Searching For Nature's Time Machines in 'Relics'

In a new book, Relics: Travels in Nature's Time Machine, Harvard entomologist and photographer Piotr Naskrecki documents his travels, from New Guinea to New Zealand and beyond, looking for organisms whose genes can tell us something about conditions on Earth millions of years ago.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Up next: If you're at work right now, chatting, planning your next Facebook update, stuck in traffic, all - maybe all three, I've got some news that you can use. A candidate - we've got a candidate for your dream job, and Flora Lichtman is here to tell us more about it. Flora?

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: Here's the job description: You travel to the world's most beautiful and exotic places - we're talking the tropical rainforests of New Guinea, the succulent-covered mountains of South Africa - and your mission is to look for the most amazing creatures on the planet. I'm talking about katydids with pink eyes, walking sticks the color of indigo, frogs the size of a pea. And then you get to research them, photograph them and write about them. That sounds pretty good.

Well, Piotr Naskrecki is living proof that dream jobs do exist. Dr. Naskrecki is a research associate at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. He's an entomologist, a photographer and a writer, and his latest book is called "Relics: Travels in Nature's Time Machine." And it's where you can find photos of those katydids and frogs. And you can also find them on our website at sciencefriday.com/arts. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Naskrecki.

DR. PIOTR NASKRECKI: Good afternoon. Thanks for having me here.

LICHTMAN: So what is a relic?

NASKRECKI: A relic is a concept that is somewhat fuzzy in terms of defining it. But what it essentially means is it's - a relic is an organism that is usually the last remaining member of a very, very old lineage of organisms, organisms that go back millions of years ago, organisms that use to flourish, were widely distributed. But then something happened, and they largely disappeared. And you have only this few remaining hangers-on that tell us something about how life evolved, how organisms have changed over the years, and they are these precious relics of the evolution of life on Earth.

LICHTMAN: I think people have heard the term living fossil, which has always, kind of, confused me because - and simply...

NASKRECKI: And for a good reason.

LICHTMAN: OK, good, because it seems like you're either living or you're a fossil. But can you explain to me what the problem is?

NASKRECKI: Yes. Biologists don't use the term living fossil anymore. This is a - it's a very, kind of, historically loaded term. It was first introduced by Charles Darwin, and that's why people were kind of reluctant to abandon it. But the living fossil doesn't really - it's not really definable. We have to remember that all currently living species are also about the same age. There are no miracle survivors that lived for millions and millions of years. All species are about a million, maybe two or three million years old.

So, you know, the living fossil was this kind of mental shortcut to talk about organisms that resemble these long-gone and extinct ancestors of currently living species, but living fossils do not really exist. And that's why biologists more frequently use the term relics, and more precisely, phylogenetic relics, to talk about organisms that represent these old and largely disappeared lineages.

LICHTMAN: Let's talk about some of the relics that you detail in this beautiful book. One that I really enjoyed reading about and had never heard of was the tuatara. What is that?

NASKRECKI: Mm. Ah, tuatara, that's a very special animal. Tuatara is the last living member of a group of reptiles that are called sphenodontia. Sphenodontia were abundant and widely distributed in the Jurassic and Cretaceous. They were contemporaries of dinosaurs, and you could find their fossils pretty much all over the world. Some of them were aquatic. They were called plesiosaurs. They were terrestrial. But then something happened, and that thing that happened was the appearance and subsequent radiation of modern lizards.

And modern lizards turned out to be far better in competing for natural resources than a tuatara relatives, and they right - largely disappeared, tuatara relatives. And the only place in the world where you can still find one is the island of New Zealand. And that was a kind of a historical strike of luck for this lineage because New Zealand has been completely isolated from any other land masses for at least 80 million years. And by the sheer luck of being so isolated, they were able to survive.

LICHTMAN: Oh, so it's not actually anything about their specific genetic makeup. It's just their location?

NASKRECKI: Well, it's a combination of both. I mean, I would, I mean I cannot put the exact number on it, but my personal feeling is that 90 percent of it was just pure luck. But at the same time, they do have elements of their biology that are very helpful in surviving long term. For example, tuataras are - do very well in close temperatures. New Zealand is not the warmest place in the world and yet they flourish in those low temperatures. They are the reptiles with the lowest optimal temperature of any reptile currently living. They can do very well when the temperature drops to - this, you know, decisively a nippy 50s or so.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NASKRECKI: And so that gives them kind of a competitive edge over other reptiles. There are other reptiles on New Zealand. There are geckos and there are skinks, but they cannot simply compete with the tuatara because of its ability to be active in the cold temperature.

LICHTMAN: So just to make sure I have this straight, though the relics, they do - evolutionary forces are still acting upon them, right? These aren't exactly the same as what you would've found millions of...

NASKRECKI: They are not. They are not. The thing that is special about the relics - think of it as - think of them as carrying the versions 1.0 or even better versions of structures or combinations of genes that have later evolved. Most other organisms will have versions 2.0 or 3.0 of certain, you know, body elements, but they still retain those fairly early versions, and that's why they are so valuable. They tell us we can - using these relics, we can more easily reconstruct the evolution of individual lineages of organisms.

So let's take this tuatara again. If we look at the skeleton of the tuatara, we'll see elements in that skeleton that tells us how the skeleton of reptiles have changed and evolved. They have very primitive skulls. They a have very primitive spine, and they have elements of their ribcage that cannot be found anymore in any other reptiles. But those elements were found, for example, in dinosaurs. So again, they carry of these old elements in their morphology, in their physiology or in their genes that tell us about how life has evolved and changed.

LICHTMAN: If you want to get in on this conversation, our number is 1-800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK. You can ask about these relics. So Piotr, how do you get these incredible photos when you're going to these really remote places?

NASKRECKI: Well, I have a very expensive camera.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NASKRECKI: No, but seriously...

LICHTMAN: That's it.

NASKRECKI: ...the main element, of course, is patience, a lot of patience, and it really helps to have knowledge about these organisms. I know what to expect from them. I know how they will likely behave. But it all essentially boils down to sitting still and waiting patiently for something to happen and not scaring the animals.

LICHTMAN: And I was wondering if there - we have a lot of nature - great nature photographer listeners, and we know this because we've done some photography contests. But are there any shortcuts? I'm always looking for a trick to getting a good - or rules to live by when you're out in the field photographing.

NASKRECKI: Learn about your subject. The more you know about your subject, the easier it will be for you to take a good photo of that subject. And it applies, you know, both to landscapes and weather, but also to plants and animals. You know, if you know what time of the day this particular plant will bloom, then you are more likely to get a great photo. If you know about the weather pattern of the place, you also will be far more likely to get an interesting dramatic shot and - but this, of course, applies primarily to animals. If you know, you know, what time of day this particular animal is active and, you know, how it responds to your presence, that all will help you incredibly. I don't think there is one simple shortcut to getting a better natural history(ph) photo, unfortunately.

LICHTMAN: As usual.

NASKRECKI: As usual.

LICHTMAN: But you don't actually have to go far from home, right? In this book, you don't - you do go to beautiful places but also your own backyard.

NASKRECKI: Absolutely not. That's the thing that was probably most satisfying about writing this book. When I started writing it a few years ago, I thought that I will have to travel far and away to look for these ancient - members of these ancient lineages. And only later it occurred to me that all I have to do is just kind of open my mind and look with, you know, a certain amount of knowledge at the surroundings of my own house and I'll find some incredible things.

I live near Boston and, right, you know, probably about five miles from my house you can see living members of one of the oldest lineages of animals on the planet, things that are over half a billion years old, and they still flourish in the woods around Boston. And I'm talking about this little crustacean known as fairy shrimp. These are Precambrian animals. We have fossils of those things that date back 500 million years, and you can still see them, you know, around, you know, where you live in...

LICHTMAN: And...

NASKRECKI: Yes?

LICHTMAN: They're hatching right now, right?

NASKRECKI: They are. Yes, now it's time to see them. You will see them in these little bodies of water known as vernal pools. As the snow melts, the water accumulates to the bottom of little holes in the ground, usually in forests, and that's where you'll find fairy shrimp. They are little animals no longer than half of your pinky finger, but they are stunningly beautiful if you look at them up close. And you know, their biology is just absolutely riveting. They encompass in their biology and behavior everything that you need to be the ultimate survivor. By studying their biology you can finally understand what it takes to stay alive and not go extinct like so many other lineages of organisms.

LICHTMAN: Well, this is news we can use. What does it take to stay alive?

NASKRECKI: Well, I think it all - there is, of course, not one unifying feature of all these relic organisms, but there is one commonality and that's to be flexible. If you can adapt, if you can change a little bit your biology, if you are not a specialist, then you are far more likely to survive. And in the case of these little fairy shrimp, they have evolved a life strategy that is just incredibly flexible. They can survive for years without water in this little - what's called cysts(ph), sort of a suspended animation. They reproduce very quickly and they reach maturity very, very quickly, and they also kind of hedge their bets. So when - even when the conditions are very, very good, not all the eggs will hatch. Only some of them will hatch because the water can suddenly disappear. And so they always kind of keep this kind of cache of eggs that can sometimes last up to eight years to wait for the proper conditions.

And so this flexibility in your life history is a common trait of these ancient lineages. And another good example of a relic that's, to me, is one of the most fascinating animals on the planet is the horseshoe crab. Horseshoe crabs - which we can also see on the East Coast of North America. The greatest aggregation of them is in the Delaware Bay. These animals have survived since the Ordovician - again, 450 million years. And during that time, many seemingly more imposing lineages - such as trilobites, or even dinosaurs - disappeared. And the key to the survival of horseshoe crabs is, again, that they are extremely flexible. They can survive in the freshwater, in the saltwater, in cold waters, in tropical waters, and so on. So that's the key: Be flexible.

LICHTMAN: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, on NPR. I'm Flora Lichtman. I'm here with Ira Flatow and Piotr Naskrecki, who is the author of "Relics: Travels in Nature's Time Machine." Now, you know, one thing I wanted to ask you about were these organisms called blattodeans.

NASKRECKI: Blattodeans, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Blattodeans.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NASKRECKI: Yeah. It's not a commonly used term. Only entomologists really use it.

LICHTMAN: Well, I'm glad to know how to say it, though. They were fascinating. They nurse - these are insects that - I think I have it right - that nurse their young?

NASKRECKI: Mm-hmm. Yes, blattodean this fascinating lineage of animals that we can use to look at the evolution of parental care and maternal care in animals. And their behavior spans a wide range, from very, very simple behavior - when the female just lays her eggs and let them hatch and fend for themselves - through the stages when the female actually carry the eggs and wait until the little nymphs larvae hatch. Then we have species in which the female will actually take care of them by simply protecting them. She will carry them on her back.

And then we have species in which the female develops an equivalent of a placenta, just like mammals do. So she will carry them in her body to term, and the little ones hatch fully formed and ready to start their independent life. But the most fascinating example of maternal care in these blattodeans is that some species have developed mammary glands, just like mammals. The female has a series of little glands on the underside of her abdomen, and she actually suckles her young. That's the only other case of suckling in the animal kingdom, only the blattodeans and only the - only mammals do that. So, to me, that's absolutely fascinating, that in this little known group of insects, we have complexity of parental behavior that rivals our own.

LICHTMAN: Amazing. You can see a picture of a blattodean on our website, by the way, if you're curious. So I wanted to ask you - and we have, I think, time for just one quick more question, and that is it, you know, this book is filled with insects, and I wondered - "Relics: Travels in Nature's Time Machine." And I wondered if you feel like you have a mission to sort of give a voice or expose the underdogs of the animal kingdom.

NASKRECKI: Yes, you are right. I do feel like I have a mission. Most of life on Earth are these little things that we pay no attention to, and they receive very, very little attention from, you know, most of the human population. And, you know, there are few people - relatively few people like me who care about these little things. So I always try to bring them to light and tell people about their fascinating biology, behavior and show their beauty. I mean, you know, we are kind of - we humans are sort of handicapped by our own size. We are one of the rare giants surrounded by the smaller majority of organisms.

And so in my work, I try to enlarge them, or bring them to our own level, so we can appreciate their diversity, and also, at the same time, because I'm also a conservation biologist, to show that a lot of them do need our help to survive. They have lasted for so many millions of years, and now they are on the verge of extinction because of our carelessness. So that's one of the reasons for this book.

LICHTMAN: Well, thank you so much for joining us. You have at least one convert in this studio. Dr. Naskrecki is a research associate at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, and the author of "Relics: Travels in Nature's Time Machine."

FLATOW: Thank you, Flora. And that's about all the time we have for today. And if you go to our website, Flora is a kindred spirit in photographing tiny, little creatures. She has a whole bunch of them up on our website at - on our Video Pick of the Week. And to remind you, our video Pick of the Week is "Desktop Diary," with E. O. Wilson. You want to know what E. O. Wilson's desktop looks like? You're not going to get into his office, right? There's just so many people get in there. Flora got in. She's going to show you on our Video Pick of the Week, up there on our website @scienfriday.com, and soon to be up on - up there on YouTube later in the afternoon. Have a great weekend. I'm Ira Flatow, in New York.

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