Life: Extraordinary Animals, Extreme Behaviour, Martha Holmes and Michael Gunton (BBC Books 2009)
Probably the best BBC book I’ve seen: the beautiful photographs and the enlightening text complement each other perfectly. It’s not advanced biology, with equations and game theory, and it doesn’t give scientific names. But it does include some recent discoveries, like the rehabilitation of the Komodo dragon. If that’s the word:
The tissue damage from the bite is not enough to kill. Until recently, it was thought that bacteria in the dragon’s saliva poisoned its prey. But it has been shown now that the dragon, like some snakes, has venom, making it the world’s largest venomous animal. (ch. 5, “Frogs, Serpents and Dragons”, pg. 134)
The Komodo dragon has become more frightening. And also more interesting. But the book isn’t only about big and frightening: it’s also about strange and beautiful, like:
A tall Gersemia soft coral bending over to sweep tiny animals from the sediment. It does this when there isn’t enough food in the water for its polyps to trap. Once it has consumed everyting in a circle around itself, it will detach from whatever it is holding onto and crawl to a new spot. (ch. 1, “Extraordinary Sea Creatures”, pg. 39)
That’s in very cold water under “the ice in McMurdo Sound, in Antarctica’s Ross Sea”, as part of an “ancient, isolated and utterly unique community” of marine life: there are also sponges, starfish, proboscis worms and sea-urchins. The Gersemia looks both beautiful and graceful, bowing to the sediment like a jewelled and mobile tree, but those are human terms for an organism that probably isn’t even conscious. And all of those organisms that are conscious, like the mammals in the final three chapters, aren’t aware of how they look to us. Natural beauty – and its absence – aren’t designed for us, but the aesthetics of animals is an interesting topic.
Television wants powerful images and this book reproduces them from the series, like the “lioness charging across a river in the Okavango” on page 228. But I think the static image must be more powerful than the mobile one: the photograph freezes the chaos of splashing water and the pale gold perfection of the lioness herself. She wears a look of immense concentration and purpose and I’ve rarely seen a better example of the power and beauty of the big cats. On page 219, there’s an image of one of the big cats’ greatest enemies. It’s also powerful, but in a different way: “a yawning spotted hyena revealing a perfect set of teeth, specialized for cutting, tearing and grinding.” Hyenas are interesting but not attractive. Big cats are both, from the charging lioness to the cheetahs on pages 231-5 and the alert lynx on page 237.
So why is the cat-family, big and small, generally much more attractive than the dog-family? And why are bats often so grotesque? The bulldog bat sweeping up a fish on pages 242-3 has a flat snarling face, ginger fur, taut, veined wings, hook-like hind claws and what looks like a small dangling penis. Birds are often very attractive. Why not bats? Their hairiness and leathery wings are part of it, as are their faces, which are adapted for sonar and eating, not for appealing to human beings.
And then we come to the primates in the final chapter. Now we’re getting closer to home. The faces of each species has a distinct effect on humans, from the endearing spectral tarsier to the choleric red uakari and the melancholy macaque. And chimpanzees look more intelligent than gorillas. Their faces haven’t evolved for our eyes, but they trigger mechanisms in our minds all the same.
So do the insects, birds and fish earlier in the book. And the plants in the single chapter devoted to them, like the bamboo and the dragon’s-blood tree. Colour and line: beautiful and ugly, attractive and repulsive. But all of this bio-aesthetics is interesting and all of it’s governed by natural and sexual selection. And behind it all is Mathematica Magistra Mundi, Mathematics Mistress of the World, from the circle swept by a soft coral on the floor of an icy ocean to the pattern of veins in a bat’s wing and the stripes in a tiger’s pelt.