Richard Fortey

Richard Fortey is now a research associate at the Natural History Museum, having described his previous life there as a taxonomist in Dry Store Room No.1. He has just finished a book on ‘living fossils’.

An expedition to a hidden valley in Papua New Guinea in 2009 discovered a habitat whose living creatures had never been catalogued, a place so remote that even the people who live in the local highlands had never penetrated its rainforest. The explorers came across an unnamed species of woolly rat that was not afraid of human beings, probably because it had never seen any before: the wariness...

Tasty Butterflies: Entomologists

Richard Fortey, 24 September 2009

John Lubbock, Liberal MP and social reformer (he introduced the bank holiday into law in 1871), was also the founding father of scientific anthropology and an obsessive entomologist. Of his many books, the most successful, Ants, Bees and Wasps, ran to 18 editions. In 1872, he presented a wasp that he had tamed (allegedly) to the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of...

Hammers for Pipes: The Beginnings of Geology

Richard Fortey, 9 February 2006

On his release from jail, Gordon Liddy, the Watergate conspirator, set up as a radio guru, with a nationally syndicated show dispensing cracker barrel philosophy and a folksy view of the world. A few years ago, I found myself a guest on the show as part of a tour to promote a book I had written on the long history of life on Earth. Liddy’s avuncular manner belied his previous history,...

Archaeology is Rubbish: The Last 20,000 Years

Richard Fortey, 18 December 2003

An excavation made in 1975, behind the town of Vedbaek in Denmark, revealed the body of a tiny child laid to rest in the embrace of a swan’s wing. Next to the skeleton was the grave of the child’s young mother, dead in childbirth, her remains decorated with snail-shell beads and pendants; her face had been dusted with red ochre, the better to seem alive. Mother and child had been...

Published anonymously in 1844, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was a history of everything, from the beginning of the Universe and the solar system to the spiritual destiny of mankind. It purported to include all the latest scientific discoveries. The story was conceived in a progressive mode, and written to be inspirational: the progression from first things to the advent of man...

In 1901, a frozen mammoth’s penis was discovered on the Berezovka River in Siberia. The organ was erect, nearly three feet long and, having been flattened in the icy tundra, eight inches in diameter. The mammoth’s testicles, equally frozen, were tucked inside the overlying carcass. The meat was dark and marbled, like properly hung beef. Otto Herz and Eugen Pfizenmayer, who made...

Prophet of the Rocks: William Smith

Richard Fortey, 9 August 2001

The birth of almost every science has been achieved with the help of a map. Astronomy began by mapping the stars. Anatomy – and modern medicine – is indebted to those flayed bodies laid out with such excruciating clarity in Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica. Mendeleev’s periodic table of elements gave inorganic chemistry its logic: the famous chart, which used to be...

In 1586, William Camden reported in Britannia, his travel guide to British curiosities, that the bones of giants had been discovered in Essex. The evidence took the form of limb bones the size of small tree trunks, and enormous teeth. The local people were familiar with legends of their oversized forebears, and the bones provided visible testimony to the history behind the legends.

As in...

No Such Thing as a Fish: cladistics

Richard Fortey, 6 July 2000

In 1952, Gustav Wängsjö published a 612-page monograph on early fossil vertebrates from the Arctic island of Spitsbergen. These fossils were the remains of sluggish, fish-like animals covered in bony plates, on which, more than 380 million years ago, the finest details of nerves and arteries had been as faithfully impressed as fingerprints in clay. Wängsjö studied them with the care that a criminologist might apply to the dabs of a suspect, but the most remarkable feature of his monograph is its postscript. In the space of two pages Wängsjö was forced to retract most of what he had written in the previous six hundred. His interpretations were not correct, he confessed; instead, his findings confirmed the previously published ideas of Erik Stensiö, doyen of Scandinavian palaeontologists. It was reported that Stensiö had said, when Wängsjö presented his dissertation: ‘If you publish this, you will amount to nothing more than a schoolmaster in Norrköping.’ Thus did academic authority cauterise the truth; for time has confirmed most of the younger man’s conclusions. Stensiö lived to more than ninety, working every day in the Natural History Museum in Stockholm. Wängsjö became a schoolmaster in Norrköping. That’s authority for you.‘

On 23 May 1909, Jacques Deprat left France for Hanoi with his young family to start a career as a geologist in the Service Géologique de l’Indochine. His advancement had been won against the odds. His beginnings were humble, if respectable, and he had progressed by virtue of hard work. He had published brilliant papers on the geological structure of Corsica, which had eventually earned him the respect of a distinguished sponsor, Professor Termier at the Ecole des Mines in Paris. At the turn of the century the academic hierarchy in France was rigid and class-ridden, and Deprat would have got nowhere without a patron. In the colonial service the snobbery was compounded; with the right background you didn’t have to do much to survive and prosper. The kind of lassitude that George Orwell describes so well in Burmese Days was to be found equally among the French colonies to the East: a sweltering indolence encouraged social intrigue and discouraged intellectual effort.

Most Curious of Seas: Noah’s Flood

Richard Fortey, 1 July 1999

When the water started to rise, all the fish floated to the surface of the lake, bloated and dead, or convulsively dying. The people of the lakeside watched their livelihood disappear within a few days – there was no stopping the inundation. One of the tribal elders noticed the water had taken on a salty taste. Soon, it was lapping at the skimpy foundations of the wooden huts: there was nothing to do but flee before the onrush with what could be carried. Terrified refugees from tribes to the east reported a great roaring sound. Those who delayed were drowned. In a matter of weeks the water level rose four hundred feet.

Shock Lobsters: The Burgess Shale

Richard Fortey, 1 October 1998

Five hundred and twenty million years ago, in the Cambrian sea, there swam and crawled a bizarre array of animals. There was Opabinia, which carried on its head a veritable cluster of eyes, not to mention a huge anterior ‘sucker’. There was Anomalocaris, a swimming creature as large as a baby shark, equipped with two horrid grasping arms – jointed for all the world like those of a lobster – but with a body apparently as slick as a squid and weirdly flapped along its side. There were worms dusted with scales as dense as the down on a chick. Oddest of the oddities was Hallucigenia, a small, spindly, spiky thing, yet with tubular organs, and what may or may not have been a head. The Cambrian ocean swarmed with sea-going arthropods: jointed-legged animals, now familiar as lobsters and lice, beetles and bees, spiders and scorpions. Their original discoverer C.D. Walcott dubbed the commonest of these Cambrian beasts ‘lace crabs’: creatures as delicate and diaphanous as ostrich feathers, but crested in a way unlike any shrimp or woodlouse. And alongside this Marrella there were knobbly, prawn-like creatures and a dozen more puzzling or peculiar, like Sidneya inexpectans or Waptia. This was the world of the Burgess Shale, and all these creatures are known only from fossils preserved as subtle, silvery films laid out on slabs of dark shale.’‘


Richard Fortey, 2 October 1997

On 21 August 1986, Hadari, a peasant farmer in the highlands of the Cameroon, was woken by a rumbling sound. Startled, he observed vapours pour from the edge of the nearby volcanic Lake Nyos, to form a miasmic cloud which silently spilled over the edge of the lake and sought lower ground, like a heavy morning mist. By the following day seventeen hundred people lay dead in the valley villages of Subum, Cha and Nyos. The corpses of their cattle lay strewn about, surrounded by the motionless bodies of the flies that had plagued them in life. Nothing that needed to breathe survived. What Hadari had witnessed was a volcanic eruption consisting only of the heavy gas carbon dioxide, a gas that smothered the villagers as it flowed down to the low ground. Survivors described a sensation of weakness in the legs, an unendurable lassitude. They felt weighed down, exhausted unto death: a subtle eruption all the more horrible for its stealth.

I was appalled to read that Henry Gee (Letters, 20 July) considers part of my review of his book Deep Time to be an attack on the late Colin Patterson. It was not – my quarrel was solely with Gee’s ossified version of Patterson’s views. I was both a friend and admirer of Patterson; indeed, I published a memoir of him last year in the Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society wherein...

70 Centimetres and Rising: plate tectonics

John Whitfield, 3 February 2005

Alfred Wegener, born in 1880, pioneered the use of balloons in meteorology, and in 1906 broke the endurance record by staying up in the air for 52 hours. He spent several years studying the...

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