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Archive for the ‘Biology’ Category

Super Bugs: The Biggest, Fastest, Deadliest Creepy Crawlies on the Planet, John Woodward with Dr George McGavin (Dorling Kindersley 2016)

Super Bugs is a big and lavishly illustrated book aimed at children, but I think adults will get the most out of it. It beats film and the internet on their own ground: the images are very powerful and very detailed. In fact, if you’re an arachnophobe or an entomophobe, I wouldn’t recommend opening it. There are spiders here as big as hats and beetles as big as small dogs.

I’m fascinated rather than repulsed by spiders and insects, but I wouldn’t like to meet a vinegaroon in the flesh – or in the oil-dark, glittering carapace. But vinegaroons, or whip scorpions, look more ferocious than they are. They defend themselves by spraying a vinegar-like chemical, hence their name. Not deadly.

Centipedes and real scorpions, on the other hand, are as fearsome as they look. The giant centipede on pages 52 and 53 is magnified to the thickness of an arm, with poisonous fangs as big as fingers. I was uncomfortably reminded of James Bond’s encounter with a giant centipede in Dr No (1958), but the image would probably been more disturbing if it had been life-sized, rather than much bigger.

Then it would have looked more real. A centipede can’t grow as big as an arm and you don’t have to know about oxygen-diffusion and the inefficiency of arthropod respiration to understand that. But we would have understood centipedes and other arthropods quicker if they were so big, because then we would have seen the details of their bodies more clearly. The microscope has been essential to the development of modern science and the giant photos here are a reminder of that.

So are the short but interesting texts that accompany each photo section. There is a world of wonder inside and outside the most ordinary-seeming insect. Not that any insect is really ordinary, but this book collects some of the strangest, from wasps with metal in their ovipositors to beetles that look like violins. Plus peacock spiders, anaesthetic-equipped ticks, and star-shaped-egg-laying tardigrades, which might be called the toughest of the tiniest.

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Butterfly, Thomas Marent (Dorling Kindersley 2013)

The best book on butterflies and moths I’ve ever owned was a translation from Italian. It was illustrated by hand and had a lot of serious science in it. This book by the Swiss author Thomas Marent is very good too, but in a different way. It uses big photographs taken by Marent and doesn’t have much text. The photographs are spectacular: far larger than life. And many of them definitely put the λεπιδες into lepidoptera.

That’s the lepides, the “scales” after which this group of insects are named. The colours and patterns of the lepidoptera, or scale-wings, are formed like mosaics, by the arrangement and structure of tiny scales on their wings. Or mostly like that. Some butterflies and moths have transparent wings, like the wasp- and bee-mimics shown towards the end of the book. Before that, Marent covers all the most famous and beautiful varieties of butterfly, from the peacocks and swallowtails of Europe to the birdwings of Asia and the morphos of South America.

There are many obscure ones too, plus some beautiful moths. But a large section of the book is given over to colours, patterns and shapes that aren’t beautiful. Instead, they’re strange or grotesque, because they belong to lepidopteran larvae, not adults. Caterpillars can be garishly coloured or subtly camouflaged. They can have spikes, knobs, horns or irritating hairs. They’re often poisonous and when they are, it pays them to advertise. In some ways, they’re the most interesting part of a lepidopteran’s life-cycle and it’s good that they get a lot of attention here.

For one thing, it heightens the beauty of the adults and of the pupae and chrysalids from which the adults emerge. A double-page is given over to:

The gleaming, mirror-like sides of the orange-spotted tiger clearwing pupa (Mechanitis polymnia) in Colombia[, which] provide camouflage by reflecting the light and colours of the surrounding rainforest. After rainfall they seem to disappear among the glistening wet leaves. (pg. 140)

Thomas Marent has travelled the world to photograph specimens for this book and his work has definitely been rewarded. And there is some serious science in the captions and the introductions to each section: “Identity”, “Anatomy”, “Transformation”, and so on. A lot of people like lepidoptera and a lot of books get published about them, but this stands out in a crowded field.

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Francis Walker’s Aphids, John P. Doncaster (British Museum 1961)

Is this a candidate for Russell Ash’s and Brian Lake’s classic collectors’ guide Bizarre Books (1985)? Yes, I’d say so. It’s not as outré or eccentric as Who’s Who in Barbed Wire (“Containing ‘Names and addresses of active barbed wire collectors’”) or Walled Up Nuns and Nuns Walled In (“With Twenty Illustrations”), but few books are. I’ve certainly never seen a book about aphidology before.

I didn’t even know the word existed. Do aphids deserve a discipline of their own? I’ll let Thomas Aquinas answer that:

[C]ognitio nostra est adeo debilis quod nullus philosophus potuit unquam perfecte investigare naturam unius muscæ: unde legitur, quod unus philosophus fuit triginta annis in solitudine, ut cognosceret naturam apis. – Expositio in Symbolum Apostolorum (1273).

Our understanding is so weak that no philosopher can understand the nature of a single fly; whence it is read, that one philosopher was thirty years in the wilderness, that he might understand the nature of the bee.

For apis read aphis. The philosophus in this case may have begun his obsession like this:

Francis Walker seems first to have turned his attention to the study of aphids in the autumn of 1846 when he observed them swarming and ovipositing on furze. In the summer and autumn of the following year he made copious and systematic collections of such species as he could find in the neighbourhood of his home in Southgate, at that time a country town a few miles north of London. (“Walker’s Aphid Studies”, pg. 1)

Walker was employed as an entomologist at the British Museum and this book is an attempt to analyse what he collected and named. It’s very detailed and might seem very dry. But there’s a lot of food for the historic imagination in descriptions like this:

Aphis particeps Walker = Myzus persicae (Sulzer)

1848 Zoologist, 6, 2217.

1852 List Homopt. Ins. Brit. Mus., 4, 1011.

Collected with four other species from Cynoglossum officinale near Fleetwood, Lancashire, in October, and described as follows:

The wingless viviparous female. The body is pale brown, small, oval, shining, and rather flat; the antennae are pale yellow and longer than the body; the rostrum is pale yellow; its tip and the eyes are black: the tubes are pale yellow and rather more than one-fourth of the length of the body; the legs are pale yellow; the tips of the tarsi are black. (pg. 103)

Cynoglossum officinale is a purple-flowered, sand-growing wildflower whose common name is hound’s-tongue. The officinale of its specific name is a reference to its use in herbal medicine. In Anglo-Saxon times and the Middle Ages, herbalists or magicians would have been picking its leaves; in the nineteenth century, a scientist called Francis Walker was picking aphids off it.

There’s a vignette like that with many of the other descriptions, as Walker simultaneously collects aphids and moments of his own life. I think he must have been an odd and obsessive man, but he had colleagues, even although aphidology can never have been a crowded profession. The description for “Aphis bufo Walker = Iziphya bufo (Walker)” notes that this species was

Found in the beginning of October by the sea-shore near Fleetwood [Lancashire] on Lycopsis arvensis, the small bugloss; also by Mr. Hardy near Newcastle on Carex arenaria, sand reed, and by Mr. Haliday near Belfast. (pg. 37)

Were Walker, Hardy and Haliday rivals as much as colleagues? I like the idea of obsessive aphidologists racing each other to find and record new species. Francis Walker could have been a character in a story by Arthur Conan Doyle or H.G. Wells. Ernest Rutherford is said to have divided science into two branches: physics and stamp-collecting. That’s unfair, but aphidology and other branches of entomology and natural history are like subtler and stranger forms of stamp-collecting.

The similarities were stronger in Victorian times, before biology began to merge with chemistry and mathematics. Indeed, Walker began his collecting well before Darwin published The Origin of Species (1859) and perhaps he didn’t like the new science. The preface to this book notes that “Walker’s name has come to be a by-word among insect taxonomists for his inaccuracy and superficiality”, but praises him for making a “significant and important advance in aphidological knowledge” and says that his “catalogues and lists formed the nucleus [of] the vast collections of today”.

“Today” was 1961, but this is a very neat and well-printed book in a solid green binding. I hope Francis Walker would have been pleased by it and by the thought that he’s inspired someone in the twenty-first century to look at aphids with new interest and wonder.

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Philip’s Guide to Seashells (sic), A.P.H. Oliver, illustrated by James Nicholls (various dates)

Number is all, as the Pythagoreans recognized more than two millennia ago, but number is more obvious in some places than others. When you leaf through this book, you’re leafing through a catalogue of mathematical possibility: the endlessly varying shapes, sculptings, colours and patterns of seashells are in fact governed by evolutionary changes in a few relatively simple variables. The black-spotted, drill-like spiral of Terebra sublata might look very different from the orange-tinged, flattened, scorpion-like Lambis crocata, with its seven curved spikes, but the two species descend from the same ancestor as every other shell on display.

From the same ancestor as shell-less land- and sea-slugs too. But readers should remember that this book is a morgue as well as a museum: rich and beautiful as the shells are, the living animals and their biology are richer and more beautiful still. The living animals are sometimes deadly too: the very beautiful cone-shells have killed humans with their stings.

But the shell remains when the animal is dead, and can be collected and studied in isolation. That’s why almost all of the book is devoted to the more or less snail-like univalves, with the more or less scallop-like bivalves given only a few pages at the end. Generally speaking, univalve shells are much stronger and much more durable. They’re also more varied in both architecture and patterning: anyone who’s played with cascading cellular automata will often find the designs on the shells of cowries and cone-shells startlingly familiar. But they were doing it millions of years before us.

The cowries have a sexual charge too, with their tight, pudendal slits: their generic name, Cypraea, is taken from a title of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. The apertures of other genera gape and glisten even more suggestively, imitating the labia of every human race and many abhuman ones. Is that part of the appeal of shell-collecting? I don’t know, but it doesn’t have to be, because it doesn’t appear in every shell and can’t be seen when the shells in which it does appear are turned over.

And they look better like that: Cypraea caputdraconis (sic), or the dragon’s-head cowrie, looks like unzipped black jeans lying on its back, but like a black, silver-flecked jewel lying on its front. It’s found only on Easter Island too, which is one of the many interesting snippets you can pick up from the short descriptions accompanying each highly skilled illustration.

But the illustrations aren’t, alas, as highly skilled as they could have been: in the reflections on many of them you can see the wooden dividers in the window of the room in which they were painted. That might have been quirkily attractive once or twice, but repeated over and over it becomes irritating. It could have been avoided, or the artist could have set up other reflections: palms, sea-birds, clouds, and even the moon or stars, as though the shells were still lying on a tropical beach.

Fortunately, it affects only the shiny and relatively undistorting surfaces of genera like the cowries and it’s only a minor blemish in a beautifully designed and well-written guide to a fascinating subject. And as always, the scientific names can have an appeal all of their own: we’ve already seen Cypraea caputdraconis, but what about Conus thalassiarchus, the Sea-Lord Cone, or Cirsotrema zelebori, whose meaning I have no idea of?

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The Cactus Handbook (Der Kakteen Führer), Erik Haustein, translated by Pamela Marwood (Cathay Books 1988)

This book reminds me of the Philip’s Guide to Seashells, because it carries the same important themes: cacti can look very different, but they descend from a single common ancestor and their shape and color are governed by evolutionary changes in a few relatively simple variables.

But there is one big difference between shells and cacti: the shells are dead and don’t change any more; the cacti are living and do. That means that there can be a startling contrast between the vicious spikes or blistering hairs of a cactus, intended to permanently deter, and its beautiful flowers, intended to periodically attract. Notocactus ottonis, for example, is a ridged ball of tough green flesh set with dozens of spikes; its flowers are a beautiful little fountain of yellow petals. Parodia sanguiniflora has even more spikes and even more beautiful flowers: a spray of scarlet petals around a golden heart of anthers and stigma. If the book was scratch’n’sniff, the contrast would because even sharper, because the flowers often smell attractive too.

All of that is adventitious from the human point of view, because the flowers and scent aren’t intended to attract us. But they do, and so do the strangeness and toughness of cacti, which is why a German author has written a highly detailed guide to plants from South and Central America. Some could probably never be grown in Germany, being far too large and demanding even for a specialist greenhouse; others can be grown anywhere with simple equipment.

And once again, as with any sufficiently detailed book about plants or animals, the scientific names have an appeal of their own: Mitrocereus fulviceps isn’t properly illustrated and perhaps could never live up to its name, which means something like “wax-cap tawny-head”, while the name Gymnocalycium horridospinum combines beauty and threat in the way the plant itself does. Its spines are indeed “horrid”, but beautiful violet-pink flowers sprout between them.

The cone-shells provide a similar contrast between beauty and deadliness, but you don’t actually see the deadliness of a cone-shell. However, you need a specialist vocabulary to describe both cone-shells and cacti properly, and both these books will help you acquire one. Being dilettantish, I haven’t put the effort in, but I know I should do, because it would help me to a deeper and richer appreciation of what I’m looking at.

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restless-creatures-by-matt-wilkinsonRestless Creatures: The Story of Life in Ten Movements, Matt Wilkinson (Icon 2016)

A fascinating book about a fascinating thing: the movement of plants and animals. It’s also a very familiar thing, but it’s far more complex than we often realize. Human beings have been watching horses gallop for thousands of years, but until the nineteenth century no-one was sure what was happening:

The man usually credited for ushering in the modern study of locomotion is the brilliant photographer Eadweard Muybridge. […] His locomotory calling came in 1872, when railroad tycoon and former California governor Leland Stanford invited him to his stock farm in Palo Alto, supposedly to settle a $25,000 bet that a horse periodically becomes airborne when galloping. (ch. 1, “Just Put One Foot in Front of Another”, pg. 16)

To answer the question, Muybridge used a series of still cameras triggered by trip-wires. And yes, galloping horses do become airborne: “not when the legs were at full stretch, as many had supposed, but when the forelimbs and hindlimbs were at their closest approach.” However, Matt Wilkinson calls another man “the true founding father of the science of locomotion”: the French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey, who had been investigating movement using a stylograph. In fact, it was Marey who first proved that galloping horses become airborne (ch. 1, pg. 19). Muybridge’s photographs were dramatic confirmation and the two men began to collaborate.

Marey also pioneered electromyography, or the recording of the electrical impulses generated by moving muscles. Like the rest of modern science, biokinesiology, as the study of animal movement might be called, depends on instruments that supplement or enhance our fallible senses. It also depends on mathematics: there is a lot of physics in this book. You can’t understand walking, flying or swimming without it. Walking is the most mundane, but also in some ways the most interesting, at least in its human form. Bipedalism isn’t an everyday word, but it’s an everyday sight.

What does it involve? How did it evolve? And how important was it in making us human? Wilkinson looks at all these questions and you’ll suddenly start seeing your legs and feet in a different way. What wonders of bioengineering they are! And what a lot of things happen in the simple process of “just putting one foot in front of another”. Scientists still don’t understand these things properly: for example, they can’t say whether or not sport shoes are dangerous, “lulling us into a false sense of security, causing us to pass dreadful shocks up our legs and spine without our being aware of them” (ch. 1, pg. 29).

But there’s much more here than horse and human locomotion: Wilkinson discusses everything from eels, whales, pterodactyls, bats and cheetahs to amoebas, annelid worms, fruit-flies, zombified ants and the “gliding seed of the Javan cucumber Alsomitra macrocarpa”. He also discusses the nervous systems, genes and evolution behind all those different kinds of movement. This book is both fascinating and fun, but I have one criticism: its prose doesn’t always move as lightly and gracefully as some of its subjects do. Wilkinson mentions both Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. I wish he’d written more like the latter and less like the former. If he had, a good book would have become even better.

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british-butterflies-by-david-dunbarBritish Butterflies: A History in Books, David Dunbar (The British Library 2012)

This isn’t a book about British butterflies, but a book about books about British butterflies. There have been a lot of them and David Dunbar does a good job of providing a comprehensive guide for collectors. He begins with the Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum (1634), the Theatre of Insects or Tiny Animals, which is based on a manuscript by Thomas Moffet. Was Moffet the father of Miss Muffet of nursery-rhyme fame? Maybe. He was certainly a pioneer of British entomology and “the original Latin edition of Insectorum Theatrum must be regarded as the cornerstone of any collection of early entomological books”.

If you want that cornerstone, you’ll have to be rich: it was listed for £4,141.72 at Abe Books in 2016. I would be happy with a facsimile myself. I used to own a facsimile of perhaps the most famous book discussed here: Moses Harris’s The Aurelian (1766). Dunbar discusses the original, mentions the facsimile, and reproduces some of Harris’s beautiful illustrations showing butterflies and moths with their food plants. He explains the book’s puzzling title too: “Aurelian” is an old word for a lepidopterist and comes from Latin aurum, “gold”, referring to gold spots or colours on a chrysalis (from Greek khrysos, “gold”). The metamorphosis of lepidoptera from ugly or strange larva to inert chrysalis to light-winged adult is a large part of their appeal. Lepidoptera can be like flying flowers and have attracted artists for millennia.

For example, Hieronymus Bosch gave “the wings of meadow browns and small tortoiseshells” to demons in his painting The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1490). There’s nothing as strange as that here, but there are a lot of illustrations: almost every page has something attractive or interesting to look at, as Dunbar traces butterfly books from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first. He discusses artists like F.W. Frohawk (1861-1946) and scientists like E.B. Ford (1901-88), but he concentrates on bibliography, not biography. You’ll have to look elsewhere to learn that butterfly-fanciers have a lot in common with orchid-fanciers: they can be strange and obsessive people.

But then butterflies are Ballardian: they combine beauty with strangeness. On page 111 you’ll find the beauty in the colours and patterns of the Large Heath buttery; on page 110 you’ll find the strangeness in a series of “line drawings of butterfly genitalia” from The Genitalia of the British Rhopalocera and Larger Moths (1941).

The genitalia look like spiky seed-pods or torture instruments for aliens. They are still best represented as line drawings, but photography has gradually begun to dominate butterfly books, as you’ll see here. I prefer paintings and drawings myself. There’s a magic to art that resonates with the magic of butterflies, and true art has survived better in natural history illustration than it has in many other places. And Dunbar even has space to discuss butterflies on cigarette cards and wall-charts. He knows his subject inside out and this book about butterfly books proves it.

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A Sting in the Tale by Dave GoulsonA Sting in the Tale, Dave Goulson (Jonathan Cape 2013)

I was looking forward to this book a lot after reading A Buzz in the Meadow (2014), which is the follow-up. I was disappointed. It’s a good book, but it suffered by comparison, seeming scrappier and less well-written than Buzz. And perhaps I was comparing it with Gerald Durrell’s books too, because Goulson starts by describing his childhood as a budding naturalist. He kept birds, amphibians and reptiles, collected insects and birds’-eggs, and dabbled in taxidermy. Like Durrell, he had a lot of failures and made a lot of mistakes, but that was part of learning his future profession.

By the time he was grown-up and a proper biologist, he’d discovered his main interest: bumblebees, which are the chief subject of this book. If you’re interested in them too, A Sting in the Tale will be a good introduction to their fascinating world. They illuminate many areas of biology, from genetics to parasitism, and they’re important to human beings not just agriculturally but aesthetically too. The sound and sight of bumblebees are a wonderful part of summer. It would be a poorer and less interesting world without them, and it’s sad that some species are declining or have disappeared in the British Isles.

Goulson is fighting to re-buzz Britain. He describes how he set up the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and how he’s trying to re-introduce the short-haired bumblebee, Bombus subterraneus, to Dungeness Nature Reserve in Kent. There’s still a thriving natural population in Sweden and a thriving introduced one in New Zealand, which was founded when British bees were taken there in the nineteenth century to pollinate clover. So should the re-introduction to Britain be from Sweden or New Zealand? Goulson thought that there would be “a beautiful symmetry to the idea of bringing back these bees to the UK from the other side of the world after a 126-year absence” (ch. 17, “Return of the Queen”, pg. 236). But the New Zealand bees are highly inbred and seem to descend from just two introduced queens (pg. 234).

So Swedish bumblebees were used in the end. The re-introduction is still under way and some of the questions it raises haven’t been answered. Why are short-haired bumblebees still thriving in Sweden when they’ve declined elsewhere in Europe? And why hasn’t that genetic bottleneck harmed them in New Zealand? Goulson suggests possible reasons, but bumblebees will be baffling biologists for a long time to come. They’re hard to track on the wing and to find when they’re inside their nests, which is why chapter eight is about “bumblebee sniffer dogs”. It turned out that the dog-handler was better at finding nests than the dogs were (pp. 105-6). Experiments often go awry and hypotheses are often confounded. Like A Buzz in the Meadow, this book gives you a good idea of what it’s like to be a working scientist: it’s always fascinating, but often frustrating too.

Both books also lament the depredations of modern agriculture. And of modern horticulture: “bedding-plants have been intensively selected for size and colour, and in so doing they have lost their nectar, or become grossly misshapen or oversized so that it is impossible for bees to get to the rewards” (ch. 16, “A Charity Just for Bumblebees”, pg. 222). This means that “old-fashioned cottage garden perennials” are best: a “wildlife-friendly garden does not have to be a chaotic mass of nettles and brambles”. In the previous chapter, “Chez les Bourdons” (“At Home with the Bumblebees”), Goulson describes his attempt to establish a wildlife-friendly farm in France. That’s the tale he picks up in A Buzz in the Meadow, which uses the farm to discuss a wider variety of animals and plants than this book does.

Perhaps if I’d read the two books in the order he wrote them, I’d have enjoyed A Sting in the Tale more. As it is, the chapter I enjoyed most was “Chez les Bourdons”, which also supplied the most memorable – and gruesome – image in the book. Goulson says that kestrels catch and eat stag-beetles on warm summer evenings at his farm. But they discard the beetles’ heads, which “remain alive for a day or two, their antennae twitching and their great jaws slowly opening and closing” (pg. 203). Nature can be cruel and ugly as well as beautiful. But perhaps insects don’t suffer in any genuine sense. That’s one of the questions that biology is still to answer. In the meantime, Dave Goulson is doing a good job of explaining his science to the general reader.

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Plankton Wonders of the Drifting World by Christian SardetPlankton: Wonders of the Drifting World, Christian Sardet (The University of Chicago Press 2015)

Originally published in French as Plancton, aux origines du vivant, this is a big book on a tiny subject. A microscopic subject, in fact. Or mostly so:

It is not easy to collect and study a drifting ecosystem consisting of a vast multitude of organisms ranging in size from less than 1 micron to tens of meters, over 10-million-fold difference. The smallest beings are viruses, and then bacteria and archaea. The largest are threadlike colonial cnidarians (siphonophores such as Praya dubia) that can reach more than 50 meters when extending their fishing filaments. (Introduction, pg. 16)

Nothing unites these organisms except the way they drift on the ocean’s currents: “plankton” is from the same Greek root as “planet”, which is literally a wandering star. And if there is life on another planet or one of its moons, it may be no stranger than some of the organisms here. And may be less so. The faintly dizzying smell of ink that rose from the pages of the copy I looked at went well with the phantasmagoric colours and shapes on those pages. Some are beautiful, some are grotesque, all remind me of a line from Aquinas: Unus philosophus fuit triginta annis in solitudine, ut cognosceret naturam apis – “One philosopher was thirty years in the wilderness that he might know the nature of a bee” (Expositio in Symbolum Apostolorum, 1273).

The philosopher at work here is the French marine biologist and planktonologist Christian Sardet, creator of the Plankton Chronicles project and a worthy heir to Jacques Cousteau, who sailed around the world to capture images of macroscopic life like whales, dolphins and squid. Sardet sails around the world to capture the microscopic.

In this, he’s also a worthy heir to Ernst Haeckel, the German biologist who first popularized the beauty of microscopic marine life in books like Kunstformen der Natur (1904), or “Artforms of Nature”. His books truly were art, because he illustrated rather than photographed his subjects, like the “siliceous skeletons of polycystine radiolarians” on page 85, which are reproduced from Kunstformen.

Something is lost in a photograph, but the door of technology can’t be closed now and some images could only be captured by a photograph, like the instant in which a misleadingly named predator meets its next meal on page 166:

The naked pteropod Clione limacia, or “sea-angel”, is a torpedo-like creature a few centimeters long. Furiously flapping its fins, it speeds through the water hunting its favorite prey, the coil-shelled thecosome pteropod Limacia helicina (lower left corner). On contact, Clione immediately ejects six buccal cones, grabs the prey, then eats it slowly with its raspy tongue. Clione roam the cold polar waters where they can reach high densities comparable to the tiny shrimp that constitute krill. Sea angels are themselves a major food for marine animals.

The photograph, “taken by Alexander Semanov in the White Sea” (off Russia), looks like a Lovecraftian deity descending on a Lovecraftian demon. Velella, a beautiful blue cnidarian that floats on the surface, propelled by the wind, is more like something from Clark Ashton Smith. There’s a photograph of a specimen of Velella about to be eaten, with gourmet-like delicacy, by a giant sun-fish.

Lovecraft and Smith would have enjoyed not just the images in this book, but the language too. The colours and shapes are phantasmagoric and so are the scientific names: from Asterionellopsis to Xystonella, from Phaeodactylum to Meganictyphanes. But the terminology is complex because it has to be and this is actually very clear writing:

These three spumellarian polycystines measure between 50 and 100 microns. To capture microscopic prey, they use membranous and cytoplasmic extensions, a peduncle called an axopode, and shorter extensions called rhizopodes that cover their entire surface. (pg. 79)

Christian Sardet translated this book himself from French with Dana Sardet and I’d like to sample it in the original. But Georgian would be even better: plankton should be written about in a strange language and beautiful alphabet. Of course, French and English are strange from the perspective of Georgian, but I don’t think the Roman alphabet could ever look beautiful to a Georgian. It’s functional and perhaps it’s good to have that contrast with the phantasmagoric.

If it is a contrast. Everything here is functional, no matter how strange or beautiful it seems:

Ctenophores owe their name to the Greek word ctene, referring to the minuscule combs comprised of thousands of fused cilia, arranged in eight rows on the gelatinous surface. The cilia of these comb plates are made of the same microtubular elements as those present in human cells. A simple nervous system controls the pulsating movement of the comb plates that act like tiny prisms, diffracting light in rainbow colors. (pg. 98)

No matter how remote ctenophores, diatoms, cephalopods, nudibranchs, tintinnids, chaetognaths and doliolids seem from humans, we have a common ancestor with them. And vertebrates are part of the plankton: larval fish drift there, so we were once part of it too. We mirror the world and the world mirrors us. But some parts of the mirror are more beautiful to look at than others and the world of plankton is certainly one of them.

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19186368.jpgA Buzz in the Meadow, Dave Goulson (Jonathan Cape 2014)

A book that is both a rhapsody and a threnody: Dave Goulson celebrates nature and laments what we’re losing of it. This is what he says in the preface:

In 2003 I bought a derelict farm deep in the heart of rural France, together with thirteen hectares of surrounding meadow. My aim was to create a wildlife sanctuary, a place where butterflies, dragonflies, voles and newts could thrive, free from the pressures of modern agriculture. In particular I was keen to create a space for my beloved bumblebees, creatures I have spent the last twenty years studying and attempting to conserve. (pg. ix)

Bumblebees were the subject of his previous book, A Sting in the Tale (2013). I haven’t read that, but if it’s half as good as this I will certainly enjoy it. Perhaps it’s better: Goulson is a biologist who can both educate and entertain. Expect the unexpected here: he writes about bumblebees and wild-flowers with the same enthusiasm as he writes about cheese and wine.

He’s also good at using the particular to illustrate the general. You’ll learn a lot about science and the scientific method here, from the “robotic beetle drum” he used to study death-watch beetles to the creation of “mathematical models” for predicting outbreaks of flies at a landfill site. Biology is full of puzzles and solving one often creates another. Not that they are always easy to solve: failure and frustration are part of science too and Goulson is happy to admit his own.

But he isn’t happy about the loss of wild habitats and the quickening pace of extinctions. Homo sapiens could also be called Homo exterminans:

New Zealand was colonised much more recently, about 1,000 years ago. As there were no mammals apart from bats, giant birds evolved there, including at least eleven species of moa, the largest of which stood 3.6 metres high, the tallest bird ever to live. They must have been terribly easy to track and kill, for carbon-dating of Maori middens suggests that all eleven species were driven to extinction within just 100 years of man’s arrival. (ch. 15, pg. 242; his emphasis)

It’s a long way from French meadows to Maori middens, as the crow flies, but similar themes apply: humans have exercised power over nature without proper thought for the consequences. Science is giving us more power all the time, but will it kill us or cure us? Dave Goulson is a scientist who increases my hope of the latter.

He also links apparently disparate parts of biology: parasites are part of both botany and entomology. Yellow rattle is a hemi-parasitic plant that exploits grasses and the bumblebees that visit it are parasitized by mites. The world is a web in more ways than one and many aspects of the web are described in this happy, hopeful and highly enjoyable book.

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