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.
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scientists such as Frans de Waal, Marc Bekoff, and Carl Safina have become well-known public voices breaking down this outdated taboo.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.
Sea otters don’t eat algae. And yet, their diet influences the abundance of seaweed. How? Indirectly. Sea otters eating sea urchins (spiky animals in the same class as sea stars) eating kelp has become a textbook example of a trophic cascade, and Serendipity is a first-hand account by ecologist James A. Estes of how this happened. A trophic cascade refers to the indirect effects that ripple through a food web as a result of, for example, a predator consuming its prey. Simultaneously, the book is a searingly open account of how science is done, how ideas change, and how fortuitous events can suddenly send your research programme off in a whole new direction.
Orcas or killer whales have been at the centre of a swirling controversy for decades. Popular attractions in aquaria, their plight there has been highlighted in recent books and documentaries, further strengthening opposition to keeping cetaceans (i.e. whales, dolphins, and porpoises) in captivity. However, as Jason M. Colby meticulously documents in this book, there is a cruel irony at play here: this very practice of captivity is what raised our environmental awareness in the first place.
It should have been a straightforward expedition. As a young career palaeontologist, Nick Pyenson found himself in the Atacama desert of Chile, tasked with mapping rock layers to establish a continuous chronology that would help dating fossils found in the area. Whale fossils, Pyenson’s speciality, are rarely found complete, which is true of most fossils. So what do you do when a colleague takes you to the construction site of a new highway and shows you not one, not several, but literally dozens of complete fossil whale skeletons? It represented a treasure trove for science, but retrieving the material before the highway constructors would move in was also a daunting, labour-intensive task that could make or break careers. I almost found myself standing next to Pyenson in the dusty clearing, the Chilean sun beating down on me as he faced this dilemma. This is just one of several immersive narratives recounted in Spying on Whales, which successfully blends travelogue and popular science.