phylogenetics

Book review – The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of Our World

7-minute read

The day an asteroid slammed into the Yucatán Peninsula some 66 million years ago is a strong contender for “the worst day in history”. The K–Pg extinction ended the long evolutionary success story of the dinosaurs and a host of other creatures, and has lodged itself firmly in our collective imagination. But what happened next? The fact that a primate is tapping away at a keyboard writing this review gives you part of the answer. The rise of mammals was not a given, though, and the details have been hard to get by. Here, science writer Riley Black examines and imagines the aftermath of the extinction at various times post-impact. The Last Days of the Dinosaurs ends up being a fine piece of narrative non-fiction with thoughtful observations on the role of evolution in ecosystem recovery.

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Book review – The Sloth Lemur’s Song: Madagascar from the Deep Past to the Uncertain Present

7-minute read

Before reading this book, I admit that my knowledge of Madagascar was shamefully rudimentary: I knew its location on the world map, the name of its capital city, and that lemurs are part of its endemic fauna. Fortunately for me, anthropologist Alison Richard, backed by her five decades of research experience, has written a natural history book in the broadest sense of the word, encompassing geology, (palaeo)climatology, botany, zoology, conservation, and much else besides. She skillfully dismantles simplistic dichotomies and is particularly passionate about challenging the dominant conservation narrative that Madagascar was a forested paradise until humans arrived. The Sloth Lemur’s Song is revelatory in more than one way and I came away with a much deeper understanding of this remarkable island.

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Book review – Otherlands: A World in the Making

7-minute read

Our planet has been many different worlds over its 4.5-billion-year history. Imagining what they were like is hard—with our limited lifespan, deep time eludes us by its very nature. Otherlands, the debut of Scottish palaeontologist Thomas Halliday, presents you with a series of past worlds. Though this is a non-fiction book thoroughly grounded in fact, it is the quality of the narrative that stands out. Beyond imaginative metaphors to describe extinct lifeforms, some of his reflections on deep time, taxonomy, and evolution are simply spine-tingling.

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Book review – Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs: Using Art and Science to Bring the Past to Life

7-minute read

Though I could not paint or draw a dinosaur if my life depended on it, I never tire of reading about palaeoart. What a treat, then, that Crowood Press revisits this subject with this book by US palaeoartist Emily Willoughby. Very much a resource for those already familiar with basic art techniques, it counsels the reader on what goes into making believable and memorable palaeoart. Featuring foremost Willoughby’s favourite subject, feathered dinosaurs, the book also doubles up as a beautiful portfolio of her artwork, showcasing her mastery of a wide range of media.

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Book review – Plagues upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History

7-minute read

It might sound crass to write that the COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest in a long line of infectious disease outbreaks, but a little perspective helps. Historian Kyle Harper previously impressed me with his study on the role of climate and disease in the decline of the Roman Empire. In Plagues Upon the Earth, he offers a global, multidisciplinary environmental history of infectious disease, showing that it is a force that has both shaped and been shaped by human history. This magnificent book stood out as much for its nuance and academic rigour as it did for its readability.

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Book review – Life in the Cosmos: From Biosignatures to Technosignatures

8-minute read

Are we alone in the universe? For the moment, this question remains unanswered, though there are many ways to tackle it. Just how many was something I did not appreciate until I sunk my teeth into Harvard University Press’s new flagship astronomy title Life in the Cosmos. Written by astrobiologist Manasvi Lingam and theoretical physicist Abraham “Avi” Loeb, this is a book of truly colossal proportions, clocking in at over 1000 pages. It boldly goes where few academic books have gone before by seriously and open-mindedly considering the possibility of extraterrestrial technological intelligence on par with, or far beyond humans. I found myself gravitating towards this book on account of more than just its size.

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Book review – The Story of Evolution in 25 Discoveries: The Evidence and the People Who Found It

6-minute read

After three previous books in this format on fossils, rocks, and dinosaurs, geologist and palaeontologist Donald R. Prothero here tackles the story of evolution in 25 notable discoveries. More so than the previous trio, this book tries to be a servant to two masters, resulting in a mixed bag.

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Book review – Ant Architecture: The Wonder, Beauty, and Science of Underground Nests

7-minute read

Making groundbreaking scientific contributions on a shoestring budget has become a challenge in the 21st century. But there are still opportunities. Take American entomologist Walter R. Tschinkel. With little more than scrap metal, homemade portable kilns, and one almighty spade, he has been researching the architecture of ant nests, pouring molten metal into tiny holes in the ground and digging up the resulting casts. The beautifully illustrated Ant Architecture provides a glimpse into his unusual methods but also shows the many fascinating findings and questions his research is throwing up. Supremely interesting, this is unlike any book on insects you have seen before and is already a firm candidate for my top five favourite books of 2021.

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Book review – Spider Webs: Behavior, Function, and Evolution

8-minute read

You would think that after centuries of studying spider webs we have a pretty good grasp of them. Yet a thorough, book-length review of their construction, function, and evolution has been missing. Emeritus Professor William Eberhard has taken on that colossal task, based on his nearly 50 years of observing spiders and their webs. Some works go on to define their discipline. Spider Webs has all the trappings of becoming the arachnological benchmark for many years to come.

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