The Emerald Planet: How Plants Changed Earth's History

The Emerald Planet: How Plants Changed Earth's History

The Emerald Planet: How Plants Changed Earth's History

The Emerald Planet: How Plants Changed Earth's History

Synopsis

This book is the tale of our world's past - and future - as revealed by plants. Newly found clues in the fossil record show plants to be powerful agents of change, moulding the Earth's climate and affecting the evolutionary path of life over the immensity of geological time. They tell of how giant insects could once flourish, of an ancient ozone hole, and offer new explanations for past episodes of global warming. As we face the challenge of a changing climate today, theirs is a tale we cannot ignore.

Excerpt

The great evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane (1892–1964), on being asked by a cleric what biology could say about the Creator, entertainingly replied, ‘I’m really not sure, except that the Creator, if he exists, must have an inordinate fondness of beetles.’ Haldane was referring to the fact that approximately 400 000 species of beetles make up roughly 25% of all known animal species. Current estimates for the total number of species of flowering plants in the world (300 000–400 000), had they been available to him at the time, may have given Haldane pause for thought about his riposte.

Plants and beetles may be tied, stem and thorax, in the global biodiversity stakes but when it comes to capturing our own fascination, plants are way ahead, clear winners in the popularity stakes. We have been collecting, classifying, and cultivating floras worldwide for centuries. Not only do plants provide us with fuel, food, shelter, and medicines that sustain the human way of life, but they also uplift and inspire us. Irrespective of the season, we flock to fine gardens, elegantly sculpted landscapes, botanical gardens, and arboretums to pay homage to the plants and trees.

But how many of us have stopped to wonder how remarkable plants are, how profoundly they have altered the history of life on Earth, and how critically they are involved in shaping its climate? Only now are we unlocking vital information about the history of the planet trapped within fossil plants. My aim in writing this book has been to provide a glimpse of these exciting new discoveries because they offer us a new way of looking and thinking about plant life. It recognizes—indeed emphasizes—that plants are an active component of our planet, Earth. At the global scale, forests and grasslands regulate the cycling of carbon dioxide and water, influence the rate at which rocks erode, adjust the chemical composition of the atmosphere, and affect how the landscape absorbs or reflects sunlight. In . . .

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