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Good Reads  Palaeontology  Palaeozoology & Extinctions

Marvelous Microfossils Creators, Timekeepers, Architects

By: Patrick De Wever(Author), Hubert Reeves(Foreword By), Alison Duncan(Translated by)
256 pages, 100 colour & b/w photos, 200 colour & b/w illustrations
Richly illustrated, Marvelous Microfossils uses bite-sized vignettes to unlock the largely ignored discipline of micropalaeontology for a general audience.
Marvelous Microfossils
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  • Marvelous Microfossils ISBN: 9781421436739 Hardback Apr 2020 In stock
Price: £44.50
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About this book

Microfossils – the most abundant, ancient, and easily accessible of Earth's fossils – are also the most important. Their ubiquity is such that every person on the planet touches or uses them every single day, and yet few of us even realize they exist. Despite being the sole witnesses of 3 billion years of evolutionary history, these diminutive fungi, plants, and animals are themselves invisible to the eye. In this microscopic bestiary, prominent geologist, palaeontologist, and scholar Patrick De Wever lifts the veil on their mysterious world.

Marvelous Microfossils lays out the basics of what microfossils are before moving on to the history, tools, and methods of investigating them. De Wever describes the applications of their study, both practical and sublime. Microfossils, he explains, are extremely useful in age-dating and paleoenvironmental reconstruction, which are the bases of multi-billion-dollar investments in the oil, gas, and mining industries. He shares the stories of how microfossils made the Chunnel possible and unmasked perpetrators in jewel heists and murder investigations. Such practicalities aside, De Wever reveals that microfossils also created the stunning white cliffs on the north coast of France, graced the tables of the Medici family, and represent our best hope for discovering life on the exoplanets at the outer edges of our solar system.

Describing the many strange and beautiful groups of known microfossils in detail, De Wever combines lyrical prose with hundreds of arresting color images, from delicate nineteenth-century drawings of phytoplankton drafted by Ernst Haeckel, the "father of ecology", to cutting-edge scanning electron microscope photographs of billion-year-old acritarchs, the nature and functions of which remain elusive despite technological advances. De Wever's ode to the invisible world around us allows readers to peer directly into a microcosm that holds the keys to inquiries so massive that they traverse aeons of geologic time to illuminate how life arose on Earth.

This book was originally published in French in 2016 as Merveilleux Microfossiles: Bâtisseurs, Chronomètres, Architectes.


A Marvelous Microscopic World
What Is a Microfossil?
Why Study Microfossils

Part A
Part B
Part C
Part D

Geologic Time Scale
Photo Credits

Customer Reviews (1)

  • General popular introduction to micropalaeontology
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 1 Dec 2020 Written for Hardback

    Say fossils and what comes to mind are the big, the bad, and the sexy: dinosaurs, pterosaurs, marine reptiles – in short, macrofossils. But perhaps more important and certainly more numerous are the microfossils. Fossils so small that you need a microscope to see them. In this richly illustrated book, French geologist and micropalaeontologist Patrick De Wever offers bite-sized insights into a discipline that rarely gets mainstream attention but undergirds many human endeavours.

    Marvelous Microfossils immediately reminded me of Christian Sardet’s Plankton published by the University of Chicago Press in 2015. Both are large-format illustrated books on a mostly invisible world, originally published in French, that were picked up by American university presses. De Wever’s book was first published in 2016 by Biotope Éditions as Merveilleux Microfossiles and has now been published in English by Johns Hopkins University Press.

    The book follows a straightforward structure. Four thematic sections each consist of short, one-page vignettes on a certain topic with illustrations and photos on the facing page. A first section introduces the various microscopic techniques used to study microfossils, as well as their living counterpart, plankton. One vignette covers the birth of oceanography, notably the 1872-1876 H.M.S. Challenger Expedition, another later deep-sea drilling projects such as Glomar Challenger and JOIDES Resolution.

    A second section touches on the deep history of life and our planet as told through microfossils. Some of the oldest fossils, at 3.5 billion years old, were formed by thin films of photosynthetic cyanobacteria that trapped sediment and, layer by layer, slowly formed rocky accretions known as stromatolites. Other important chapters are the Great Oxygenation Event some 2.3 billion years ago when atmospheric oxygen levels rose dramatically, in the process rusting the planet’s iron reserves and forming the banded iron formations that we mine to this day. Another side-effect was the Huronian glaciation which turned our planet into a “Snowball Earth”. There was the formation of the ozone layer which allowed life to flourish closer to and ultimately on the surface, the contribution of plankton to fossil fuel reserves, and so forth.

    All of these subjects are deeply fascinating, and some have been the subject of excellent popular academic books. I cannot help but feel that De Wever’s vignettes are so brief as to barely scratch the surface. That said, where this approach comes into its own is the third part of the book where he surveys the diversity of microfossils. By now you may well be wondering who these microfossils are, what organisms they consist of. I would have started the book with this section. Mostly, they are members of the plankton community; the often translucent, near-invisible microorganisms that drift on ocean and freshwater currents. This encompasses phytoplankton capable of photosynthesis such as cyanobacteria, diatoms, dinoflagellates, and coccolithophores. But also numerous small animals: copepods and ostracods (tiny crustaceans), pteropods (tiny molluscs), sponges, foraminifera (amoeboid protists dressed in filigree skeletons known as tests), the very spiny radiolarians, more mysterious groups such as acritarchs and conodonts, and many others. Their dead bodies continuously rain down in the water column, with time forming sediments and rocks all of their own.

    The diversity of these groups is wild and the variation in shape and morphology defies the imagination. Seeing is believing, however, and the book includes a large number of photos and illustrations to help with that. Next to numerous (electron) microscope photos, De Wever draws heavily on the many drawings of the famed 19th-century German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, with over a third of the illustrations here from his oeuvre. Next to an influential biologist, he was also a skilled artist. Books such as Kunstformen der Natur and his illustrations for the reports of the Challenger expedition marry art and science.

    Haeckel makes a return in the book’s last part, which looks at how microfossils, buoyed by Haeckel’s fame, influenced 19th century (French) art and architecture, notably Art Nouveau. There are also glimpses, all too brief, of other fascinating artists who painstakingly arrange microfossils under the microscope into geometrically mesmerising microtableaux or carve delicate scaled-up wooden versions of marine plankton.

    Last but not least, microfossils are economically incredibly important. As they are so numerous and their morphology evolves quickly, they make good markers for biostratigraphy, i.e. for determining the age of rock layers based on their fossil contents. The latter is vital when searching for petroleum and minerals, or for large engineering projects where you need to know on what rock layers you are constructing heavy infrastructure and buildings. Due to their ubiquity, foraminifera and diatoms are particularly useful groups.

    There are very few popular books on micropalaeontology. Beyond the rare introductory textbook or welcome introductory guide to, say, diatoms, you will quickly find yourself confronted with journal articles and technical monographs, e.g. the long-running monograph series Bibliotheca Diatomologica from the German publisher Schweizerbart, and the Diatom Monograph series from Koeltz Scientific Books.

    In conclusion, Marvelous Microfossils is worth it for the illustrations alone and is readily accessible to readers with little to no background in geology, palaeontology, or marine biology. Although I would have liked more substance than the short vignettes De Wever provides, I cannot deny that he here unlocks for a general audience an academic discipline that is normally largely ignored outside of the professional community.
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Patrick De Wever is a professor of geology and micropaleontology at the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle. He is the author of Temps de la Terre, Temps de l'Homme and Carnet de Curiosités d'un Géologue. Alison Duncan is a translator and book editor. She earned her master of science in translation from New York University and her bachelor of arts in French and Francophone studies from Vassar College.

By: Patrick De Wever(Author), Hubert Reeves(Foreword By), Alison Duncan(Translated by)
256 pages, 100 colour & b/w photos, 200 colour & b/w illustrations
Richly illustrated, Marvelous Microfossils uses bite-sized vignettes to unlock the largely ignored discipline of micropalaeontology for a general audience.
Media reviews

"Crossing many domains of knowledge and know-how, from science and architecture to jewelry, literature, cosmetics, and design, this is a useful book for students, teachers, and amateurs. It will make a nice gift for anyone."
– Francis Meilliez, Université de Lille

"In Marvelous Microfossils, Patrick De Wever elegantly exhibits a wide range of specimens through scanning electron microscopic images. This beautifully illustrated and passionately written book is a delight to read!"
– Dominic Papineau, London Center for Nanotechnology

"Communicating his wonder at the diversity and fantastic forms of microfossils, Patrick De Wever's book does a marvelous job of exhibiting these amazing organisms."
– John R. Dolan, Laboratoire d'Océanographie de Villefranche-sur-Mer

"Enhanced by sumptuous images, Marvelous Microfossils reveals microfossils' amazing forms and fascinating architecture. Readers will be easily hypnotized by their patterns, their rhythms, their symmetries [...] a delight for the eyes, this book is also notable for its scientific intelligibility. The author is able to render his interest and the complexity of an invisible and inert world with a sharp literary pen, clear text, and simple and effective examples and organization."
– Rémi Luglia, President, Société Nationale de Protection de la Nature

"Initially an emotional thunderbolt for geologist and micropaleontologist Patrick De Wever, microfossils became the object of his research for decades. Sharing this feeling was his motivation to devote a book to the topic. To say the least, this book perfectly fulfills that function!"
La Recherche

"This book will make history! Because it is the fruit of a whole life's work dedicated to the study of microfossils. The author combines his qualities as a scientist with a great knowledge of the literature. His wish, to inspire us to look for the beauties hidden in stone, is fully realized in this beautiful and successful work!"
A Fond la Science

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