Daily Picture Show

Time Travel And Photos Of Earth's 'Oldest' Animals

Photographer Piotr Naskrecki presented a hypothetical: "If someone said, 'We have a dinosaur in Central Africa!' — would you consider that worthy of conservation? If so, why?"

That was his way of putting me in place for asking why anyone would care about a creepy grasshopper in South Africa.

Colors on the highly toxic bush hopper warn predators to stay away. i i

Colors on the highly toxic bush hopper warn predators to stay away. Piotr Naskrecki hide caption

itoggle caption Piotr Naskrecki
Colors on the highly toxic bush hopper warn predators to stay away.

Colors on the highly toxic bush hopper warn predators to stay away.

Piotr Naskrecki

Apples and oranges, in a way, but he's making a point: That grasshopper is something like a living artifact, he explained; it has adapted for modern times, but it carries valuable information about Earth's past. Maybe it's not as cool as a dinosaur, but it's still worthy of attention, he says.

"It's very hard to explain why we should care," he admits, "and to be completely honest, there isn't a very good answer."

Naskrecki is a research associate and entomologist at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. He's also a photographer and has a whole book of critters and creatures you might never think twice about. It's called Relics: Travels in Nature's Time Machine.

"Relict organisms," Naskrecki writes in the introduction, "which I prefer to call simply 'relics' ... are often the last carriers of genes that have otherwise disappeared from the world's gene pool."

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    "One of the most amazing relics is the horseshoe crab," says Piotr Naskrecki. "It was already a living fossil when the dinosaurs first appeared. They go back 450 million years."
    Piotr Naskrecki
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    In his book, Naskrecki writes that these New England fairy shrimp "offer a glimpse of life forms of ancestry older than almost anything that can be found in terrestrial habitats."
    Piotr Naskrecki
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    "Sphenodontia, the order of reptiles that once flourished in many habitats ... is considered a sister group to lizards and snakes. ... This means that both groups had a common ancestor but diverged very early in their evolutionary history, probably before early Jurassic. ... But while lizards and snakes are now the dominant lineage of reptiles ... tuatara [above] is the only relict of the Sphenodontia."
    Piotr Naskrecki
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    This bright pink amphipod crustracean lives on the mossy bottoms of New Guinea's forest.
    Piotr Naskrecki
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    "[Cycads] are the oldest seed-bearing plants, having their roots firmly planted in the Paleozoic, over 250 million years ago," the book explains.
    Piotr Naskrecki
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    Not all animals in the book are classic "living fossils," Naskrecki explains. "The sloth, which belongs to a relatively young group of mammals ... is there because it is a part of a very old ecosystem — the rainforest of the Guiana Shield in South America. This forest represents one of the last remaining fragments of pre-Columbian America, and is a sanctuary of the type of ecosystem that has largely disappeared."
    Piotr Naskrecki
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    "Nymphs ... of the family Tessaratomidae are some of the flattest insects on Earth. Their body is nearly two-dimensional, which allows them to squeeze into tight spaces at the bases of leaves on which they feed," the book says.
    Piotr Naskrecki
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    "Within insects ... blattodeons display levels of devotion and parental sophistication otherwise found only in birds and mammals. ... [Their] ancestors first appeared 350 million years ago in the humid forests of the Carboniferous period," Naskrecki writes.
    Piotr Naskrecki

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Take horseshoe crabs, for example. "It was already a living fossil when the dinosaurs first appeared," Naskrecki says excitedly on the phone. "They go back 450 million years. ... And the thing is that they have changed so little. It's like a peephole into the Jurassic — or even earlier."

Relics

Travels in Nature's Time Machine

by Piotr Naskrecki and Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier

Hardcover, 342 pages | purchase

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Travels in Nature's Time Machine
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But of the hundreds of horseshoe crab species that used to exist, there now remain only four, says Naskrecki, "and they are declining very fast."

Born in Poland, Naskrecki recalls an early obsession with natural history, which started with the discovery of a fossil. And he has been at it — doggedly — ever since. He travels the world doing research and documenting his findings.

"I am a scientist first, photographer and writer second," he says. "I recognize how powerful the tool of photography is in conservation."

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