The Picture Show
10:36 am
Thu February 9, 2012

Time Travel And Photos Of Earth's 'Oldest' Animals

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 9:02 am

Photographer Piotr Naskrecki presented a hypothetical: "If someone said, 'We have a dinosaur in Central Africa!' — would you consider that worthy of conservation? If so, why?"

That was his way of putting me in place for asking why anyone would care about a creepy grasshopper in South Africa.

Apples and oranges, in a way, but he's making a point: That grasshopper is something like a living artifact, he explained; it has adapted for modern times, but it carries valuable information about Earth's past. Maybe it's not as cool as a dinosaur, but it's still worthy of attention, he says.

"It's very hard to explain why we should care," he admits, "and to be completely honest, there isn't a very good answer."

Naskrecki is a research associate and entomologist at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. He's also a photographer and has a whole book of critters and creatures you might never think twice about. It's called Relics: Travels in Nature's Time Machine.

"Relict organisms," Naskrecki writes in the introduction, "which I prefer to call simply 'relics' ... are often the last carriers of genes that have otherwise disappeared from the world's gene pool."

Take horseshoe crabs, for example. "It was already a living fossil when the dinosaurs first appeared," Naskrecki says excitedly on the phone. "They go back 450 million years. ... And the thing is that they have changed so little. It's like a peephole into the Jurassic — or even earlier."

But of the hundreds of horseshoe crab species that used to exist, there now remain only four, says Naskrecki, "and they are declining very fast."

Born in Poland, Naskrecki recalls an early obsession with natural history, which started with the discovery of a fossil. And he has been at it — doggedly — ever since. He travels the world doing research and documenting his findings.

"I am a scientist first, photographer and writer second," he says. "I recognize how powerful the tool of photography is in conservation."

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