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

The Books I Picked & Why

A Fish Caught in Time

By Samantha Weinberg

A Fish Caught in Time

Why 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!


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

By Danna Staaf

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

Why 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.


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

By Bradford Matsen, Ray Troll

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

Why 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.


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The Rise of Fishes: 500 Million Years of Evolution

By John A. Long

The Rise of Fishes: 500 Million Years of Evolution

Why 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.


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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

By Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Why 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.


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