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Archive for the ‘Biology’ Category

The Biology of Flowers, Eigil Holm, illustrated by Thomas Bredsdorff and Peter Nielsen (Penguin Nature Guides 1979)

An excellent short introduction to one of the most fascinating areas of biology. Flowers are results of millions of years of interaction between plants and animals. The first animals were insects, the next were birds, and the last so far, at least in nature, were bats. Flight is the important thing, you see, because it allows pollinators to travel far, fast and accurately between individual flowers. To take advantage of wings, plants have evolved to advertise with color, shape and scent, but those advertisements aren’t necessarily honest. Some animals are paid for their services with nectar and pollen, or even with seeds, but others are tricked into cooperating or even turned into drug-addicts.

Helleborines of the genus Epipactis, an orchid named after a plant supposed in ancient times to cure madness, actually induce a kind of madness in the wasps that pollinate them: a wasp sometimes becomes so drunk on Helleborine nectar that “it cannot fly, but walks from flower to flower, covered in pollen clubs” (the helleborine glues a little stick of pollen to the wasp’s head as it drinks the nectar). The wasps can even blunder into spiders’ webs while under the influence or end up too weak to move, caught on the sticky helleborine flower. Apart from bee-orchids, flowers pollinated by bees generally play fair. But bees don’t always play fair back: some flowers are designed for only the heaviest bumblebees to enter, so the lighter “buff-tailed bumble-bee (Bombus terrestris) sometimes steals the nectar by biting holes in the corolla tube” (the base of the flower where nectar is stored).

Talk of “playing fair” is anthropomorphism, of course: selfish genes take whatever advantage they can and if a plant has evolved to feed an animal, it’s because the animal performs some service for it in return. Plants that don’t use animals to reproduce, like the grasses, can seem less interesting at first glance, but if you wait patiently by a field of rye (Secale cereale) in summer, you might change your mind. The dull-looking rye-flowers will be waiting patiently too: for a “sudden lowering of light intensity” caused by a cloud passing in front of the sun, which will trigger the simultaneous opening of thousands of stigmas and a huge cloud of pollen. There’s a lot more to even the dullest-looking flower — and plant — than immediately meets the eye, and this book will give you many mind-expanding examples, beside enriching your understanding of those aspects of flowers that do immediately meet the eye (and nose): their shapes, colors and scents.

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RSPB Handbook of the Seashore, Maya Plass (Bloomsbury 2013)

Possibly the best short guide to the seashore I’ve ever seen. There’s a good balance between informative text and attractive images. And while the photos are good for identification, the detailed and attractive line-diagrams by Marc Dando are good for understanding, whether it’s the internal anatomy of the green sea-urchin (Psammechinus miliaris) or the life-cycle of the common prawn (Palaemon serratus).

You don’t get so much interest so easily on land. Apart from insects, the strangest and most interesting terrestrial life tends to be microscopic. That’s not true of marine life and the seashore, where the outré is almost everyday. It’s a Lovecraftian place, from surreal sea-slugs and seductive sea-anemones to highly intelligent octopuses and highly idiosyncratic crabs. There’s beauty, like star ascidians (Botryllus schlosseri) and jewel anemones (Corynactis viridis), and grotesqueness, like sea-spiders (Nymphon gracile) and their relatives the barnacles (which are crustaceans, not molluscs). As Darwin wrote of barnacles: “The probosciformed penis is wonderfully developed… when fully extended it must equal between eight and nine times the entire length of the animal!” That quote begins the section on “Echinoderms” and Maya Plass has found a similarly quirky or enticing quote for every other section, whether it’s poetry by an obscure Victorian naturalist or prose by Dickens and Shakespeare.

Plass is not only writing in a long tradition of natural-history guides: she’s paying homage to that tradition. And I was glad to see a a chrestomathic crustaceologism from Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863) heading the section on lobsters. His book celebrates the variety and variousness of water and the life it nourishes. More than a century later, the RSPB Handbook of the Seashore does exactly the same.

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The Orchid Hunter: A Young Botanist’s Search for Happiness, Leif Bersweden (Short Books 2017)

Was this book inspired by Patrick Barkham’s excellent The Butterfly Isles (2010), in which the author sets out to see all native species of British butterfly in a single year? I assume so. It has a similar premise — “52 species of wild British orchid… one summer to find them all” — and contains a similar mixture of natural history and autobiography. But The Orchid Hunter is a good book in its own right and maybe Barkham was inspired by a find-against-time book I don’t know about.

Either way, if you read both books they’ll enrich and illuminate each other. Butterflies and orchids are both eye-catching, but orchids are much stranger in their subtler, stiller, photosynthetic way. One of the chapter headings here is a quote from the great orchidologist Jocelyn Brooke: “There is, about all orchids, something rather perverse and ambiguous, something even a trifle sinister.” (ch. 10, “The Curse of the Coralroot”, pg. 179) You can see that particularly well in an orchid that doesn’t, in fact, photosynthesize:

The Bird’s-nest Orchid is one of the weirdest plants I’ve ever seen. Completely brown, it appears at first glance to be dead, but a closer examination proves otherwise. Each flower is velvety caramel and has two feet that look as if they’ve been drawn by children: big, clumsy and sticking out sideways. Some plants are still in bud, looking like bizarre trees covered in peanuts. This orchid never produces chlorophyll – the green pigment used in photosynthesis to help produce sugars […] (“Swords of the Hampshire Hangers”, pg. 110)

Instead, Bird’s-nest Orchids, Neottia nidus-avis, parasitize an underground fungus that’s a symbiont of beeches and other trees: “One end of the fungus is attached to the tree, receiving carbon produced by photosynthesis; the other end is attached to the orchid, which is siphoning off this carbon.” Leif Bersweden calls the orchids “outlaws, sneaky thieves who execute their criminality with perfection.” But you could say that the original thief is the tree, whose branches and leaves steal the sun from the sky of smaller plants that try to grow beneath it. Because the Bird’s-nest Orchid isn’t dependent on sunlight, it can grow in the deepest shade.

So can the Ghost Orchid, Epipogium aphyllum, which is a fungus-feeding sciophile that’s even stranger than its relative. But it’s called the Ghost Orchid not just because it’s pale and haunts the shadows, but also because it’s elusive, short-lived and “seldom reappears in the same spot” (pg. 308). Bersweden went “Ghost Hunting”, as he puts it in the title of chapter 18, but the Ghost Orchid got away. He doesn’t succeed in finding one and Epipogium aphyllum is missing from the “Gallery of Gotchas” in the photo section. If it had been there, it still might not have been the strangest orchid on display. It certainly wouldn’t have been the most salacious:

Early Spider Orchids are one of the four species of the genus Ophrys that can regularly be found growing in Britain, the others being Bee, Fly and Late Spider. Their flowers are remarkably insect-like and have a fascinating, yet diabolical sex life. While most plants attract pollinators with the promise of nectar, these orchids lure them in with the promise of bee sex. This deception is accomplished by imitating the scent, appearance and texture of virgin female bees. (“Shakespeare’s Long Purples”, pp. 34-5)

You could say that the Ophrys orchids manufacture floral sex-dolls. Male bees are drawn in by the “alluring female scents”, fooled by the appearance and feel of the flower, and attempt “to mate with the ‘female’, often vigorously and for long periods.” In the process, the male bee acquires “two tiny, sticky pollen sacs”, which he’ll carry off to another Ophrys sex-doll when he gets tired of humping his present partner. At least, that’s what the Ophrys intends. Not that intention is the right word: this botanic deception was created blindly and slowly by natural selection. But nervous systems were definitely involved. And perhaps consciousness was too. The male bees have to smell, see and feel the floral sex-doll, which must have been fine-tuned over evolutionary history to become a better and better mimic of a buxom mate.

The nervous systems of insects and other animals have had a decisive influence on the evolution of mindless plants. Most flowers use shape, scent and colour not to fool insects, but to invite them to a draught of nectar or munch of pollen: “Within minutes of the sun dropping below the horizon, the orchids release an overpowering fragrance into the warm evening air that moths find irresistible” (“Finding the Fragrants”, pg. 201) That’s the Chalk Fragrant Orchid, Gymnadenia conopsea, which grows on “calcareous soils” in the south of England.

Each species of orchid has its own preferences of light, moisture and soil chemistry. Sometimes they’re very particular preferences. This book is almost as much about geology and meteorology as it is about botany. When the cover says “52 species of wild British orchid”, it really does mean “British”. Bersweden visits all five nations of the British Isles, travelling as far south as the Isle of Wight, as far north as the Outer Hebrides to find and photograph orchids, and as far west as the Atlantic coast of Ireland, where he searches for Early Purple Orchids, Orchis mascula, on the Burren, a “barren sea of pale limestone” rising “lunar and desolate, in the north of County Clare.”

At least, it looks barren and desolate from afar. Appearances are deceptive, as one of the best passages in the book reveals. I think it’s an excellent encapsulation of the appeal not just of botany but of natural history in general:

There were plants everywhere. Every crack in the limestone was sprouting green. Common bird’s-foot trefoil, rue-leaved saxifrage, heath dog-violets, milkworts and hawthorn. The snowy-white flowers of mountain everlasting sprang from the pavement, spring gentians bejewelled the grass with an electric blue, and I was left speechless by the sheer number of Early Purple orchids. There were thousands of them, speckling the slope.

Lying down on my stomach, I gazed greedily into a deep crevice and encountered a miniature jungle. Hundreds of plants thronged every crack and root-hold. There were plantains, crane’s-bills, ferns, trefoils and saxifrages. Mosses and liverworts encased the smooth limestone, tiny sporophytic stalks peering upwards like periscopes. They grew over and under one other, making it difficult to distinguish one plant from the next. This was chaotic, unadulterated wilderness. (“Stumped by Ireland’s Mediterranean Orchid”, pg. 52)

You can almost see the plants and feel the limestone beneath your feet. And the plant-names, common and scientific, are almost as rich and strange as the reality. Biology is about nomenclature, not just about nature. As the sub-title of this book reveals, Bersweden is still a “Young Botanist”, so he’s still training his eyes and other senses to make the sometimes minute distinctions between one species and other. In chapter two, he’s “Stumped by Ireland’s Mediterranean Orchid”. But in chapter nine, he’s after an orchid that’s instantly recognizable even to a complete amateur: Cypripedium calceolus, the Lady’s Slipper. It’s the Empress of British orchids, once thought to have been driven into extinction by collectors, then re-discovered in 1930 by the Jarman brothers, two cotton-weavers who worked at a factory in the Yorkshire town of Silsden.

The precise location of their discovery, deep in the Yorkshire Dales, has been kept secret ever since. And the original orchid is still alive, guarded by fences and an on-site warden. Other specimens have been re-introduced to the wild, propagated from domesticated Lady Slippers, and Bersweden visits one of these in the “Gait Burrow Nature Reserve on the Lancashire-Cumbria border”. He’d never seen one in the flesh before:

It’s difficult to describe the emotional impact. Over the years, I’ve read a lot about [these] orchids and ogled hundreds of photos of their unmistakeable flowers, but nothing could have prepared me for that first glimpse of the fragile, jaw-dropping beauty of the Lady’s Slipper. (ch. 9, “The Lady’s Slipper, pg. 169)

But that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to find the only known truly wild specimen in its secret, security-ringed location. “It might be futile,” he says, “but I had to try. […] Somewhere out there, hidden in the secluded folds of the Dales, the Lady’s Slipper was waiting.” He succeeds in his quest – “Suddenly I saw it: a flash of gold between two hazels” – but as he stands “gawking” over the fence at an orchid he “could only just see”, he’s joined by the watchful warden, who regretfully declines to allow him any closer. “Defeated”, he retreats, dreaming of other truly wild specimens that may still lie undiscovered somewhere in the Dales.

Orchids attract obsessive people and Leif Bersweden is definitely one of those: he snatches time during his mother’s fiftieth birthday party to tick the Burnt Orchid, Neotinea ustulata, off his list (ch. 8, “Butterflies and Burnt Tips”, pp. 143-157). Obsession makes for good scientists, but doesn’t necessarily make for good writers. In this case it does: The Orchid Hunter is one of the best natural history books I’ve ever read. It’s also an excellent introduction to what its author calls “the furtive, capricious, enigmatic world of orchids” (pg. 255). That’s in chapter 14, entitled “Queen of the Cotswolds” and devoted to the Red Helleborine, Cephalanthera rubra. But if you want to know exactly what Helleborines are, you have to read the book or look elsewhere: The Orchid Hunter doesn’t, alas, have an index. That’s a big flaw in what is otherwise a very good book.

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Gossamer Days: Spiders, Humans and Their Threads, Eleanor Morgan (Strange Attractor Press 2016)

Spiders are special. Like cats among the mammals, there’s a magic and a mystery to them that make them unique among the arthropods or the arachnids. Scorpions are simply sinister: spiders are simultaneously sinister and special.

Why so? It’s their webs and their waiting. Spiders that don’t spin webs still have something special about them, but that’s partly because of their web-spinning cousins. The web is the key. And Eleanor Morgan begins this book as she will go on: writing about the key to the web:

In the late summer of 2004 I began to collect the silk of spiders. These are the gossamer days, the time of year when every bush, railing, gap and crevice seems to sparkle with threads of spider web. (Introduction, pg. xv)

She’s an “artist and writer”, not a biologist, and in 2013 she completed a “PhD on the human uses of spider silk at the Slade School of Fine Art and the Department of Anthropology, University College London”. That was not a good sign, but this isn’t a pretentious, verbose or po-mo-polluted book. The first epigraph is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and there’s no ugly jargon from cultural theory. Instead, she tells interesting stories from around the world about spiders and the human beings who have collected their silk and tried to create things with it.

It has amazing properties after all, and although silk-worms have proved much easier to harvest, some garments have been made from spider-silk. And so have some gun-sights: spider-silk was once used for cross-hairs:

At the Vickers’ optical instruments factory in York, boys were still being sent out in the 1960s to look for spiders. They searched early in the morning, while the dew was still on the ground and on the spider webs, so that they were easier to spot. Each spider was placed in a separate pillbox to avoid them eating each other. […] After the silk had been collected, the spiders were returned to the common and new ones collected next morning. (pg. 44)

That’s from chapter 2, “Lining”, which has an epigraph from Euclid: “A line is a length without breadth.” Spider-silk was once the closest approach to that abstract ideal, combining extreme fineness with great strength. And great elasticity too: in chapter 5, “Vibrating”, Morgan looks at spider-silk as a form of telegraph, alerting spiders to edible captures in their webs. There are also legends about spiders being attracted by other kinds of vibration: music and singing. But did they really and regularly descend from the ceiling to hear the singing at a girls’ school in Victorian London? It doesn’t seem so, but it’s a good story and another example of the threads that human weave about spiders.

Other chapters including “Weaving”, “Transforming”, “Lining” and “Layering”. In “Layering”, Morgan writes about visiting the Science Museum in London and viewing a sinister “smothering hood” fashioned from spider-silk on the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). The hood was used to “suffocate widows immediately after the deaths of their husbands, so that they might continue their ‘wifely ministrations’ in the next world.” (pg. 85) Or so old records at the Museum say. In fact, the smothering hood she looks at is nothing of the kind: it’s really “a spider web headdress worn in male initiation ceremonies” (pg. 88). Spiders often appear in magic, myth and religion, and here’s an unusual example. Were the male initiates pretending to be spiders? Again, it doesn’t seem so, but wearing the headdress was a way of smothering oneself in the specialness of spiders.

Metaphorically speaking, so is this book. It has many more strange and interesting stories and ideas, plus some strange and interesting drawings and photographs. The biggest flaw is the lack of an index. And it’s a bigger flaw than usual here. After all, an index is rather like a spider at the centre of a web, registering the vibrations in its threads. Without an index, you don’t know what’s caught in the text-web. And I would have liked more images of real spiders and their webs: the beautiful pencil-sketch of Araneus diadematus on page 4 seemed to promise more, but more didn’t come.

I assume the sketch was by Eleanor Morgan herself. If so, she draws as she writes: clearly and compellingly. Gossamer Days is a special book about special creatures. But it should be read in conjunction with a more scientific text, because spiders and their silk have more secrets and specialness than Morgan has room to describe here.

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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 The World of Butterflies, a translation from the Italian Il Mondo delle Farfalle (1984). 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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