First Life – Some Factual Errors

Just finished reading the book that accompanies the BBC television series “First Life” narrated by Sir David Attenborough.  First Life updates readers on the remarkable advances in our knowledge of how life first began on planet Earth.  Over the last fifty years or so, new research techniques and fossil discoveries have enabled scientists to gain a better understanding of how first evolved.  The book takes readers on a journey back in time to the key moments in the development of life on Earth, from the first single celled organisms through to the conquest of the land and the dominance of the arthropods in early terrestrial habitats.

The book is generally well written and provides an entertaining and informative read.

To see Everything Dinosaur’s review of this book: Book Review – “First Life”.

However, there are one or two interesting inaccuracies and anomalies that we have found in the text.  These sections of the book have led to more debate amongst our team members than any other part of what is, in general an excellent publication.

Sir David Attenborough

Firstly, in chapter 10, entitled “Landfall: The Worm that Walks”, part of the book dedicated to the conquest of the land by the first land living invertebrates, on pages 252-253 there is a computer generated image of an ancient marine ecosystem.  This seems somewhat out of place when considering the context of the chapter.  The scene shows a number of primitive marine organisms including Opabinia and Wiwaxia, creatures associated more with the Cambrian than with the geological time period when arthropods were first venturing out onto dry land.  At least the fossil evidence does not suggest land fall as early as the Cambrian Period.

Secondly, when discussing the success of the Insecta, the book states that insects have adapted to a whole range of different habitats. We don’t doubt the validity of this particular statement, but the narrative specifically refers to insects in marine environments.  In essence, despite their tremendous diversity very few insect genera have been able to adapt themselves to a truly marine, pelagic way of life (pelagic – living above the sea floor).  This lack of insects in truly, entirely marine environments is a puzzle for scientists.

In addition, in the final chapter – “Taking Wing: End to an Era”, there is a section that contrasts the internal skeleton of vertebrates with the exoskeletons of invertebrates. A rhinoceros is compared to a rhinoceros beetle.  We admit, some important points are made over the advantages and disadvantages of each type of support structure for an animal. However, when concluding this segment the writer states:

“The rhino, however, has an internal skeleton to give it strength and structure.  This skeleton grows with the rhino and is constantly replenished and strengthened throughout the rhino’s lifetime.  The rhino will never need to shed its skin, and so it is able to grow to an enormous size.  At full size, it grows to become the largest terrestrial creature on Earth, a feat that the beetles could never achieve.”

This is a surprising statement, although the several species of rhinoceros alive today are very large, the biggest, heaviest terrestrial vertebrate in our opinion would be the African elephant.  It seems strange that such a well researched and carefully compiled publication would include a number of mistakes.    Although we noted these occurrences it did not stop us enjoying what is an excellent book to accompany the BBC television series.

For models of even larger animals from the fossil record including dinosaurs and giant relatives of modern rhinos like Paraceratherium: Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal Models.