The History of a Miracle

Geographical, October 2006 | Go to article overview

The History of a Miracle


As far as we know, the Earth is the only planet in the universe upon which life has evolved. The history of its miraculous origin and diversification is told in the fossil record, but it's also all around us in the organisms that exist today. Although many plants and animals have been radically transformed by natural selection, others have passed through tens of millions of years virtually unchanged. Renowned nature photographer Frans Lanting spent seven years travelling the world in search of living species through which he could tell a visual story of the history of life on Earth. The results are showcased in his latest book, Life: A Journey through time

Nile crocodile hatchling, Okavango Delta, Botswana. The egg from which this crocodile is emerging represents one of the key developments in life's colonisation of the land. Incorporating a semi-permeable membrane that allowed oxygen and carbon dioxide to be exchanged with the air, but stopped water escaping, the amniotic egg enabled reptiles to leave the ocean and reproduce on land. In most reptiles, these eggs are leathery, but in birds and some lizards, turtles and tortoises, they have become hard through the addition of calcium carbonate crystals

Above: quiver trees, Richtersveld National Park, South Africa. When plants and animals began to colonise the land, they had to find ways to minimise water loss. Succulent plants related to aloes, quiver trees can survive on less than eight centimetres of rainfall a year; Right: geyser at dawn, Nevada, USA. The mixture of chemical compounds and environmental conditions around geysers and hot springs has led some scientists to suggest that life may have evolved in such places. The green streaks on the side of this geyser are filaments of cyanobacteria, photosynthetic organisms that first appeared in the fossil record more than 3.5 billion years ago

Below: Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA. The largest hot spring in the USA, Grand Prismatic Spring is about 91 metres long, 75 metres wide and 49 metres deep. It discharges around 2,000 litres of 71[degrees]C water every minute. The spring's name stems from the vivid colours imbued by the pigmented thermophilic bacteria and algae that grow in mats around the water's edge. The different colours represent different species, each with their own temperature preferences and tolerances. The water's heat keeps the centre of the pool sterile

Left: whisk fern, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii, USA. This small rootless, leafless vascular plant (not a fern at all), is thought to resemble the very first land plants. It photosynthesises through its stem and has a subterranean rhizome--a root-like stem that anchors the plant in place and absorbs nutrients via filaments known as rhizoids

Giant tortoises, Alcedo Volcano, Galapagos Islands. Reptiles dominated vertebrate life on Earth for almost 200 million years, spanning the period from the great Permian extinction about 248 million years ago to the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago

Below: fossil crinoids, Germany. Resembling flowers--they are also known as sea lilies--crinoids are actually animals, related to sea urchins and starfish. The group to which they belong, the echinoderms, first appeared in the fossil record around 525 million years ago. …

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