Thursday, September 08, 2011

Hanging on

I have a soft spot in my heart for the duck-billed platypus. Fisrt, because Platypus Multimedia is the name of my son's business. Second, because who cannot love so improbable a creature? Which may be why Dan picked the platypus for his name and logo.

A goofy mix of mammalian and reptilian DNA. Furry and egg-laying. It's like a creature slapped together on the eighth day of creation from whatever parts were left over after the first seven days. Its very weirdness "argues for an independent history running to tens of millions of years," says paleontologist Richard Fortey, in his new book Survivors: The Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind.

I think I've read everything Fortey has written. To my mind he is the best science popularizer writing in Britain today. Not as well-known as Dawkins, perhaps, or as firecracker brilliant, but he doesn't waste his considerable intellectual gifts on people too adamantine to recognize a fact if they see one. I love this photo of Fortey, which I have posted before. Looks a little platypusian himself, slapped together and adorable.

In his new book Fortey hops around the world visiting creatures that have survived the transforming impulse of evolution pretty much unchanged for long periods of time. They are generally as low-key and unflashy as the platypus and Fortey himself. Slow and steady; that's the secret. Lay low. Keep a finger to the wind.

The ferns are among Fortey's greatest survivors. They've been around for 345 million years, far longer than flowering plants. And still doing very well, thank you. I mentioned here earlier this summer that we had a twelve-foot-wide firebreak cleared around our property. And look what's first to resettle. Not the showy fuchsia or gaudy montbretia. Not the blackberry bramble or sprawling Rosa rugosa. That's right. Old slow and steady.

Keep it going, Fortey. You da best.