bit of a travelogue, too, brightly written with genuine affection for his fellow researchers and for the animals he gets to see.

This time the paleontologist is writing about living creatures rather than fossilized ones. These animals are often called "living fossils," with an appreciation of just how contradictory such a paired-word term is. There have been changes; no creatures survive for millions of years unchanged.
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