Serengeti on the Seine

Life in the Jurassic Sea ‘Duria Antiquior’ by Robert Farren
Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge
Robert Farren: Life in the Jurassic Sea ‘Duria Antiquior’ (An Earlier Dorset), circa 1850

Alytes obstetricans, the common midwife toad, may be as small as a bar of hotel soap with skin as drab as leaf litter, yet its life story is, quite simply, one for the ages. The job that lends the toads their informal name is done by the male. Come breeding season, a female toad will solicit the services of a male, who mounts her from behind, gripping her torso with his front legs while angling his rear toes to stimulate her genitals. A few minutes pass, he gives her midriff a firm squeeze, and out pops the “baby”: a glistening mass of toad eggs, linked together like pearls on a string, which the male promptly fertilizes with a shot of sperm. As the female hops away—her task is through—midwife becomes nursemaid: the male carefully untangles the inseminated strands of eggs and wraps them around his body. He will carry this cargo everywhere for the next month or two, cleaning and hydrating the eggs until they’re ready to hatch. Yes, he’s a model modern father.

Alytes is also more European than a pack of Gauloises cigarettes. As Tim Flannery explains in Europe: A Natural History, his deeply satisfying and splendidly written survey of the geological, zoological, climatological, and biophilosophical roots of that heavyweight set of coordinates we call Europe, midwife toads are among the only animals that survive from the dawn of the European project 100 million years ago. That is when the European subcontinent, then a tropical archipelago, began to consolidate and take the shape it more or less has today, and when Europe as a biologically distinct landscape emerged.

It was the last phase of the age of the dinosaurs, and Europe certainly had its share of fantastic giants. In 2002 researchers discovered in the Transylvania region of Romania what may have been the world’s largest pterodactyl. Hatzegopteryx had enormous, leathery wings that could enfold it like Dracula’s cloak or open to a thirty-foot span—about as long as a London bus—and a nine-foot head equipped with a dagger-like beak, perfect for spearing the smaller dinosaurs on which it preyed. Ammonite mollusks with spiraling opalescent shells the size of truck tires swam in the tropical waters off Europe, while in the north vast sheets of planktonic algae called coccolithophores bobbed in the waves, their skeletons destined to end up as the large chalk deposits found in Belgium, France, and, most famously, the white cliffs of Dover.

Nearly all of the “core fauna” from Europe’s infancy have long since gone extinct, but not the midwife toads. “More venerable and more distinctly European than any other creatures, the alytids are living fossils that should be considered nature’s nobility,”…

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