Otherlands review: A fascinating journey through Earth’s history

Illustration of animals that existed during the Ediacaran period (around 635 to 542 million years ago). This period at the end of the Proterozoic era was characterised by the emergence of the first multicellular animals. These were bottom-dwelling marine animals and included Swartpuntia (green, lower left), Cloudina (with stacked rings and tentacles, right), the frond-like Charnia (centre, red and blue), and Charniodiscus (background, blue-green).

An artist’s impression of how Earth’s first multicellular animals looked on the sea floor

Mark Garlick/Science Photo Library


Otherlands: A world in the making

Thomas Halliday

OUR planet has existed for some 4.5 billion years In that time, it has undergone extraordinary changes, with landscapes and life forms that would seem almost alien to us today. Yet clues to their existence and fate can be found buried deep within Earth’s layers.

Otherlands by palaeobiologist Thomas Halliday provides a unique portrait of these strange and remarkable environments and the species that inhabited them. Through rich, detailed descriptions of ancient organisms and geological processes that draw on the fossil record and his own imagination, Halliday transports us back through deep time, from the relatively recent – tens of thousands of years ago – to when complex life first emerged in the Ediacaran period hundreds of millions of years ago.

Each chapter spans a geological time period, focusing on a specific part of the world that stands out either for the quality of the fossil evidence or a notable event.

Halliday is careful to not only give attention to charismatic animals like dinosaurs and woolly mammoths, but also to plants, land masses and oceans, using the latest research to back up his conclusions.

In one chapter, we discover that giant penguins flourished in the then-rainforests of Antarctica during the Eocene. In another, how Jurassic seas in what is now Germany contained vast tropical reefs built by glass sponges that looked like “frozen lace”, as marine pterosaurs soared in the skies overhead. We also see how, during the Devonian period, Scotland was home to metres-high fungi that would have resembled “half-melted grey snowmen”.

As well as painting an intricate picture of the worlds that once existed, Halliday also highlights the fleeting existence of humanity. Our ancestors make the briefest splash onto the scene in the Pliocene around 4 million years ago, when early hominins appeared in the fossil record in what is now Kanapoi in Kenya.

If Earth’s history were squeezed into a single day, written human history would make up the last 2 thousandths of a second, Halliday points out. And yet “our species has an influence unlike almost any other biological force”. It is also far more destructive than the prominent natural disasters of the past.

Here, the book carries a clear message: that we must do something about the urgent climate situation we find ourselves in and the coming human-induced mass extinction. This, he argues, warrants a meticulous look back through Earth’s palaeontological record to understand how things might turn out in the future, and how we might take control of them.

This message is, by now, one we are used to hearing. For me, the most distinctive feature of the book is the way that Halliday chooses to describe the past. He encourages us to treat his writings like “a naturalist’s travel book, albeit one of lands distant in time rather than space”. This provides a sense of adventure and exploration where we see “short willows write wordless calligraphy in the wind” 20,000 years ago, or walk across “centuries-old mattresses of conifer needles” 41 million years ago.

It is refreshing to come across a book on palaeontology and geology that doesn’t just state what we know and why. Instead, Halliday uses scientific information to provide insights into worlds long gone. He is appropriately lavish in his depiction of the variety and resilience of life, without compromising on scientific accuracy.

To read Otherlands is to marvel not only at these unfamiliar lands and creatures, but also that we have the science to bring them to life in such vivid detail.

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