An Introduction To The Diverse History Of Life On Our Planet

Written by ‘David Attenborough’, ‘The Living Planet: A Portrait of the Earth’, is the companion volume to his incredibly successful BBC nature documentary series from 1984, which portrays the diverse history of life on our planet in staggering detail. This documentary series and the book is a follow up to his own much acclaimed series ‘Life on Earth’ from 1979 - which investigated the story of evolution - and carries on with his in-depth study in to the intricate and amazing ways in which animal life – and often human beings - adapts to their surroundings. This is a great way to get acquainted with the various habitats and the life that surround them on our planet.

The main focus of the book is to closely inspect the changes that are happening on our planet on a constant basis - the physical changes like mountains getting worn down by rivers and glaciers, rivers altering their courses, Lakes getting filled up with sediments converting them to marsh lands and even plain lands, continental drifts etc – and study how the animal and plant life respond to these changes.

“The story of the building of the Himalayas and their subsequent colonization by animals and plants is only one example of the many changes that are proceeding continuously all over our planet… Each of these physical changes demands a response from the community of plants and animals undergoing it. Some organisms will adapt and survive. Others will fail to do so and disappear. Similar environments will call for similar adaptations and produce animals in different parts of the world which comes from quiet different ancestors, but which bear a marked resemblance to one another. So almost every corner of the planet has acquired its population of interdependent plants and animals. It is the nature of these adaptations, that have enabled living organisms to spread so widely through our varied planet, that is the theme of this book.”

Attenborough doesn’t limit this search to any specific geographical spot on our planet; instead he inspects a wide variety of environments across the globe and explains to us the ways in which the living forms adapt to these physical changes with microscopic detail. The book is segmented into chapters based on the varied environments that Attenborough inspects for these evidences of adaptation.

In the chapter titled ‘The furnaces of the Earth’ we see a world that is in constant upheaval and undergoing physical changes due to volcanic activities and instances of life sustaining in such ‘fountains of hell’.

Hydrothermal vent tubeworms

Attenborough takes the reader to the Galapagos Islands and introduces the curious ecosystem that is thriving in a sea floor that is boiling with the hot chemical jets from the underwater volcanoes that form a ridge south of these Islands. In these seemingly non-hospitable conditions great concentrations of bacteria’s, immense tubeworms, huge clams and strange ‘blind white crabs’ form colonies of life. In another curious case of living forms utilizing the physical changes in their habitat, we meet the Maleo birds in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, that utilize the black volcanic sands – which remain heated both through volcanic steam and sunshine - at the beaches as artificial incubators for hatching their eggs.

The maleo [Source]

In the chapter titled ‘The seas of grass’, the reader gets a ringside seat to life forms, which live, in harmony with the vast open habitats provided by open plains covered with grass. In these unique habitats, which are formed by the tangled roots, matted stems and clumps of growing leaves we meet a variety of small inhabitants like termites, ants, worms, grass hopers etc and a variety of other bigger animals which thrive either on the grass and roots or on these small inhabitants.

Leaf-cutter Ants

While ‘leaf-cutter ants’ - the largest and most complex animal societies on Earth, next to humans - make use of the grass and leaves for their survival, other animals like anteaters, thrive on these ants and insects. Then there are life forms, which burrow into these grasslands like ‘burrowing owls’.

A burrowing owl

In the rich grasslands of North American Prairies we meet the magnificent Bison and the amazing story of them making a strong come back after getting almost extinct.

A herd of Bison

In the savannahs of Africa, Attenborough introduces us to some great instances of large herds of animals migrating from one location to another based on seasonal changes. One of the examples that he refer is the case of a million strength herd of wildebeests that migrate across the Serengeti.

A herd of wildebeests

The book composes of ten more chapters like these two, which we sampled, and the clarity and great detail with which they are drafted makes this a worthy volume to read.

Attenborough with his comprehensive knowledge, keen observation, eagerness and unlimited curiosity is a huge success even while presenting complex topics and he avoids technical scientific terms whenever possible and try to make what he is narrating crystal clear for the reader. This is definitely one of the best natural history titles and if you are a nature enthusiast, then this well researched, clean and crisp narrative with its selection of superb photographs will captivate you.