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Ancient Survivors

Horseshoe crabs, velvet worms – snails, clams, lizards and more. We’ll explore the world’s oldest creatures. Survivors. Untouched by time.

A prehistoric looking horseshoe crab is bathed in the warm light of the morning sunrise on the Chesapeake Bay near Mathews, Va., Friday, Sept. 14, 2007. Horseshoe crabs are considered to be living fossils because their appearance has not changed since their origin over 20 million years ago. (AP)

A prehistoric looking horseshoe crab is bathed in the warm light of the morning sunrise on the Chesapeake Bay near Mathews, Va., Friday, Sept. 14, 2007. Horseshoe crabs are considered to be living fossils because their appearance has not changed since their origin over 20 million years ago. (AP)

Life forms come and go on this planet. An amazing few have stuck around. Through meteorite strike, that wiped out the dinosaurs, and great extinction that killed almost everything. Through ice age and poisoned seas. The horseshoe crab has hung in there. The lungfish. The velvet worm. The gingko tree.

An amazing few are supreme survivors. Mastodon, gone. Musk ox, still here. Platypus, still here. The greatest survivors have lasted billions of years. Humans? Not so much.

This hour, On Point: Lessons on evolution, life and time from the planet’s great survivors.

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Richard Fortey, a senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London. He’s the author of the new book Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind.

C-Segment: Viola Davis at Providence College

You can find a transcript here.

From Tom’s Reading List

The New York Times “Fortey’s dozen or so subjects have survived the many cataclysms the planet has thrown at them over the past 450 million years.”

Video: My Favorite Trilobite

Check out this video of Richard Fortey talking about his favorite fossil.

Video: BBC Series “Survivors”

Richard Fortey takes a look at Musk Ox in this special.

Video: BBC Series “Survivors”

Richard Fortey takes a look at horseshoe crabs in this special.

Excerpt: Survivors

Use the navigation bar at the bottom of this frame to reformat the excerpt to best suit your reading experience.

Playlist

“I am a Paleontologist” by They Might Be Giants

“Survivor”  by Destiny’s Child

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Terry Tree Tree

    BP, TransOcean, Halliburton, Monsanto, Union Carbide, BASF, and other foreign ‘citizen corporations’, will TEACH these poor critters to survive, by killing and maiming them!

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

       Dislike.

      • Steve_T

         You would.

        • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

           Terry Tree Tree makes it clear that he can’t stand corporations, but that’s not the subject of this hour.

          • Terry Tree Tree

            The subject of this hour was Ancient Surviving Species? 
               WILL they survive the Polluting Corporations, that ONLY care about the money they pocket?

  • Terry Tree Tree

    BBC series “Survior”?    NOT “Survivor”?

  • Ed

    If one believes that God guides everything, including of course evolution, then it’s quite beautiful that he left us species from earlier epochs that haven’t changed.

    • Charles Darwin

      You know, after figuring out the grandest invention machine which I call Evolution, I didn’t think it would create such beautiful works of art over the years.  Thanks for the complement, but I’d like to say it’s my invention that really cranked these pieces out.

      • Pointpanic

        I thouihgt, you didn’t like the term “evolution” because it implied “progress”. Didn’t you prefer “descent through modification”?

    • J__o__h__n

      There is no evidence of a divine plan in evolution. 

      Why do you feel the need to insert this nonsense into every show on science?  Looking forward to tomorrow’s abortion update. 

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

       You’re welcome to believe that God (whichever one you mean) directed evolution, but that’s not a position that science requires you to take.  It’s a theological belief that comes out of a different set of questions.

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      If God is involved at all, it’s as a Johnny-come-lately, since He didn’t start molding life until Biblical times, and then he only allowed two of each to survive the flood.

      In other words, keep your creationism in Church.

    • miro

      If God had a hand in designing the human species, either directly or indirectly,  certainly a great number of mistakes were made. We could be a much better species than we are — more cooperative, compassionate, intelligent.

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

         I’d settle for not having allergies to pollen. . .

      • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

        Given that we were molded from a lump of clay, it’s no wonder that there are so many clods around.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      YOU think that Child-Molesting priests are beautiful?  Explains a LOT!

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Most species alive today are young.  The average lifespan of a species is a few million years.

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      And homo sapiens is the youngest of all, which is quite evident by our juvenile behavior and commonplace ignorance. 

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

        We came along several hundred thousand years ago, and the genus Homo has existed for longer.  You’re making a values judgement about something that should be solely a scientific statement.

        • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

          In fact, it is a scientific statement.

          All pioneer species go through an initial colonizing phase in which they rapidly expand in both numbers and range to establish themselves in a niche. They consume a great deal of energy and aggressively compete with other organisms and species.

          As the species matures, it reaches a climactic phase, in which it achieves a highly energy-efficient steady state and ceases its imperial expansion, settling into a cooperative relationship with its environment.

          Homo sapiens is stuck in its imperial colonizing phase and shows little inclination to shift to a steady-state economy.

    • Steve__T

       Unless we get our hands on them, then it’s a lot shorter.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    There is no direction in the “Tree” of Life.  Evolutionary change is a response to a changing environment.  Some organisms are better adapted to the new conditions than others.  There was no inevitability of the human species, for example.

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      The “environment” is what evolves. It is impossible to separate life from its environment, particularly now that we know that it’s the environment which controls the expression of DNA in organisms.

      The only intelligible statement is that Gaia evolved as a single living system. If it’s not sensible to talk about the evolution of a single cell in our bodies, then it’s no more sensible to speak of the evolution of a single organism or species, as all are embedded in a larger, planetary ecosystem that changes in an intricate collective dance.

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

         No, the individual organism is born with a set of genes that occasionally have a mutation that responds to the environment better than others.  Your view is no different from Ed’s.  You just choose a different religion.

        • nj_v2

          Lazy copout invoking religion to dismiss a description of what is essentially co-evolution.

          Organisms change/mutate, some are better adapted to the existing environment than others. Yet some organisms can change the environment enough to accommodate them, even if they are less well adapted.

          Environment and biology co-evolve. In a sense, it’s not really possible to separate the two.

        • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

          That’s a 19th century understanding of evolution, reinforced by the mid 20th century discovery of DNA as the genetic “storehouse”.

          The 21st century science of epigenetics has demonstrated that DNA is merely the blueprint, but the environment is the architect of genetic expression.

          All organisms and species co-evolve with their environments, which are inseparable except in our analytical minds.

          This is also reinforced by the modern understanding that the entire living ecology of the planet is a single super-organism (called Gaia) and that no single strand of the web can be considered in isolation from the whole.

        • Mtq72

          Saltation Mutation may yield creation of a more diverse natural nation formation on this planet station through the emancipation of DNA relations if the Universe be patient.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    The oldest life forms are single-celled organisms, such as bacteria.  Of course, we can’t look at the genetic material of those ancient fossils, but some bacteria were around 3.5 billion years ago.  They’re still with us.

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      Yes, they work on Wall Street.

      • Terry Tree Tree

        With the toxic scum?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1816544 Dan Trindade

    What, if anything, can we learn from the survival of these ancient creatures that we can in turn apply to humanity or is our study of them merely out of scientific curiosity?

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

       Knowing how I fit into the world applies to me.

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      We can learn that to mature doesn’t mean to create a highly complex way of life which has enormous impact on the environment – on the contrary, a mature and long-lived species is one with the least impact and the most simple and efficient lifestyle.

      And a survivor is one who changes the least over time, ignoring the myth of “progress” which has led humanity to the brink of extinction.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Just for fun, have a lot at a poem called “Evolution” by Langdon Smith.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Sticks in the mud.

  • notafeminista

    It’s good to know that the Earth has potential for infinity after all. 

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      Until the sun moves into a red giant phase, that is.

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      “There are only two things that are infinite – the universe and man”s stupidity, and I”m not sure about the former.”

      - Albert Einstein

      • notafeminista

        ‘Tis an annoyance when NPR refutes your assertions.

        • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

          NPR rarely refutes. Instead it continually reasserts humanity’s ignorance – and gives a forum for the sharing of ignorance such as yours.

          • Pointpanic

            I don’t agree that nota is ignorant ,Robert(though our viewpoints are radically different) but I do concur that NPR continually reasserts humanity’s ignorance. Why about 15 years ago, a more egregious example of this was offered on “All THings Considered” where someone gave a commentary about how humans were “superior to other primates” becasue we could swim and they couldn’t

    • Pointpanic

      mere speculation.

  • Seraphaeme

    Didn’t the Stromatolites do “When I look at You, I Turn to Stone”? Great band!

  • John in Needham

     Horseshoe crabs used to spawn every year in Quincy Bay especially near the Moswetusset Hummock and the Squantum Marsh.

  • NAncy from Durham, Ct

    Please have the good doctor discuss the taking of the horseshoe crabs blood for medicinal purposes. they are bled once a year. I understand that the mortality rate may be as high as 30 %. Isn;t that too high a rate ??http://www.horseshoecrab.org/med/med.html

  • ToyYoda

    How about insects?  They’ve been around for a long time, many have not changed.  Why have so many insects survived unchanged?  What makes them so successful?

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

       They do change, but the changes aren’t the kind that get preserved in fossils easily.  But insects in amber do show changes over time.  They survive by being simple generalists.

      • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

        Insects in amber don’t change. They’re dead.

      • Mtq72

        I wonder if social insects such as ants and bees and termites are simple generalists, or mosquitoes reproducing only inside pitcher plant leaves, or parasitic wasps or gall insects and their unique host  or beetle parasites of beavers, or hyperparasites, or orchid pollinators? I may be mis-defining “specialist,” but I think the above may not be generalists. Human farmers and aphid-tending ants share similar agricultural skills, but I think the ants’ animal husbandry endeavors may outlast our own. 

    • Ceil

      Cooperation

  • Steve_T

    Some time in the future we will understand better, the world and universe we live in, and how it all connects together.  The knowledge we have now is still in it’s infancy, (global warming) but as we learn what has happened, I hope we learn not to keep doing the same things, expecting different results.

    Truly we are the worst tenants of this world, I think if we had rented we would have been thrown out long ago. We will bring extinction to everything even ourselves eventually, if we don’t get our act together.

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      And we wouldn’t likely have gotten our security deposit back.

    • Pointpanic

      we are a pest species.

    • Ceil

      We have been the worst tenants of this world, we are renters, and we will be thrown out.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    What about the giant mammals of the Americas?  There has been speculation that the human invaders of around twelve thousand years ago killed them off.

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      Susquatch lives!

      • Charles A. Bowsher

         …lived!

        • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

          Lives still – in Neanderthals like you.

          Susquatch is a mythical beast – just like your God.

  • Steve__T

    He made his point and is on point. What Corporations do to our world effect all of us including today’s topic.

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

       No, Terry’s a one-note kazoo.  Corporations = evil.

      • Ray in VT

        That’s not quite true.  Terry is also very harsh on the Church and the clergy.

        • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

           He seems to believe that Church and Corporation are two expressions of the same evil.

          • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

            They are. They are both manifestations of the corporate attempt to denigrate and control the natural world.

          • Terry Tree Tree

            The Catholic-promoters on here, have NOT decried the abomination of Child-Molesting and Child-Abuse, by their clergy, and keep trying to push their ‘holier than thou’ diversions, instead!

          • Warren

            WHAT percent Of Pervert priest WERE LiBERAl DemOCRATS///110%

          • Warren

            THIS KID GIVES CREEPS THE CREEPS

      • Terry Tree Tree

        NOT quite!
          GREED, or the Lust for Power, is evil and harmful!
           Corporations that only consider their own ‘bottom line’, without considering the damage they do to others, and the world, are evil.
           Child-Molesters are evil!  ESPECIALLY Authority Figures, like clergy!
           Child-Abusers are evil!  ESPECIALLY Authority Figures, like clergy!
           Wanton Pollution is evil!  If there is a cleaner way to do something, and still profit, the waste is a LOSS!
           I’m sure there are good and beneficial corporations out there.  I can’t think of one at this time?

        • Warren

          What percent of pervert priests are Liberal Dems…..110% me thinks

  • Steve__T

    Disqus strikes again! previous post was in reply to Greg Camp. So was this one.

  • Bruce

    What about the orchids?  Would you include them as “survivors” whose evolutionary capacity to adapt as the world changed is a characteristic acquired thru cross-pollination?

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

       Cross-pollination isn’t evolutionary change.  It’s shifting the mix of genes that already exist.  Evolutionary change is a mutation in the DNA that makes the recipient better adapted to the environment.  Breeders can use such changes according to their interests, of course.

      • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

        You’re still thinking in the 19th century. Science has left that understanding in the dust.

      • Bruce

        Thanks for the reply.  I was just speculating…I only grow vegetables. 

        I’m no expert, but I heard that one of the reasons orchids became one of the most highly evolved flowering plant families on earth is that they have an advantage over self-pollinators because self-pollinators recycle the same genetic material over and over and, thus, don’t evolve or improve over time. 

        Wasn’t this perfect harmony between two totally different living things (i.e. the orchid and its insect pollinator) that fired up the imagination of Darwin,  who studied these plants extensively and came to regard them as the height of evolutionary transformation?

        Don’t most botanists point to this mechanism to explain how the orchid multiplied and became the most diverse and largest flowering plant on earth?

  • Charles A. Bowsher

    Welcome to living on a limited resource in the middle of nowhere!
    The word that needs to be burned into everyone’s brain is SUSTAINABLE.  Unless we as a species adopt that mantra world-wide we are doomed to “Survival of the Fittest” which would be a shameful end to God’s most remarkable creation.  Certainly not Jesus’s Philosophy!  Wake up world! charles

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      God and Jesus have nothing to do with evolution.

      Wake up Charles.

      • Charles A. Bowsher

        Empirical evidence please.

        • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

          Jesus Fuck! Show me empirical evidence for God (or even Jesus, for that matter, for whom there is no historical evidence).

          Religion is a faith-based belief system that is anti-empirical. 

          • Charles A. Bowsher

             I’ll yield to your point on Jesus, but I will not give up “God” (whoever, whatever he/she/it is).  Do you really believe all this (the universe) came from nothing?  Believing in “God” does not require “Religion”.  Just as my belief in infinity is as plausible as someone else’s belief in nothing.

          • Pointpanic

            whether God exists or not is bside the poiont. But becuase the existence or not of God cannot be proven or disporven by the scientific method (atr this point in time ) it’s beyond the realm of science to discuss.

          • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

            I don’t waste my time on beliefs. I’m interested only in direct empirical knowledge (which far transcends the limits of science). Belief is a diversion from reality.

          • notafeminista

            So is LSD –  which exists realistically and empirically.

          • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

            Is that your dyslexic spelling of the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS)?

            The fact is that you don’t exist empirically and I don’t believe in you.

          • notafeminista

            No, lsysergic aci diethylamide.

            Care to substantiate your assertion?

          • Jantingangi

            YOU COULD BE THE FIRST GO HEAVEN IF HAPPEN TO BE THAT YOU BELIEVE IN JESUS BEFORE YOU DIE. “FIRST WILL BE LAST”

        • notafeminista

          He hasn’t any.  He expects you to take his assertions on faith.

        • Pointpanic

          THere is none,one way or the other Charles that’s why these names should be omitted from scientific discussion.religion lies outside the realm of science.

  • Michael T. Quinn

    Here is my poem expressing my appreciation of Insects as organisms and survivors: ” The Essence of Insect is an unfettered expression of the Psyche of Nature through jeweled artisans, whose unpretentious determination and patient omnipotence are shameless, ageless, and endless manifestations of the glorious cycles of rhythm and symmetry, that engender these empemeral tenants’ LASTING IMPERATIVE OF OUTLASTING THE LAST. Michael Quinn, Windsor, Vermont.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Why are you cutting off Fortey to waste our time with another graduation speech?

    • Pointpanic

      I agree this speeches are ususally so full of crap.

  • Charles A. Bowsher

    Just to clarify, I believe anything is possible as far as our “creation” goes which means “Infinity Rules” for me.  So to meld my mind into an acceptable compromise I maintain that,     “God” “created” “evolution”.

    • J__o__h__n

      No evidence for that theory. 

      • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

        That’s not a theory – it’s a belief.

    • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

      “There are only two things that are infinite – the universe and man”s stupidity, and I”m not sure about the former.”

      - Albert Einstein

    • Terry Tree Tree

      That’s a way to combine both! 
        IF there IS a God, or gods, being an infinite being, God would have HAD to create evolution! 
        The Bible doesn’ really say that God  didn’t create Life, or Intelligent Life, on other worlds, BEFORE or AFTER Earth?
         WHY would anyone try to use the Bible against evolution?
         Things and beings evolve!  That is provable!
         The Bible EVOLVED!  
          What percentage read the original scrolls, in Ancient Greek, Ancient Latin, and other languages that it was originally written?

  • Pointpanic

     Mr. Fortey is spot on insaying that HUman kind must shed its hubris. back in teh day, I heard a friend of mine make a sober, well-documented case for human beings as a “pest species”. I still feel that way today. Given our dark record of greed and arrogance, I would say that homo sapien is a blight on planet Earth.

    • notafeminista

      (Gomer Pyle voice)  Surprise, surprise, surprise!

      • Pointpanic

        you imitate him well,Nota

    • Johanp

      regarding the “pest species”:  The Matrix brings this thought to the foreground in the scene when L. Fishburne  is being questioned by one of the sentient programs [can't remember his name] who lays out the same rational of the overuse of the available resources causing a collapse in which “we” are too stupid to understand that we have caused.

  • TyroneJ

    Life is an inevitable consequence of the Universe’s willingness to allow local pockets of complexity and organization to form in it’s overall race to maximize entropy on a large scale. Hence life forming on Earth early in it’s history and surviving for the past 4 billion years. Unfortunately, there are more days of life on earth in our past than in our future, as we know enough about stellar evolution to know that 1 billion years from now, the surface of the Earth will be at about 700 degrees F, way too hot to sustain life.

  • Nanwalsh

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for Viola Davis’ commencement speech to PC grads. Was listening this morning and actually teared up. Her words really spoke to me and I really wish I could tell her!!!! You always add the unexpected and that was. 

  • Warren

    There is no meaning.As Camus or Sartre would say, nothing but chemicals and randon chance

  • Warren

    I have a square piece of Mexican Amber,about the size of an ice cube.In the middle is an intact Ginkgo leaf.A museum would give it’s right “patooty”for this piece.Mexican Amber is about 40 million years old,Baltic 60-80 million and Burmese 80-100 million.

  • Ulalume

    I confirm, Horseshoe blood was used for LAL testing (reacts with Gram- bacterial endotoxin or LPS) and I believe it still is.

    I wanted to add that for me the main characteristic of survivors is adaptability aka ability to evolve depending on the environmental conditions.

  • Michael Hammerschlag

    Look at the fossils: horseshoe crabs ARE trilobites, which ruled for 100 million years!!! Climbed a 1000 ft hill in one of desert Morocco’s ancient narrow river canyons and idly tossed a rock, exhausted. It popped open, and thought, hmmmm fossil- sure enough it had a perfect fern fossil. Broke another 10 and didn’t find anymore. Coming down eagerly rushed to big cafe to rehydrate, which turned out to be a fossil shop, where I brought a perfect full trilobite fossil for $1- with eyes (usually break off). My most treasured souvenir.

    Unless we evolve very quickly we won’t make it to even 1 million years AD.

  • Michael Hammerschlag

    Thanks for the link on horseshoe crabs bizarre blue copper-based blood. I thought a while ago that the bleeding stations of the companies harvesting this blood for the endotoxin test had to be incredibly creepy, and thought it would make an interesting horror story: the revenge of the ancient psychic horseshoe crabs.
    http://www.horseshoecrab.org/med/med.html

  • elapab

    After long time, found a topic which was discussed in college.
    http://ouropenmind.com

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