animal behaviour

Book review – Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel

7-minute read

Recognising that animals are intelligent beings with inner lives, emotions – even personalities – has a troubled place in the history of ethology, the study of animal behaviour. For most pet owners, these things will seem self-evident, but ethologists have long been hostile to the idea of anthropomorphising animals by attributing human characteristics to them. The tide is turning, though, and on the back of decades-long careers, scientists such as Frans de Waal, Marc Bekoff, and Carl Safina have become well-known public voices breaking down this outdated taboo. In preparation of reviewing Safina’s new book Becoming Wild, I decided I should first read his bestseller Beyond Words. I have to issue an apology here: courtesy of the publisher Henry Holt I have had a review copy of this book for several years that gathered dust until now. And that was entirely my loss, as Beyond Words turned out to be a beautiful, moving book.

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Book review – Desert Navigator: The Journey of an Ant

7-minute read

When we think of animal navigation, the dramatic comes to mind: globe-trotting birds, migrating monarch butterflies, and ocean-crossing whales. But on a smaller scale, navigation is no less vital and no less interesting. Take the humble desert ant. Desert Navigator is the culmination of a lifetime worth of study by German zoologist Rüdiger Wehner and his many collaborators. It is an astonishing and lavishly produced book that distils half a century of experiments into a richly illustrated narrative.

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Book review – Why Chimpanzees Can’t Learn Language and Only Humans Can

7-minute read

The title of this book leaves little to the imagination and seems like a strong statement – how can we be so sure? The author, behavioural psychologist Herbert S. Terrace, is in a very strong position to make this claim though. Here, he revisits a remarkable experiment conducted in the 1970s to teach a chimpanzee to speak using sign language that ultimately failed. Bringing together subsequent developments in linguistics, palaeoanthropology, and developmental psychology, he has written an incredibly interesting and well-structured book on the evolutionary basis of language.

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Book review – A Book of Rather Strange Animals: Highlighting the Wonders of Evolution and the Extraordinary Diversity of Life

5-minute read

In a book that is the perfect example of a British understatement, bioscience graduate Caleb Compton presents a collection of 100 animals that are, indeed, rather strange. Based on his wildly successful Twitter feed @StrangeAnimals (62k followers as I write this), A Book of Rather Strange Animals goes just that little bit beyond the feed. And, to his credit, this is a selection of some truly unusual critters, some even I had never heard of before.

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Book review – A Polar Affair: Antarctica’s Forgotten Hero and the Secret Love Lives of Penguins

7-minute read

This has to be a story worthy of the name “scoop of the century”. Penguin biologist Lloyd Spencer Davis has been studying mating behaviour in Adelie penguins since 1977, carefully documenting how penguins are far from the paragons of monogamy that they were long held to be. That is until 2012 when an unpublished manuscript comes to light showing that somebody beat him to the punch… by more than six decades! A certain George Murray Levick carefully documented the same penguin antics that Davis would later build his career on. But who was this Levick? And why did he never publish his observations? Join Davis for a most unlikely story of polar exploration, penguins, and perversion.

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Book review – Superlative: The Biology of Extremes

5-minute read

Extremes fascinate us: the biggest, the fastest, the oldest, the tallest. Books and TV-programmes regularly scratch our itch for records, whether it is feats of engineering or biological extremes, and many sporting events revolve around humans attempting to set new records. One glance at the cover of Matthew D. LaPlante’s book Superlative and you might think that this is yet another book offering lots of gee-whiz factoids. You would also be wrong. Instead, this is an amusing and fascinating book that digs just that much deeper into the biology behind extremes, and why studying them is so worthwhile.

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Book review – Through a Glass Brightly: Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are

Science has brought us many advances and has deepened our understanding of the world around us, pushing back the boundaries of our ignorance. But as it has given, so it has taken. It has revealed a vast stage whose age is measured in incomprehensible epochs of Deep Time and whose dimensions stretch away into the frigid depths of an uncaring cosmos. Leaving us bereft of meaning and purpose, science has driven home how utterly insignificant we, the denizens of that Pale Blue Dot, ultimately are. Personally, I find this perspective deeply humbling and I know many scientists feel likewise, but I also realise we live in a bubble of our own.

The notion that we are unique, special, or – in the eyes of many still – God’s chosen children, persists. Luckily for us all, evolutionary biologist David P. Barash is here to take down our “species-wide narcissism” a peg or two (or three). But far from a self-congratulatory circle-jerk, Through a Glass Brightly is an erudite, life-affirming, and sometimes riotously amusing look at ourselves.

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Book review – Tracking the Highland Tiger: In Search of Scottish Wildcats

The Scottish wildcat is one of Britain’s most threatened wild mammals. Legend and lore tell of a fierce animal capable of taking down a man if cornered. Once common, only a small remnant population survives in the Highlands of Scotland and now faces the unlikely threat of genetic dilution by hybridisation. Tracking the Highland Tiger sees nature writer Marianne Taylor go in search of this mysterious cat. But it quickly becomes apparent that the book’s title can be interpreted on several levels.

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Book review – The Dark Side of the Hive: The Evolution of the Imperfect Honeybee

The honey bee has a very positive reputation: a clever, industrious insect that organises itself in remarkably collaborative societies. But bee researchers Robin Moritz and Robin Crewe want to balance this picture. Yes, bee colonies are a marvel, but once you stop focusing on the level of the colony, all sorts of imperfections become apparent: cheating, robberies, regicide, euthanasia, evolutionary maladaptations, illogical reproductive strategies, etc. Welcome to the dark side of the hive.

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Book review – Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Teach Us about Ourselves

Do animals experience joy, grief, or shame? Most people will be quick to attribute all sorts of emotions to pets and other animals. But many biologists remain uncomfortable with this, well, touchy-feely subject. As scientists, we are trained to be objective, cool, and detached when making observations. Anthropomorphism – the attribution of human traits to animals – has traditionally been a big no-no. But the tide is turning, and well-known Dutch-American primatologist Frans de Waal is here to help it along. Mama’s Last Hug is a smart, opinionated, and insightful book arguing we have long overestimated humans and underestimated animals.

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