Otherlands: Journeys in Earth’s Extinct Ecosystems

Random. Feb. 2022. 416p. ISBN 9780593132883. $28. NAT HIST
Paleobiologist and evolutionary biologist Halliday (Univ. of Birmingham) takes readers on a compelling voyage through ancient landscapes. He works backward through the fossil record, beginning with the most recent ice age at end-Pleistocene to the emergence of multicellular creatures over 550 million years ago. Organized around 16 fossil sites, each chapter explores a general theme (e.g., Earth’s cycles, humans’ first appearance, etc.); maps charting the planet’s physical changes lead off each section, and drawings highlight some extinct species. The book was conceived as a “naturalist’s travel book” and employs a style that has been aptly described as “lyrical”—which is remarkable given the book’s deeply rooted research (virtually every paragraph has a supporting footnote). Fantastic flora and fauna abound, and Halliday stages unforgettable scenes such as the Miocene’s mile-high waterfall as the eastern Mediterranean fills, or under-sea tectonic plate movements as sensed by Jurassic-period ammonites. Along the way, readers cannot fail but notice unsettling similarities between doomed ecosystems of the distant past and current environmental crises. In an epilogue, the author expands on the lessons deep-time can teach us.
VERDICT Halliday’s brilliantly imaginative reconstructions, his deft marshalling of complex science, offers a thrilling experience of deep-time nature for pop-science buffs.
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