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BOOK REVIEW

‘Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms’ by Richard Fortey

“Rationalists,” writes noted British paleontologist Richard Fortey, “are not permitted to have shrines,” but if they were, Shark Bay, on the remote and barren coast of Western Australia, “might be high on the list.” Shark Bay is the place where, in 1954, a form of life so ancient it makes one giddy to think of it was discovered alive and well in the clear, shallow waters of a cove known as Hamelin Pool.

Stromatolites, for those who have never heard of them, are dark brown columnar structures (some apparently look like knobbly cauliflower heads or even giant mushrooms) made up of layers of cyanobacteria, only the topmost of which is actually alive. They grow incredibly slowly, and look like something inorganic, though, as Fortey discovers, they are tacky to the touch. But what is really amazing about them is that structures almost identical to the ones now growing in Shark Bay can be found in the fossil record going back more than two billion years.

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