BOOK REVIEW: Otherlands

Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds
Thomas Halliday
Random House
Copyright 2022 by the author

One of the most underrated works of art is not found in any small gallery or private collection. It is readily available for the public to view, prominently displayed in a well-known museum. It is the “Age of Reptiles” mural by Rudolph Zellinger, in the Peabody Museum at Yale University in New Haven, CT.

An “illustrated timeline” of some 300 million years of Earth’s history, Zallinger depicted not only dinosaurs and reptiles, but plants as well, using the best scientific information that could be had in the early 1940s. It’s one of the first attempts (and undoubtedly one of the most successful) at depicting the creatures of the distant past in as accurate and complete an environment as possible.

Needless to say, since then we’ve learned a lot about the dinosaurs and other living things of the deep past. Halliday, a paleontologist working out of the Natural History Museum in London, has taken all the new findings and has painted not a continuous mural, but rather a set of “dioramas” depicting each of the major geologic eras in Earth’s history. They aren’t collections of “things you might have seen at that time”; rather they are based on fossil evidence at specific locations – locations where, by pure luck, enough was preserved to give a good picture of all the life that inhabited the area.

So instead of trilobites, Tyrannosaurs, saber-toothed tigers, or other marquee creatures, we spend time with weird gliding lizards in a forest by a Triassic lake, giant penguins on an island off Antarctica in the Eocene, fungi and lichens surrounding a hot spring in Devonian Scotland…. Halliday uses these “snapshots” to illustrate important evolutionary points. How species diversify after a mass extinction, trying out all manner of forms and strategies. How a creature’s teeth can tell us what they ate – and how that helps us figure out the local environment. How the chance migration of species across the south Atlantic via large “rafts” of plant matter challenges our conception of what is a “native” species… And he doesn’t stick with dry, scholarly descriptions; he really does bring these worlds to life. Flies tumble through the air, predators lurk in the shadows, small creatures watch from their burrows, the seasons change… He does mention where things are uncertain, but doesn’t get into the academic controversies.

One thing you’ll notice right away is that the chapters are in reverse chronological order, starting with the Pleistocene and going back in time to the Ediacaran Era. Doing it from oldest to newest might have been great to show how life evolved and spread, but this way, going back to where the record is less and murkier, increases the awe and wonder the reader gets from the journey. The further back in time we go, the weirder life gets, until you’re dealing with creatures like the “Tully Monster”, which looks like it was rejected from a Dungeons & Dragons “Monster Manual” as being too ridiculous.

He wraps it up with an epilogue where he muses – as it seems one must, in any book on paleontology – about global warming and the current mass extinction. Humans are in a good enough position to survive through to the next era, and there are signs of creatures already adapting to the changing environment. And in the recent past, we’ve seen that we can work at the global scale to stop environmental degradation. All it takes is the will to do it – and the willingness to cooperate.

Each chapter has a map showing the Earth at the time in question, and pointing out where the particular batch of creatures being described came from. There’s also a nice black and white sketch of one of the animals highlighted in the chapter. The sketches, by Beth Zaiken, are great. But I can’t help but hope that somewhere, there’s another Rudolph Zellinger who can put everything together and show all of the creatures – animals, insects, and plants – from these long-gone worlds in all their glory.


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