Survivors and the Terminator

The story of biological evolution recounts the ways that most plants and animals have changed over time as small bodily variations improved their odds of survival. But what about those species, fitted successfully to stable environments early on, that have changed very little? Are any such ancient species (besides the microbes) still around today?

Yes. In Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time Has Left Behind, Richard Fortey tracks down some present-day creatures that look much like their fossilizeds ancestors from millions of years ago. Oddly, their stories of sameness impress me with as strong a sense of evolution’s power as the stories of other species, including ours., that have changed to adapt.

Horseshoe crabs, after half a billion years, still crowd the beach. (

Horseshoe crabs, after half a billion years, still crowd the beach.

In the opening chapter, Fortey is on a beach in Delaware on the night of the annual horseshoe crab orgy, when thousands of male horseshoe crabs come ashore to clamber on top of the females. Horseshoe crabs have  been scrambling up beaches for 500 million years.

In the darkness along Delaware Bay the scratching percussion of the crabs provides an unmusical accompaniment on an imaginary journey backwards in time: to an era well before mammals and flowering plants; a time before the acme of giant reptiles, long before Tyrannosaurus; backwards again through an extinction event 250,000,000 years ago that wiped nine-tenths of life from the earth; and then back still further, before a time of lush coal forests to a stage in the earth’s history when the land was stark and life was cradled in the sea.

firmoss (

Four hundred mya, plants like this Norwegian Huperzia moved from the water to land and were among the first to acquire the crucial, stiffened water-conducting tubes that enabled them to stand upright and compete for light.

In the other chapters, Fortey describes the velvet worm in New Zealand, the lovely Norwegian fir moss, the not-so-lovely lungfish. The photo captions here mention their particular keys to adaptive success.

It helps that their environments have changed very little. “Survival is about endurance of habitat.” One habitat that endures is the tidal flat, where the shallow sea meets the muddy shore. Organisms here can burrow, find oxygen in the water and air, find food through filtering or scavenging. Here are horseshoe crabs, snails, small fish, many plants. “This habitat does seem like a good place to be for an organism with conservative tendencies. If its own place survives, then so will the beast. It is the right place to weather mass extinctions that affect many other environments more severely.…Stick-in-the-muds last longest.”

As for the durable species themselves, a few characteristics recur. “Many…seem to have long life spans.” Horseshoe crabs take a decade to mature. And some enduring animals invest more resources in fewer progeny by producing “relatively large eggs or few offspring.” But there are no fool-proof formulae. “[T]he luck for old timers will eventually run out. It always does.”

lungfish (

In Australia, Fortey finds the lungfish that dates back 400 mya, “the great survivor among the vertebrates, the animals with backbones.” With lungs, these sea creatures, in the transition to the land, can gulp air when the river runs low on oxygen.

What about humans? When will our time run out? Fortey doesn’t make guesses, but he has a hard label for us.

[Early man] may have hunted edible mammals and birds to the point of obliteration even in his earliest days; he was the first species that deserves to be called the Terminator….The extinction event that is happening right now is the first one in history that is the responsibility of a single species. There’s no meteorite this time, no exceptional volcanic eruptions, no ‘snowball earth,’ just us, prospering at the expense of other species.

He is confident about the survival of only one type of organism. “I am not worried about the survival of bacteria. They will be there to rot down the last bodies of the last humans, and then the wheel of life will have turned full circle.” So ends the book.


Global Warming and the Cold War

When I was 14, my father brought me down to the furnace area in our basement to show me the water, food, and other supplies he had stockpiled to the ceiling. He gave me memory tips for finding my way to his hometown in North Dakota and the drug store where “they will take you in” if the East coast was bombed. I remember watching Kennedy on television in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis the first year I was at college and thinking I might never get home. Into the 1980s, the nightmare was that if the shock waves and the fallout didn’t get us, the global chill from the atomic dust would.

The melting (

The melting Arctic (

Today the grand anxiety is of global warming instead of nuclear winter. Here in New Jersey, though, the concern is subdued. The state energy plan is all about natural gas and new pipelines, it’s a rare house that has solar panels, and people build new homes, on stilts at least, along the water.

The complacency about global warming comes in part from our disconnect from the environment. Rain and temperature are important to people according to how much or how little difference they seem to make in our lives. Perhaps early farmers and hunters, closer to the earth, would have reacted more readily to predictions of hotter summers or worse flooding. But in American suburbia, environment is mostly background. Weather is good or bad, a day is “beautiful” or not. The climate doesn’t feel closely connected to the food we buy or how well our houses keep us warm. Climate of course intrudes when storms hit or temperatures are extreme, but otherwise our human world is just that—a world settled and run by humans, not one bounded by nature.

We know better. We need to heed the data and find the will to act. We won’t have the fall of the Soviet Union to help get us through this time.

Human Evolution, Backward and Forward

From Dutch graphic designer Jurian Möller, here’s a striking one-minute video that shows the evolution of humans from the present backwards and then forward again. At the bottom, the video tracks the number of years in the past along with the type of creature shown. The sound track hints at other changes along the way; listen for the chirping birds and the bellowing dinosaurs. And look for the big transitions, from water to land and from four legs to two.

Before I watched this for the first time, I wasn’t sure what I would see, how much of the whole variety of life over the ages would get included in one minute, all our distant cousins—plants, insects, snakes, birds—or just the direct line of our grandparent animals. How many years ago would be considered “our evolution”? 20 million years? 200 million? 2 billion?

See for yourself.

Our basic shape hasn’t changed that much— a head, four appendages, and a back end. The walking/swimming motion throughout the video nicely suggests how our movement triggered much of our evolution.

How long has “our” evolution taken? That depends how you define “us.” Before the 550 million years shown here, it took three billion years—nearly six times as long—for single cells to evolve from simple to complex. Was that part of human evolution? In any event, there were no complex bodies that moved and mated until about the time in the video.

Finally, our forebears in the video blithely walk right through several mass extinctions, not acknowledged in the video, including the largest one 250 million years ago when over 90 percent of species died off. Then and at other times, our steps could have been our last. We were lucky.