Scottish geologist Charles Lyell quipped that the present is the key to the past. To say that the reverse also holds is more than just circular reasoning. Felisa Smith, a professor in ecology and evolutionary biology, studies extinct mammals and applies this knowledge to the present. This book is a neatly crafted package that gives the reader all the required background knowledge, while its case studies make for fascinating reading. (Spoiler alert: packrat middens are my new favourite discovery.)
Every student of evolution will be familiar with the peppered moth, Biston betularia. It is right up there with the Galápagos finches as an example of evolution happening right under our noses. The story of the rapid spread of dark moths in response to the soot deposition that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, and the reversal of this pattern when air pollution abated, is iconic. Yet, as Emeritus Professor of biology Bruce S. Grant shows, there are a lot more subtleties to it than my one-liner suggests. Observing Evolution details research by himself and many others, and along the way addresses criticism – legitimate and otherwise – levelled at some of the earlier research. Eminently readable, this is a personal story of the rise, fall, and ultimate redemption of one of the most famous textbook examples of evolution in action.
Fossils are our prime source of information about life in the past. As I delve deeper into palaeontology and earth sciences, the process of fossilisation increasingly fascinates me. How does dead biological tissue fossilise? What information is lost, what is added, and what is distorted in the process? And, ultimately, how true or filtered a picture of past life does the fossil record provide? The edited book Fossilization brings together scientists from a range of disciplines working on cutting-edge topics. The result is a well-written if somewhat eclectic collection of chapters that addressed some of my queries and also answered questions I did not even know I had.
This year will probably go down in history as the one we would all rather forget. Fortunately, there were many amazing books being published to take your mind off things for a moment. As I expected, this was a somewhat less productive year, where I read and reviewed 74 books.
For those who do not feel like trawling through that many reviews, here is my personal top 5 of the most impactful, most beautiful, and most thought-provoking books I read during 2020.
Say fossils and what comes to mind are the big, the bad, and the sexy: dinosaurs, pterosaurs, marine reptiles – in short, macrofossils. But perhaps more important and certainly more numerous are the microfossils. Fossils so small that you need a microscope to see them. In this richly illustrated book, French geologist and micropalaeontologist Patrick De Wever offers bite-sized insights into a discipline that rarely gets mainstream attention but undergirds many human endeavours.
To figure out how old a tree is, all you have to do is count its rings, and some truly ancient trees grace the pages of this book. But, as tree-ring researcher Valerie Trouet shows, that is the least fascinating thing you can derive from wood. Revealing the inner workings of the academic field formally known as dendrochronology, Tree Story is an immersive jaunt through archaeology, palaeoclimatology, and environmental history. A beautifully written and designed book, it highlights the importance and usefulness of tree rings in reconstructing past climate and linking it to human history.
Reptiles are an incredibly diverse animal group with a long and complex evolutionary history, conquering land, skies, and seas multiple times. Continued discoveries of both living reptiles and fossil material are adding more details and layers to the story of their evolution. A review of how they all relate to each other has been long overdue, and geologist and curator of Vertebrate Paleontology Hans-Dieter Sues here takes on that challenge. The resulting The Rise of Reptiles is a technical and heavily illustrated reference work for the serious zoologist and palaeontologist.
When it comes to Ice Age fame, sabertooth cats are right up there with mammoths. And within the sabertooth cats, the best-known group is the genus Smilodon. Even if you have not heard that name, you will very likely have seen it depicted. Rather than a pop-science book, this edited collection brings together the who-is-who of sabertooth palaeontology to provide a thorough and technical overview of the current state of the field. And if I did not know any better, I would say that the research community has developed an almost unhealthy obsession with this cat’s large canine teeth.
Spontaneous generation, the idea that life can arise out of non-living matter, is both alive and dead today. Current science accepts the idea that at some point in the distant past, complex self-replicating molecules arose, which formed the starting point of billions of years of unicellular life. But there is an obsolete side to this theory. For millennia, philosophers and scientists believed that all sorts of creatures could arise spontaneously from the mud and slime this book refers to. In the late 1850s, The French microbiologist Louis Pasteur performed experiments that definitively put the nail in the coffin for this idea.