The best books on curious creatures from deep time

Susan Ewing Author Of Resurrecting the Shark: A Scientific Obsession and the Mavericks Who Solved the Mystery of a 270-Million-Year-Old Fossil
By Susan Ewing

Who am I?

When I was young, I worked on fishing boats in Alaska and developed an affection for weird sea creatures. All manner of unusual marine life would come up on the line, like wild-looking sea stars, pointy-nosed skates, and alien-looking ratfish. Later, I graduated from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks with a degree in Communications. One of my early jobs was with the Washington Department of Wildlife public information department, writing about fish, as well as other wildlife-related topics. When I moved to Bozeman, Montana, I had the opportunity to create content for a museum exhibit on early life forms. That hooked me on all things paleo. It is a joy to write about and share the things I love—like oddball creatures from deep time.

I wrote...

Resurrecting the Shark: A Scientific Obsession and the Mavericks Who Solved the Mystery of a 270-Million-Year-Old Fossil

By Susan Ewing,

Book cover of Resurrecting the Shark: A Scientific Obsession and the Mavericks Who Solved the Mystery of a 270-Million-Year-Old Fossil

What is my book about?

In 1993, Alaskan artist and paleo-fish freak Ray Troll stumbled upon the weirdest fossil he had ever seen: a platter-sized spiral of tightly wound shark teeth. This chance encounter in the basement of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County sparked Troll's obsession with Helicoprion, a mysterious monster shark from deep time. In 2010, tattooed amateur strongman and returning Iraq War veteran Jesse Pruitt was also severely smitten by a Helicoprionfossil in a museum basement in Idaho. These two bizarre-shark disciples found each other, and an unconventional band of collaborators grew serendipitously around them, determined to solve the puzzle of the tooth whorl once and for all.

In this groundbreaking book, Susan Ewing reveals these revolutionary insights into what Helicoprion looked like and how the tooth whorl functioned, pushing this dazzling and awe-inspiring beast into the spotlight of modern science.

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The books I picked & why

A Fish Caught in Time

By Samantha Weinberg,

Book cover of A Fish Caught in Time

Why did I love this book?

This fascinating, nail-biter of a tale has all the elements of a novel: quirky characters, chance encounters, a determined female curator, chase scenes, mystery, and hunt for something that scientists believed existed only in the fossil record. The story begins in 1938 in South Africa on the deck of a trawler, with young Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer picking through a pile of sharks, starfish, and ratfish—to uncover a beautiful, five-foot-long fish with hard iridescent scales and limb-like fins. Weinberg brings the story, and the coelacanth, to life, weaving a narrative as breathtaking as the fish itself. I enjoyed this book immensely!

By Samantha Weinberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Fish Caught in Time as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A gripping story of obsession, adventure and the search for our oldest surviving ancestor - 400 million years old - a four-limbed dinofish!

In 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a young South African museum curator, caught sight of a specimen among a fisherman's trawl that she knew was special. With limb-like protuberances culminating in fins the strange fish was unlike anything she had ever seen. The museum board members dismissed it as a common lungfish, but when Marjorie eventually contacted Professor JLB Smith, he immediately identified her fish as a coelacanth - a species known to have lived 400 million years ago,…

Book cover of Monarchs of the Sea: The Extraordinary 500-Million-Year History of Cephalopods

Why did I love this book?

Evolution, extinction, evo-devo, a “vampire squid from hell”—what more could a paleo-curious reader ask for? Staaf keeps it interesting and breezy as she takes a deep dive into the mysteries of that most ancient and fascinating group, the cephalopods. The fossil record for this extraordinary, important, and long-surviving class (which includes ammonoids and nautiloids as well as the shell-free squids and octopuses) goes back 500 million years. The book is full of “wows,” like a 20-foot-long fossil shell, and the fact that ink has been reconstituted from fossil belemnites and used for illustration. Just wow.

By Danna Staaf,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Monarchs of the Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An epic and fun history spanning from the mollusks that invented swimming to the octopuses and other intelligent cephalopods of today Publisher's Note: Monarchs of the Sea was previously published in hardcover as Squid Empire.

Before mammals, there were dinosaurs. And before dinosaurs, there were cephalopods--the ancestors of modern squid, octopuses, and more creatures--Earth's first truly substantial animals. Essentially inventing the act of swimming, cephalopods presided over an undersea empire for millions of years--until fish evolved jaws, and cephalopods had to step up their game or risk being eaten. To keep up, some streamlined their shells and added defensive spines,…

Book cover of Planet Ocean: A Story of Life, the Sea and Dancing to the Fossil Record

Why did I love this book?

Planet Ocean is a rollicking romp of a book, even while it is being deeply informative. The writing is full of wit and story, with a strong undertow of awe at the wonders of evolution and geologic time. We learn about these things along with Matsen as he and Troll go on a trilobite safari, visit museums and scientists, and dig for dinosaurs in the badlands of Alberta. The book is lavishly illustrated with Troll’s surreal, sublime, whimsical, and always arresting depictions of such creatures as Xiphactinus, Anomalocaris, Hesperornis, Hallucigenia, and of course Helicoprion.

By Bradford Matsen, Ray Troll,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Planet Ocean as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is the paperback edition of the great pop-paleontology book with the fabulous art that inspired a show that toured the nation's natural history museums. In its own way it has inspired many people to take a new look at the fossil record and imagine creatures and things as they might have been—a blend of word and image unlike any other.

Book cover of The Rise of Fishes: 500 Million Years of Evolution

Why did I love this book?

From the time the first primitive vertebrates arose in the Cambrian to the appearance of early amphibians around the late Devonian, fishes were by far the dominant life form on the planet. Follow the journey in the highly readable, generously illustrated Rise of Fishes. This fascinating immersion into the diversification of early fishes was written by esteemed Australian paleontologist John Long. Long is also the author of The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex, and Swimming in Stone: The Amazing Gogo Fossils of the Kimberley, both of which could also go on your list.

By John A. Long,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Rise of Fishes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Fishes that walk, fishes that breathe air, fishes that look like-and are-monsters from the deep. These and many more strange creatures swim through The Rise of Fishes, John A. Long's richly illustrated tour of the past 500 million years. Long has updated his classic work with illustrations of recent fossil discoveries and new interpretations based on genetic analyses. He reveals how fishes evolved from ancient, jawless animals, explains why fishes have survived on the Earth for so long, and describes how they have become the dominant aquatic life-form. Indeed, to take things a step further, we learn much about ourselves…

Book cover of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Why did I love this book?

This is my “stretch” book. It’s not directly about curious extinct creatures from deep time, but you should read it. Yes, extinction is a natural part of evolution. But Kolbert’s riveting book inventories the accelerating loss of species across our planet. This modern mass extinction and other human-induced global changes have spurred the suggestion that a new geologic period be named to capture what’s going on: Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen coined the term “Anthropocene” in an essay called “Geology of Mankind.” What will be the “biostratigraphic signature” of this time be a million years from now? The sad answer will likely be a sudden, mass disappearance of species, global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane, and a layer of aluminum cans.

By Elizabeth Kolbert,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Sixth Extinction as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions of life on earth.

Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Elizabeth Kolbert combines brilliant field reporting, the history of ideas and the work of geologists, botanists and marine biologists to tell the gripping stories of a dozen species - including the Panamanian golden frog and the Sumatran rhino - some already gone, others at the point of vanishing.

The sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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