Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds by Thomas Halliday

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A brilliant paleobiologist’s travel guide into deep time, from the Ice Age to the first appearance of microbial life 550 million years ago, that explores life’s adaptability and fragility

Taken in isolation, a fossil can be a fantastic lesson on anatomy, on shape, on form, and evolution. But no fossil, whether animal, plant, fungus, or microbe, ever existed in isolation. Each lived within an ecosystem, an interaction among myriad species and the environment, a complex mishmash of life, weather, and chemistry also dependent on the spin of the Earth, the position of the continents, and the minerals in the soil or the water.

Paleobiologist Thomas Halliday has mined the most recent paleontological advances to reveal characteristics of life in the distant past and rendered them here with a novelist’s eye for detail and drama. The fossil record is transformed from impressions on rocks and taxonomies into vibrant and thriving communities, the remnants of real, living organisms that showed off bright feathers or flowers, called and buzzed, courted and fell sick. Halliday resurrects a bustling scene on a 7,000-km long glass reef in the Jurassic; the rapid refilling of the Mediterranean salt basin 5.3 million years ago; and scenes from the polar rainforest of Antarctica 41 million years ago.

But the biology of the past is not just a curiosity. Ecological principles that apply to modern tropical rainforests and the lichen-world of the tundra also applied to the ecosystems of the past. By bringing us up close to the intricate relationships of these ancient worlds he allows us to discover the inner working—and the fragility—of our own. Otherlands shows us the last five hundred million years not as an endless expanse of unfathomable time, but as a series of worlds, simultaneously fabulous and familiar.

Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds by Thomas Halliday