The Paleozoic Era, the "era of ancient life," lasted longer than the Mesozoic and Cenozoic combined.Entire evolutionary dynasties rose and fell in those long slow years -- first the ancient oddities of the Cambrian Period, then the vaguely familiar armored fishes of the Devonian Period, and finally the first great dynasties of land animals, the early reptiles and the synapsids. These books examine those organisms and the times they lived in.
Early Life: The Cambrian Period
The first major groups of multi-celled animal life on Earth appeared between 600 and 550 million years ago. The fossil record from those times is extremely fragmentary, so these are also some of the most mysterious animals in the fossil record. These books examine some of the oldest multicellular animal life known: the Ediacaran fauna and the bizarre Early to Mid Cambrian faunas like the Burgess Shale.
CRADLE OF LIFE: The Discovery of Earth's Earliest Fossils
Author: Schopf, J. William
Publisher: Princeton Univ. Press
J. William Schopf is one of a handful of palaeontologists who specialize in the very earliest multi-celled life forms known. This book is his personal look at the recent discoveries of Precambrian fossils, plus a lot of material on simple cell biology and some excellent photos of Precambrian fossils. Schopf is unfortunately not a very dynamic writer, so the book isn't as interesting as it could be. But it's still quite good, and a very interesting and useful reference.
CRUCIBLE OF CREATION, THE: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals
Author: Conway Morris, Simon
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press
The Burgess Shale is an immensely rich fossil bed located on a mountainside in western Canada. It was originally discovered almost a century ago by Charles Walcott, who interpreted many of the Burgess fossils as aberrant or ancestral forms of known groups of organisms. In the 1970s and 1980s, three British paleontologists re-examined and re-interpreted many of the Burgess Shale fossils. Simon Conway Morris was one of them. This book is his account of that work, and his interpretation of what it tells us about the history and evolution of life on Earth. This covers much of the same ground as Stephen Jay Gould's book WONDERFUL LIFE, but Conway Morris's book is much more up to date because it utilizes data that wasn't available when Gould wrote his book.
FOSSILS OF THE BURGESS SHALE, THE
Author: Briggs, Erwin, Collier
Publisher: Smithsonian Institute
This is a formal look at the nature and taxonomy of many Burgess Shale organisms. For each fossil, there's one or more photographs, a description, and a classification. The classification is firm in some cases and tentative in others, and the text is pretty clear as to which is which. There's little speculation on what the living organisms looked like or how they lived. The photographs are excellent and what text there is is very high quality, so it's a good book.
GARDEN OF EDIACARA, THE
Author: McMenamin, Mark
Publisher: Columbia Univ. Press
A look at the bizarre Precambrian fossils called the Ediacara fauna. The Ediacaran organisms are the first known major fossil fauna, dating from just before the start of the Cambrian Period. However, many of the Ediacarans are extremely strange organisms that show little resemblance to any later ones, either plant or animal.
Author: Gould, Stephen Jay
Publisher: W. W. Norton
This book brought the Burgess Shale out of obscurity. It's Gould's look at the Burgess Shale, and the 1970s-1980s re-evaluation of the Burgess fossils that showed just how strange many of them are. This is Gould at his best, a well-written and well-reasoned examination of a great puzzle of science and its solution. Unfortunately, it also shows some of Gould's flaws, as he tends to force interpretations onto the fossils and sometimes speculates a bit too freely. Still a very good read, and well worth having.
The Rise of Fishes
Fish may seem a rather dull topic, but there are more species of fish than all other types of vertebrates put together, and some of them are weird. And the weird ones that are around today can't hold a candle to the weird ones that were around in the past. To find out more about the strange finny creatures of days gone by and the other animals they shared their world with, try any of these:
DISCOVERING FOSSIL FISHES
Author: Maisey, John
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
A detailed look at fossil fishes, and the evolution of the fishes through geologic time.
LIVING FOSSIL: The Story of the Coelacanth
Author: Thomson, Keith S.
Publisher: Hutchinson Radius
The coelacanth is a very special fish. Coelacanths were once relatively common fishes in Earth's oceans. Then, at the end of the Mesozoic Era, they all vanished from the fossil record. At first, it was thought they had become extinct in the great dying that ended the Mesozoic. But it wasn't so. In the 1930s, a very peculiar fish was caught off the South African coast. It proved to be a new species of coelacanth. A few more have been caught since then -- some off South Africa, others off Madagascar, and most recently a few near some islands in the Indian Ocean.
RISE OF FISHES, THE
Author: Long, John A.
Publisher: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press
Another look at the evolutionary history of fishes. This book is richly illustrated with photos and drawings of fossil specimens.
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago Press
Comprehensive guidebook to the major orders, families, and genera of trilobites, covering specimens from all time periods and many parts of the world. Superb photography.
Early Land Life
These books deal with the first and second great waves of land life: the tetrapods (land-living vertebrates) and the flora and fauna that shared their world.
SYNAPSIDA: A New Look into the Origin of Mammals
Author: McLoughlin, John
Publisher: Viking Press
"Synapsida" is the formal name for the synapsids, a line of primitive tetrapods that eventually gave rise to the mammals. This book looks at the early synapsids and gives some ideas on when, how, and why they evolved into mammals.
WHEN LIFE NEARLY DIED: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time
Author: Benton, Michael J.
Publisher: Thames & Hudson