elephants

Book review – Becoming Wild: How Animals Learn to be Animals

7-minute read

In his previous book, Beyond Words, ecologist Carl Safina convinced his readers of the rich inner lives of animals. Just like we do, they have thoughts, feelings, and emotions. But the similarities do not stop there. Becoming Wild focuses on animal culture, the social knowledge that is transmitted between individuals and generations through sharing and learning. The more we look, the more animals seem less different from us – or we from them. On top of that, Safina puts forward several eye-opening and previously-overlooked implications of animal culture.

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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scientists such as Frans de Waal, Marc Bekoff, and Carl Safina have become well-known public voices breaking down this outdated taboo.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 – Visions of Lost Worlds: The Paleoart of Jay Matternes

7-minute read

If you ever visited the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. sometime before 2015 and visited their fossil hall, you will have come face to face with a series of six large murals by palaeoartist Jay Matternes, showing different stages in the evolution of mammals. For nearly five decades, these were part of various exhibits until they were dismantled in 2014-2015. Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to visit the museum. But, luckily for me, Smithsonian Books has now published Visions of Lost Worlds, a beautifully produced love letter to Matternes’s palaeoart. Written by the museum’s Curator of Dinosauria Matthew T. Carano and director Kirk R. Johnson, in close collaboration with Matternes himself, this large-format art book offers an unparalleled look at these murals and the artistic process of making them.

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Book review – Dance of the Dung Beetles: Their Role in Our Changing World

6-minute read

Having just reviewed The Mosquito, I am continuing the theme of small things running the world. Here is another overlooked insect that literally moves mountains, doing the dirty job that nobody wants to do: the dung beetle. Entomologist Marcus Byrne has teamed up with popular science writer Helen Lunn for Dance of the Dung Beetles, a captivating and charming introduction to their cultural history, their role in the history of biology as a discipline, and some really funky contemporary research.

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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 – 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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Book review – End of the Megafauna: The Fate of the World’s Hugest, Fiercest, and Strangest Animals

Mammoths and sabertooth cats are but two icons of an assemblage of large animals, or megafauna, that disappeared between roughly 50,000 to 12,000 years ago. As with all mass extinctions, several explanations have been put forward, but one man and his idea take centre stage in these discussions: Paul S. Martin’s overkill hypothesis. In End of the Megafauna, palaeomammalogist Ross D.E. MacPhee carefully scrutinises this idea, weighs up the arguments for and against, and explains its enduring allure. To quote Huxley, is this another example of “the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact”?

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Book review – Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking

Around the world, wildlife is under pressure. Habitat loss, hunting and poaching, invasive species, climate change – pressure is exerted on many fronts. One particularly insidious and ugly kind of threat is wildlife trafficking. Much like the illegal trade in narcotics, modern-day slaves, or counterfeited goods (and commonly connected to the same cartels), there is a vast and sprawling black market in animals – dead and alive – and animal parts. With Poached, journalist Rachel Love Nuwer presents an incredibly wide-ranging and thorough investigation of the drivers of this trade, its victims and measures to combat it.

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Book review – Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science

“Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house,
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake, […]”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, “The Black Gate is Closed”

Even Hobbits knew about elephant-like creatures. But, not so long ago, we didn’t. This book starts off with a striking realisation. Our distant ancestors lived with mammoths, using their meat, hides and bones, possibly even overhunting them to extinction. Despite having lived side-by-side with these large, majestic creatures, somewhere along the line we forgot what they were – the details of their identity not being passed down the generations and gradually fading from our stories, our myths and legends, and, finally, from our collective memory. Even though their remains were with us through the millennia, we forgot the mammoth. In turn, their remains fueled new myths and legends, from the Greek Cyclops and Titans, to Chinese dragons, the Biblical giants, and the Siberian idea of giant burrowing moles that would die upon exposure to air. How do you reconstruct the identity of a creature for which your frame of reference is gone?

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