Some thirty million years ago, Europe’s plains and forests were populated by entelodonts, colloquially known as ‘terminator pigs’. Weighing in at four hundred kilograms or more and easily able to outrun Usain Bolt, they were carnivorous in the extreme, their heads ‘garishly ornamented with bony warts the size and shape of a human penis’. Entelodonts are but one of many species that may be familiar to palaeontologists such as Tim Flannery but will strike readers as weird and wonderful. Flannery also mentions the coryphodon, a seven-hundred-kilogram immigrant from the Americas that looked like a shrew, had a pea-sized brain and reached Europe some ten million years before the entelodont. Fauna of all sorts are scattered throughout Europe: A Natural History, which offers surprising revelations. If one thinks of natural history as a Darwinian struggle for survival, it may be surprising to learn that two of the most long-lived European species are the newt and the dormouse. Likewise, when imagining the species for which Europe was the originating hub, few of us would instantly plump for either hominids or corals, and yet both turn out to have had their earliest instantiations here.
Flannery takes great pleasure in opening up this world of surprises, describing it with verve and wit, but his aim is not merely to offer a cabinet of curiosities. He has more serious instructional purposes too. Chapter by chapter, the book unfolds the dazzling array of climates and ecosystems