A reference book that devotes a chapter each to some of the more interesting (large) animals around the world. Much of the focus is on African fauna -A reference book that devotes a chapter each to some of the more interesting (large) animals around the world. Much of the focus is on African fauna - gorillas, lions, zebras, crocodiles, etc. - but Benyus also samples Asia, the oceans, North America and the poles. The selection is governed in large part by the animals' presence in zoos, and the author devotes the opening and closing chapters to critiques of zoos and how they can better accommodate their charges, and zoos' importance in a world where humans are short-sightedly destroying natural habitats at a frightening pace.
Five interesting things I learned:
1. Because black rhinos are so unsocial, mating rituals can be dangerous as "in response to early solicitations, the female is likely to attack." (p. 195)
2. The unfortunate myth that rhino horns promote sexual virility comes from the fact that copulation can last up to 1-1/2 hours.
3. Among male giraffes, dominance contests often cause erections and end in the winner mounting the loser.
4. Bottlenose dolphins exude a mucous from their eyes that helps them move through the water more easily.
5. Komodo monitors are not picky eaters. Smaller, younger monitors run the risk of becoming meals themselves if they get in the way of their larger cousins.
And one example of the need for editors:
There's a point in the book where Benyus uses the idiom "it doesn't faze the animal" but it's spelled "phase."...more
I could have done without the too-cute asides and double entendres but there is a serious point to this celebration of genitalia and that is:
I could have done without the too-cute asides and double entendres but there is a serious point to this celebration of genitalia and that is:
[S]tudying the evolution of genitalia has provided us with deep insights and spectacular panoramas on the history of life....
Somewhere in the deep folds of time, sex arose as a means to outrun fast-evolving viruses or help fix errors in the genetic code. Then a bacterium crawled into a primordial cell. To counter combat among cohabiting bacteria, separate male and female sexes, producing different sex cells...appeared. Rather than scattering these sex cells randomly...some organisms began packaging them...setting the stage for sexual selection...and giving us the bewildering array of form and function that we see today....
[G]enital evolution may also be the driving force for the origin of new species. If it is true that male genitalia are constantly evolving t adapt to female genitalia, and vice versa, then this dual adaptation could cause...speciation events....
And while I would not imply that the evolution of genitalia is the wedge driven between us and our primate brethren, it certainly has played it part in paving the evolutionary paths that these species have traveled.... (pp. 187-88)
It's too short for the topic it addresses (esp. the role of homosexuality in sexual selection) but it's interesting and the author gives a decent bibliography and annotations for those who want to get into more specialized literature....more
This time last year (Dec 2011/Jan 2012) was a particularly rough time for me and the Clan. In the space of four months, I lost three of my cats to varThis time last year (Dec 2011/Jan 2012) was a particularly rough time for me and the Clan. In the space of four months, I lost three of my cats to various medical complications:
Malcolm had advanced kidney disease for the last year of his life, which I spent giving him subcutaneous transfusions and worrying every day that I would come home from work and find him dead (view spoiler)[(A concern that would be mirrored with my other two.) (hide spoiler)] from kidney failure. As it turned out, he began bleeding uncontrollably when he cut his gum one morning and the vet put him to sleep just before Christmas (2011).
Calvin had hyperthyroidism for the last two or three years of his life. Outside of having to force a pill down his throat once or twice a day (depending upon the disease’s stage at the time), it was only in the last two weeks of his life that I had to take what might be considered extraordinary measures – sub-Q IVs, bottle feeding, more drugs to help his appetite. He wound up dying curled up with me early one morning about a week after Christmas.
Cassandra’s (or, as she was more commonly known, the Monkey) death was the real shocker. For the 16 years of her life, she was always the healthy one but one day I noticed she was breathing heavily and not eating. Within a week she was dead. Like Calvin, she died with me at home in April.
And I still have two geriatric cases to take care of: Emma, the Monkey’s sister, and Meggie (short for Megaera, one of the Erinyes, though my cat’s the sweetest-natured creature you could ever hope to meet). Emma has hyperthyroidism and an irritable bowel condition. She gets two pills once a day. Meggie also has irritable bowels, and she gets one pill a day plus a teaspoon of Maalox in her breakfast to keep her "reg’lur."
This is all prologue to why Jessica Pierce’s The Last Walk caught my eye. I had bought a copy for a friend (the same who gave me Emma and the Monkey) for Xmas, and I took the opportunity to read it for myself.
The book arose out of Pierce’s chronicling Odysseus’ (Ody), her own dog’s, year-long struggle with approaching death, and each chapter ends with an excerpt from her journal. It’s that latter part that makes the book stand out from similar endeavors – I could easily identify with the efforts she took to make Ody’s last months as comfortable as possible, the anxiety she felt every day that this would be the day, the questions about how far to go to keep him alive, and the guilty relief when it was all over.
In between, Pierce discusses how we treat our pets (or “animal companions,” as some would have it). She enumerates a set of guidelines, largely based on the UK Farm Welfare Council’s guidelines for treating animals:
1. Freedom from hunger and thirst 2. Freedom from pain, injury and disease 3. Freedom from discomfort 4. Freedom to express normal behavior 5. Freedom from fear and distress
And a sixth one she adds: Freedom to die a good death. (pp. 12-3)
Her ultimate conclusion – one that will not satisfy those who fear ambiguity – is that each case (just as with humans and how we deal with our deaths) is unique. It doesn’t matter how I acted in Calvin’s case, when Emma’s end comes or Oberon’s or any of the other cats’, I’m going to go through all the same questions and soul searching I did with him, e.g., How aggressive should I be in keeping him alive? (view spoiler)[For example, I don’t think I should have force fed him in his last days. He hated it; I hated it; and it didn’t make a difference in the end. (hide spoiler)]
The one thing I wish Pierce had explored more fully is what do you do when you aren’t in the privileged position (as both she and I are) where we can actually consider pet hospices, extensive (and expensive) vet tests and drugs. How should you deal with a pet when you can’t afford yearly wellness exams, vaccinations and a gold-plated health plan?
Other than that, an you’re a pet owner (sorry, companion) or not, Pierce’s book is valuable since it raises serious questions not just about how we deal with their deaths but also with how we deal with death in general (not very well, unfortunately). Even better, she doesn’t provide any easy answers.
And you can skip the Ody journal entries if you fear you’d have difficulties with the subject matter.
Ody was euthanized on November 29, 2010; I teared up as Pierce described the final decision and the fateful day not just because it’s well written and in no way mawkish but because it reminded me of the two painful nights and one awful morning that I had recently gone through.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The only fault I found in this book was the lack of photos. Sure, there are illustrations but when we're discussing Lactrodectus hesperus or xenopsylla cheopis or Theraphosa blondi, one expects and deserves glossy, hi-res, color photos of these "monsters."
I correct that fault - to an extent - with the following list of my five favorites:
#5: Body lice (Pediculus humanus humanus)
The titular louse of the book's title. These little fellows have been with us since we started wearing clothes (c. 100,000 years ago), and under the right conditions (overcrowding, unwashed clothing, war) are happy to carry diseases like typhus and trench fever. It's they who stopped Napoleon's Grande Armee and sent it fleeing back to France (whatever Russian patriots might say).
#4: Giant centipede (Scolopendra gigantea)
These beauties can reach lengths of 30 cm (c. 10 inches). Centipede venom is rarely fatal and its power is related to size - the bigger the 'pede, the stronger the venom. The bite of the North American species (Scutigera coleoptera) is nearly painless, and the insect eats other pests like bed bugs, silverfish, carpet beetles and cockroaches.
#3: Hairworm (Spinochordodes telinii)
This parasite zombifies grasshoppers. Hairworm larvae hang around in water until an unsuspecting grasshopper takes a drink. Once inside the 'hopper, it grows into an adult. But in order to complete its life-cycle, the adult has to get back to the water so it takes over the insect's brain and forces it to commit suicide by jumping into the nearest waterhole to drown.
#2: Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia japonica)
These insects are so large (5 cm, c. 2 inches) that they're mistaken for small birds, and their sting feels like "a hot nail through my leg," as one man described it. (p. 9)
Japanese scientists have based an energy drink on a liquid giant hornet larvae produce that has been shown to reduce fatigue and increase fat burning in mice and graduate students. Naoko Takahashi, Olympic gold-medalist marathoner, swears by the stuff.
#1: Brazilian wandering spider
This guy deserves two photos:
I was torn between the wandering spider and the giant hornet but my fascination with arachnids won out to put this dangerous hombre in the #1 spot. This spider reminds me of the facehugger from "Alien" - fast and aggressive. If you don't kill it with the first blow, expect to go mano-a-mano with a seriously pissed off, seriously venomous spider (an unlucky British chef bitten by one hiding in a crate of bananas spent a week in the hospital).
Bonus icky anecdote: There is a case of a woman who went into surgery for a suspected brain tumor. When the surgeon opened up her skull, however, he found that she was infested with tapeworms.
Pork - the other white meat :-)
Bonus lesson about interfering with Mother Nature: The lowly earthworm is generally considered a boon but this was not the case in Minnesota, where before the advent of the European nightcrawler (Lumbricus terrestris), the ecosystem had evolved without them. They devoured the layer of leaves that fell every autumn and the native flora began dying out. There's nothing to be done at this point except damage containment and hoping the ecosystem will recover. But it won't be the same environment that hosted Solomon's seal, large-flowered bellwort, wild sarsaparilla, meadow rue, sugar maples and red oak....more
The arachnids are my favorite arthropod (though I haven't gone so far as to name the ones I see around the apaI so much wanted to like this book more!
The arachnids are my favorite arthropod (though I haven't gone so far as to name the ones I see around the apartment as the author does hers).
* The photos are quite excellent. There's a selection of 38 color plates and many black-and-white pictures throughout the book. A few of the B&Ws are hard to make out but in most the contrast between spider and background is sufficient to make out what's going on.
* The author makes a good case about how just insanely complicated and interconnected nature is and how destroying even the most insignificant seeming part of it threatens to bring down the whole house of cards: "`It's like a game of Jenga,' disagrees Shardlow. `Take the bricks out one by one and the tower stays up, but take out one too many and the whole countryside may come crushing down.' The house sparrow's tumble towards Red Data Book status is linked to chick starvation, as aphids, spiders and craneflies have become scarcer." (pp. 218-9)
* The author also tells an inspiring story of overcoming her arachnophobia (perhaps too well) by confronting her fears.
The bad (and what dragged it from a default 3 stars):
* The book is very poorly organized and the author is not that great a writer. It's another example of a book that reads like a professor's lecture notes or the entries in a journal. Lynne needed to take more time (or her editor did) organizing the material.
That said, it was still an engrossing read. The subject matter alone kept me riveted so I'll recommend it to the interested....more
I am not a “dinosaur geek.” I have been or am an SF geek, a Trek geek, a Dungeon & Dragons geek, a history geek, a Shakespeare geek. I have been oI am not a “dinosaur geek.” I have been or am an SF geek, a Trek geek, a Dungeon & Dragons geek, a history geek, a Shakespeare geek. I have been or am many flavors of geekhood.
But I’m not a dinosaur geek.
I am an evolution-science geek, however, and any book that talks about evolution will always be on my provisional To-Read list. (And, while it doesn’t amount to geekery, I do like dinosaurs and will willingly watch PBS or Discover Channel specials about them. In fact, I’m reminded as I write these words about a show I instant-streamed on Netflix about dinosaurs. I forget its title but it was quite tragic as the dinosaur fossil they were showcasing revealed evidence of crippling injuries and the likelihood of an unpleasant, drawn-out death.)
I also get a frisson of sensual satisfaction when I contemplate just how marvelously amazing and incredible the story of life is on this planet, far more so than any delusional creation myth any Creationist could hope to imagine. Which brings up the opportunity to strongly recommend Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, tracing Earth life from the first bacteria to the present day.
Equally recommendable is this book. Scott Sampson writes well and clearly on a wide range of material as he lays out not only the history of dinosaurs but also the web of life which surrounded them – geography, climate, and all the other life forms that made up the Mesozoic environment. It’s a daunting task and there’s no attempt to write an exhaustive catalog of Mesozoic life but Sampson does succeed in evoking that long lost world and making you think about the complex relationships that sustain life on this planet. His purpose in this evocation is two-fold. One, it’s simply to recreate the world in which dinosaurs roamed based on the latest evidence. His second purpose is to get you to realize that this same complexity operates today, and that when the links in that chain are broken dire consequences ensue. I wasn’t shocked to read again about the awesome ongoing destruction of species, most of which in this epoch is at the hands of humans, but I was shocked to read about the numbers involved: There are around (ballpark figure) 13 million species in the world (of which only about 2 million have been discovered) and that by the end of the century, half may have gone extinct. It took Earth about 10 million years to recover the diversity it enjoyed at the end of the Mesozoic after the Chicxulub meteor fell 65 million years ago, and we’re well on the way to topping the die off from that catastrophe.
The first part of the book was old ground for me as I had encountered most of the information at earlier points in my reading. That said, it wasn’t boring. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, Sampson is an engaging writer and lays out the facts in an intelligent and easy-to-follow manner; and it never hurts to get a refresher course. I wouldn’t recommend this book for anyone younger than 14 or 15, and – even then – I’d only recommend it to budding paleontologists or adults who – like me – have an abiding interest in the subject. There are pictures but it’s mostly text, and that text doesn’t make allowances for grade-school reading levels. Actually, it wasn’t all old hat. Sampson does have a section about the energy levels found in any particular environment, and why most of the biomass is made up of plants, then herbivores, then predators. Again the numbers are astonishing: By the time you get to the level of predators, the energy extracted from the environment is on the order of hundredths of a percent, most is radiated away as heat.
The last few chapters of the book introduced new information for me in the guise of Sampson’s theory about dinosaur physiologies and the causes for their extinction. Of course, most readers will be aware of the controversy about whether dinosaurs were cold blooded or warm blooded. The earliest theories all cast them as cold blooded like their reptilian cousins. Starting in the 1960s, “rebel” paleontologists presented evidence that dinosaurs (some, at any rate) were actually warm blooded. Sampson rejects the idea that there’s a hard and fast line between the two. Like most evolutionary mechanisms, it’s a matter of compromise and balance. Dinosaurs show evidence of both cold-blooded and warm-blooded traits and most likely achieved a balance between the two, which Sampson calls “The Goldilocks Hypothesis.” This balance maximized the energy devoted to production (which includes reproduction) and maintenance (of body temperature), and succeeded in the Mesozoic environment to such an extent that dinosaurs were the dominant animal family for 160+ million years (and their descendants, the birds, are still pretty successful).
Why did the dinosaurs disappear (except for birds) 65 million years ago? Sampson writes that he started out in the gradualist school of theory, which says that climate change and other factors created environments many dinosaurs were ill equipped to handle and more successful organisms gained competitive footholds (including our mammalian ancestors). But he points out that at the end of the Mesozoic dinosaurs weren’t excessively less diverse than in earlier epochs. There had been a diminution in the number of species (or at least there appears to have been – Sampson is constantly pointing out that any theory is limited to recovered fossils, which can’t begin to tell the whole story; we’re always limited to speculation, albeit highly informed guessing) but there’s no reason to believe that the dinosaurian family was in danger of losing its overall dominance any time soon. Because of that, Sampson has come around to the idea that the dinosaurs were wiped out in a relatively short period of time. A period topped off by the Chicxulub meteor.
One of Sampson’s strengths is his ability to evoke the Mesozoic world. I was fascinated reading about how that world would have looked: No flowering plants (including grasses) until very late in the Cretaceous (the final era of the epoch); extreme seasonality in the first era – the Triassic – when all land was locked together in the supercontinent of Pangaea and plant life may not have been able to establish footholds much beyond riverine systems; balmier, less seasonal weather as the continents broke up and warm, shallow seas covered much of the land; there were no polar caps until late in the epoch; and there were no tropical rainforest-type environments, most biodiversity was found in the mid-latitude regions of the planet.
The ratio of production to maintenance between cold- and warm-blooded animals: Ectotherms (cold bloods) devote most of their energy to production; endotherms (warm bloods) to maintenance.
Even the largest predators of the Cretaceous were yapping puppies compared to herbivores like Apatosaurus (aka Brontosaurus). It’s likely a full grown Apatosaurus was effectively immune from predation (barring age or sickness making it vulnerable) so that T. rex focused on juveniles and smaller predators on eggs and babies.
Strongly recommended; a very enjoyable reading experience....more
Stephen Dalton is a recovering arachnophobe and his enthusiasm for his interest shines through in every page of this generalists' introduction to theStephen Dalton is a recovering arachnophobe and his enthusiasm for his interest shines through in every page of this generalists' introduction to the subject of "spiders." It's chock full of really cool photos, plus a nice little chapter at the end with tips on how to take pictures of the spiders in your neighborhood.
The only objection a reader may harbor is that we only get to see a relatively small portion of the "kingdom of the spiders" - England, with some discussion of European and North American species....more
The Geese of Beaver Bog is a wonderful book. It's a several-years-in-the-lives account of the title's geese as well as the bog's other inhabitants. ThThe Geese of Beaver Bog is a wonderful book. It's a several-years-in-the-lives account of the title's geese as well as the bog's other inhabitants. The author, Bernd Heinrich, is a professor of biology but this isn't a formal study of goose social lives. It's just a chronicle of the observations he made of the animals living in the ponds around his Vermont home. The main part is science light, though Heinrich appends a few, brief essays and a bibliography that discuss theory and direct readers to more "scientific" literature.
And the bog contains quite a collection of individuals. The "Summer of Love" never ended here as Heinrich witnesses mate-swapping and sybaritic promiscuity that would have Focus on the Family howling with dismay. But he also witnesses the adoption of stray goslings and the care parents take to make sure their children survive.
Heinrich establishes quite close friendships with four geese in particular: Peep, Pop, Jane and Harry (the wife-swapping pairs mentioned above), and he observes behaviors that aren't in the "geese textbooks" but reveal these birds as intelligent, feeling creatures who are not wholly governed by genetic programming but are independent actors.
One of the more interesting behaviors was a migration of parents and young from Heinrich's bog to a smaller pond a couple of miles away (which occurred every year that the author observed the geese). At first glance, it would appear insane to cross two miles of predator-infested woodland (including a manmade road) trailing days-old goslings. Heinrich reasons that, in part, the more open landscape of the second pond afforded a more comfortable environment for the geese, who evolved in tundra-like conditions. The manifest dangers were less of a cost than the benefit of the psychological comfort afforded by a wide open, defensible pond (a good bet on the geese's part since in both migrations observed, the entire families made it intact).
It's a human tendency to overgeneralize so that we speak of "the black community" or "evangelicals" or "the American people" as if these were real groups, all of one mind and body. Yet, when one flies closer to the ground, all the peaks and valleys, forests, and rivers come into sharp focus. That's one of the most attractive features of this book. By flying so close to the ground, Heinrich and his readers come to see the geese for the individuals they are.
I was planning on giving this book three stars - I "liked it" - but the last few pages actually made me sit up (literally, since I began looking for a piece of paper and a pencil to write down my epiphany). A light went off in my head as Heinrich inadvertently managed to articulate a philosophy of moral ecology that I had been seeking for years in order to justify how I felt about the world around me and how we should treat it. Essentially it comes down to two principles:
1. Every creature has the right to life but that right is circumscribed by the ecosystem's right to survive.
2. No species has the right to so overwhelm its ecosystem as to cause the extinction of another, and that includes humans and their, so far, unchecked intrusions into every biota on the planet.
Now, it would be morally unjustifiable and repugnant to implement any form of coerced population control (viz., China's one-child policy) but it is equally repugnant not to consider the optimum carrying capacity of an ecosystem and living in such as way as to maintain it (the Modern idea of unlimited economic growth is called "cancer" in medical circles and, there, is considered a bad thing). (I've read somewhere that the "optimum carrying capacity" of the U.S. is around 30 million to 40 million humans, a tenth of our current population.)
Even if you don't agree with Heinrich's philosophy, it's undeniable that animals are highly complex creatures with lives nearly as involved as humans' (certainly among the mammals, fish and reptiles), and have roles in a healthy environment crucial to everyone's survival.
It would behoove the reader to keep that in mind when considering the quality of our future here on Earth....more