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Flipping the Lids on Marine Life


This summer, be the brains on the beach and now thine marine life up close and icky-amazing, with this gee-wiz evolutionary tale of horseshoe ‘arthropods’ and (not-so) velvet worms of the sea.

In Richard Fortey’s Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms, the little-boy-excitable author tells the “Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind,” as the subtitle reads.

One of those “left-behinds,” horseshoe crabs, we were all too up close and personal with, when as a boy we spent our summers in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and loathed June’s H.P. Lovecraft-style mating season. When horseshoe crabs would mount each other in football-field-long clusters dotting the surface of the East Coast’s gray and punishing waves, their spidery clutches and shells bumping into our skinny little bodies, and setting off “Shark!” freak outs and generally making swimming avoidable until they moved on or just drifted up on the shore, sun-basting like old pie shells into marine fossils we made Army helmets out of. Itchy.

We sure found them fascinating, upturning them with debris and sea cucumbers, poking their innards, tossing them into beach bonfires to crackle and pop…We’ll leave the worms to Mr. Fortey, who may be the best writer on such things “out there” in the last frontier.

Below are some terrific and funny excerpts from a recent New York Times Book Review essay by Dwight Garner. We think they’ll make you want to nab up this “weird-science” inclusion, which has quite the handsome jacket to boot. Chuck it on your driftwood coffee table if you’re not the reading type; somebody’s going to walk away with it:

“In this book the author travels the planet, looking at life forms that, as Darwin wrote, ‘may almost be called living fossils.’ These include not just horseshoe crabs and velvet worms, which live in dead trees, but algae mats, lungfish, musk oxen, various herbs, sponges, jellyfish, clams and cockroaches. The life forms nothing can seem to kill. Upon Keith Richards, alas, he does not stumble.”

Funny writer! And he even brings us back to Delaware!

“At that orgy on the Delaware beach Mr. Fortey delivers real science, reminding us, for example, that horseshoe crabs aren’t crabs at all, and yet both are arthropods. He dilates on their history, their character and what threatens them still. But he also describes them, wonderfully, as resembling ‘inverted colanders.’ The sharp spines on their head shields remind him of ‘the perky eyebrows I associate with clerics of a certain age.’ He describes their hue as “the kind of color I used to get as a kid when I mixed all my powder paints together.”

“Paleontologists, of course, study prehistoric life. They stare intently at fossils. They obsess over long-dead things. “Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms” is thus a departure for Mr. Fortey. It’s a book about living creatures, about the old-timers, the survivors, the organisms and ecologies that, he writes, have survived many mass extinction events and are “messengers from deep geological time”.

“Mr. Fortey is a British paleontologist who worked for many years at the Natural History Museum in London. (He retired in 2006.) His urbane and erudite books include “Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution” and “Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth.”

“Can I quote Mr. Fortey on horseshoe crabs a moment longer? Noting the pincers at the bottom of one, he says, ‘I am reminded of the manual toolkit owned by the eponymous hero of the movie ‘Edward Scissorhands.’ When he flips a stranded horseshoe crab over, it moves away with ‘the slow progress of a confused old lady on a walker.’”

We sure do concur with reviewer Garner here: “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.” Snails, anyone?

“Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind,” by Richard Fortey; Illustrated. 332 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.95.