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Naskrecki’s “Relics” argues for a conservation ethic rooted in evolutionary history

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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A romantic frog encounter in the Guiana Shield, one of many scenes from conservation photographer Piotr Naskrecki's Relics.

Piotr Naskrecki’s new book Relics is not easy to read. Physically, I mean.

I have wanted to review this book for some time. After all, Piotr Naskrecki is a leading conservation photographer & katydid biologist, and I loved Naskrecki’s last book The Smaller Majority.

But I had to concentrate hard to stay focused on the text. The trouble is Relics comprises page after page of the most jaw-droppingly spectacular nature photography you’ve ever seen. No matter how compelling Naskrecki’s prose, no matter how insightful his observations or unexpectedly charming his facts, his words reluctantly share pages with his starkly beautiful images of life with all its teeth and colors and scales and spiny legs. Spiders that look like floppy muppets. Crickets with edible wings. Expectant frog fathers. Killer katydids. Oh, and something called a “Dinospider”. Yeah.

Eventually I gave up on reading cover to cover. Forgetting the text, I decided instead to gape at the pictures until the wow factor wore off.

Relics features wonderful spreads of horseshoe crabs.

Boring myself with Naskrecki’s images took longer than expected, but when I finally did get around to giving the text a sober read, what emerges is forlorn frustration.

The modern naturalist inhabits a dying planet. Forests dwindle, grasslands are plowed under, beaches are coated in concrete. The world that was here before us is cut into fragments and strangled. For people like Naskrecki, being a naturalist is like being an art historian in a world where a major art museum burns to the ground every year. Environmental destruction is emotionally devastating for those who find wonder in living things, and even though Naskrecki tries to find an uplifting tale here or there- a small population of tuataras is reintroduced to an old haunt in New Zealand, for example- it’s hard to escape the obvious. The magical world of floppy muppet spiders is doomed.

Relics is structured around an odd topic for a professional biologist. The book centers on a selection of so-called “living fossils”- organisms that are little-changed from ancient times, or are perched on a lonely evolutionary branch, or some combination of the two. Some chapters cover particular species (like tuataras, horseshoe crabs, and cycads), others cover entire habitats (like the Guiana Shield or the South African Fynbos). But living fossils are a tricky topic philosophically. None of the organisms are the same species as their ancient counterparts. They are only similar, in some ways. What about a group like cycads that looks like extinct species but actually contains many recent radiations? What about ones whose DNA is a radical divergence, but the morphology remains trapped in time? Why does stasis in some traits, but not others, lead us to call these organisms ancient? These are ill-defined concepts, but ones that persist because something about perceived antiquity resonates with human imagination.

Fairy shrimp in a vernal pool.

The trouble with living fossils is exactly that tension: because living fossils fire our imagination, they are also partly a product of our imagination. We see in them what we want to see, rather than what they actually are, and the stories we tell ourselves becomes them. To his credit, Naskrecki devotes several pages grappling with this problem. I suppose he is as successful as anyone might be. Mostly, the relic theme serves as a thread to bind together disparate stories about strange, poorly known, or endangered places. And really, what do I care about philosophical consistency if Naskrecki’s penchant for living fossils results in renewed conservation efforts, however meager?

A male Oreophryne frog guards eggs on the underside of a leaf in a New Guinea forest.

The bottom line, though, is that Relics is beautiful. You’ll love it even if you never read a word.

 

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is an Illinois-based entomologist who studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books, and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. stone2@illinois.edu 8:31 pm 11/7/2011

    OK, you convinced me. I’ll order a copy tonight.

    Link to this
  2. 2. HBG_Dave 7:53 pm 11/10/2011

    Ok, you’ve convinced me – Christmas present for wife (if she doesn’t get it first), but I still don’t understand the hand-wringing “The modern naturalist inhabits a dying planet. Forests dwindle, grasslands are plowed under, beaches are coated in concrete.” Maybe you live in such a world (but I’d say your photos belie this), but I don’t.

    The world I live in is infinitely more alive and diverse than it was 10,000 years ago when the glaciers that had killed everything in the northern-most part of our hemisphere started to retreat. The planet I live on is similarly more diverse and alive than 65 million years ago. Even the US has more forests than it did a hundred years ago. Ice Ages and asteroids don’t give a damn about conservation. People do – and I challenge you to find a period in time when people were more concerned about mitigating their impact on this planet than they are now.

    Fairy shrimp die en masse every time their vernal pool dries up. Same with tadpole shrimp, but often on a larger scale. I don’t think either will become extinct any time soon. Yes, some species will and those on islands have been and will continue to be devastated. And yes, if you live in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Berlin, London, Paris, Beijing, Moscow, etc. Nature looks in bad shape, but I bet it was worse a hundred years ago.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Alex Wild 2:09 pm 11/11/2011

    Thanks for your comment, Dave, but I think you’re letting local improvement in parts of North America cloud your assessment of the disaster that’s been unfolding globally. In part, we’ve outsourced resource extraction to poorer countries. I can tell you subjectively that- having visited and revisited several of my favorite tropical countries, there’s a lot less nature there every time I return.

    In January, for example, I returned to a patch of Ecuadorian forest where’d I’d collected some ants in 2003, only to find it cleared, with a house on it.

    But you don’t have to trust my anecdotes. Here’s data from the UN’s 2009 summary of forest changes:

    ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/011/i0350e/i0350e04b.pdf

    While some wealthy northern countries have increased forest cover, the vast majority of countries (and nearly all tropical ones) continue lose forest quickly.

    Link to this
  4. 4. HBG_Dave 7:32 pm 11/11/2011

    Thanks for the response and the link to the pdf, but I’m not sure that data addresses the point I was trying to make or supports your response.

    By a quick count of the countries (and ignoring that country is a poor estimator for forest cover) in the 2000-2005 estimates of percent lost (last column on right): 85 have net losses of forest, but 83 have no net change and 59 have increased forest cover. 85 is less than half and certainly not the vast majority. I would say that supports one of my points, if feebly. Forests are being preserved in much of the world, especially where poverty and warfare are not rampant.

    My main point, though, is that life is resilient and has recovered from far greater disasters than we have been able to perpetuate. If stability and prosperity can be brought to Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia, then I would expect to see a recovery in forests and wildlife like we are experiencing in North America. I think that is a much better model for protecting diversity than Peter’s evolutionary/living fossils idea (if that was actually his point). Considering what we did to North America, I am extremely uncomfortable with telling other nations how to treat their natural resources. But, I think we do provide a pretty good model of how natural resources can be protected and allowed to rebound.

    Link to this

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