Book Review

Karin Hollricher

David Attenborough:
Life on Air.

Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: BBC Books (20 May 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1849900019
ISBN-13: 978-1849900010
€36 (hardcover), €15 (paperback), €35 (audio CD).

David Attenborough:
Lost Worlds – Vanished Lives.

Actors: Sir David Attenborough
Producers: Mike Salisbury
Format: PAL
Language: English
Subtitles For The Hearing Impaired: English
Region: Region 2
Aspect Ratio: 4:3 - 1.33:1
Number of discs: 2
Classification: Exempt
Studio: 2entertain
DVD Release Date: 24 Sept. 2012
Run Time: 156 minutes
€6.66/ £6.90 at the BBC online shop.

Paul Taylor & Aaron O’Dea:
A History of Life in 100 Fossils.

Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: The Natural History Museum (4 Sept. 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0565093479
ISBN-13: 978-0565093471

David Attenborough talking about Anomalocaris, a mighty Cambrian (541 to 485 million years ago) predator. Photo: Royal Ontario Museum

A Life from Bygone Days

Why keep looking for the newest material when the best has been available for decades? David Attenborough’s legendary 1980s fossil documentaries are still available on DVD – and remain unbeaten, argues your Lab Times reviewer.

When thinking of fossils, gigantic skeletons, impressive bones and frightening teeth spring to mind. But ancient life has a lot more to offer than “just” dinosaurs that went extinct some 65 million years ago. The evolution of life goes back much further and the oldest fossils found are 3.5 billion years old: stromatolites, communities of millions of generations of cyanobacteria and other microbes, found in Western Australia and South Africa. How fascinating is that? Enormously!

One of those who transformed individual enthusiasm for fossils into a great public passion by using his exceptional love of nature and science is Sir David Attenborough. “I have been fascinated by [fossils] for as long as I can remember. Hitting a block of stone with a hammer, seeing it fall apart to reveal a coiled shell unlike anything alive today, beautiful in its shape and perfection, is an excitement that I first experienced as a small boy and one that still stirs in me just as powerfully as it ever did,” he wrote in his memoirs Life on Air. The Briton is one of the most skillful and enjoyably persuasive, yet genuine editors and commentators of nature documentaries.

How fascinating is that? Enormously!

Yes, your reviewer is an avowed admirer of this naturalist, who, in a profoundly scientific but not terribly complicated or boring approach, reported on life, animals and plants, ancient times and current developments until he retired from TV in 2010 at the age of 83. In his endearing manner, Attenborough investigated everything living: he climbed mountains and trees, rooted around in the soil and dived in oceans to take his viewers to the most interesting organisms, even if they had been dead for ages. The result is his 4-part BBC documentary Lost Worlds – Vanished Lives (originally broadcast in April 1989). This 26-year-old series remains as fascinating as if it was broadcast yesterday.

The history of life is hidden in the ground. Since English geologist William Smith (nicknamed “Strata Smith”), discovered at the end of the 18th century that some fossils only occur in certain strata and that these strata must therefore be of the same age, geologists and palaeontologists have rummaged through limestone, shale, tar and sandstone to unravel the history of life. Attenborough shows, “the way fossils were formed, the techniques that were used to free them from their matrix, and the clues that palaeontologists used to deduce what long-extinct animals had looked like in life”.

Strata Smith’s discovery

Enthusiastic as ever, Sir David visited famous sites hiding the most delicate fossil structures and offering exceptionally detailed glimpses of life forms that disappeared from Earth long ago. He followed the stream of life buried in the Burgess Shale in Canada where Middle Cambrian fossils (508 million years old) were found, to the appearance of big mammals like saber-toothed cats, wolves and bisons, excavated from the La Brea tar pit in the centre of Los Angeles.

Now that you, dear reader, have been exposed to the ancient world by a vintage film from 1989, let’s look at a brand-new book, A History of Life in 100 Fossils. Recounting histories in lists of 100 is undoubtable trendy. One may explore the history of architecture in 100 buildings or the history of the world in 100 objects. Those interested in the evolution of life may bury themselves in A History of Life in 100 Fossils.

Two palaeontologists, Paul Taylor and Aaron O’Dea, chose 100 well-preserved fossils to tell, “epic tales of survival and migration, evolution, and destruction”. They carry the reader off into bygone times, from the very beginning of life on Earth in the Precambrian, 3,5 billion years ago, along the timeline to the Holocene (the geo­logical epoch that started 11,700 calendar years before the present and still continues), when the ancestors of modern humans roamed the savannah and woods. Most specimens are from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum and the Natural History Museum London, where the authors work(ed).

The oldest fossils in the book (#1 of 100) are small stony examples from the Apex Chert in Western Australia, followed by the stromatolites. Scientists still debate heatedly whether or not the Apex Chert fossils, tiny filaments, are really of biological origin or not. Only recently – after the book was written – was new evidence published indicating that the filaments are not biogenic.

The Cambrian Explosion

Three billion years later and due to the massive production of oxygen, the Cambrian Explosion, beginning 542 million years ago, yielded a dramatic variety of marine life forms. Knowledge of that era has mainly come from two deposits: the Burgess Shale of British Columbia in Canada and the Maothianshan Sahels of Chengjang County in China. It was the heyday of sea animals, including the ancestors of starfish, cephalopods, sea lilies, reef building animals, water scorpions and fish. Not to forget the ubiquitous trilobites and their bitter enemies, the Anomalocaris. In their book, Taylor and O’Dea present many of them with beautiful images and interesting explanations. Then life experienced the, “mother of all mass extinctions”, as the authors write, and, “it took well over 50 million years for the diversity of marine animals to return to the pre-extinction level”.

Anomalocaris (derived from the Latin “abnormal shrimp”) is an extinct top predator, gigantic for the Cambrian era in which he lived, with a length of up to two metres. Illustration: BBC First Life

Jurassic park, followed by mammals

The next geological era, the Mesozoic Era, divided into Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous, will be familiar to most. It’s the time of dinosauriers, big insects, big plants and perhaps the most prominent fossil, the archaeopteryx, and it also ended in a mass extinction of the big guys. That gave other, smaller, younger life forms the chance to develop. And they took it: mammals. In the Cenozoic Era, mammals began to fly (as the only remaining dinosaurs, the birds, still did), and others went back to the sea. On land fauna and flora flourished relentlessly. Plants developed flowers and insects learned to fertilise them in return for sweets. And finally, the authors present their youngest fossil, a skull of Homo heidelbergensis (who evolved into H. sapiens some 130,000 years ago).

This short and naturally incomplete survey of the time scale can only provide a rough impression of all the marvelous fossils to be seen in museums or laying in their stores. Taylor and O’Dea got them out of their boxes and show cabinets and printed page-filling, wonderful pictures revealing even the most delicate structures such as the long tail wings of a pterosaur, a single celled nummulite, the bark of a 330 million year old tree Lepidodendron, the major contributor to the European coalfields. The narrations are full of anecdotes, so that reading never becomes boring or too scientific. Here and there, however, scientific terms deserved a more detailed explanation. So having a tablet on hand is apparently useful when studying The History of Life in 100 Fossils.

Though the pictures are brilliant and the text convincing, there are some shortcomings. First, the images have no scale. Fossils only micrometres in size are shown as big as the Basilosaurus cetoides (16.8 metres) and Megaloceros giganteus (3.2 metres across). Amateurs such as your reviewer would welcome having this important information presented next to the pictures and not at the end of the book – even if it interferes with the appearance of the book. And if details of a larger organism are shown, a picture of the whole would be helpful – just for clarity; especially in the case of the Anomalocaris canadensis, the top predator in the Cambrian seas.

Even the experts had problems assembling the jigsaw pieces. Again and again, palaeonto­logists had found three distinct pieces – mouth, feeding appendages and tail – and believed these fossils to belong to three separate creatures. It took years to reveal that these individual fossils belong to one animal: the Anomalocaris.

Just for the record: The time scale that your reviewer unsuccessfully sought at the beginning of the book she found at the back.

What about the Messel Pit?

Some readers might find this nitpicky. But what really irritated the reviewer is the fact that young mammals such as mini-horses, opossums and bat species found in the Messel Pit (Germany) are missing from the book. Why did the authors omit the little mammals from the Eocene, 56 million to 34 million years ago? After all, the Messel Pit fossils are amongst the most important worldwide and the site was declared, with good reason, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

Anyway, for those who are interested in the evolution of life, animals and plants, from the Precambrian until the Cenozoic Era, Taylor’s and O’Dea’s book is highly recommended – in addition to the Attenborough DVD, of course.

Letzte Änderungen: 08.07.2015