Fire can be considered one of our oldest tools, long used to shape whole landscapes. But our burning of fossil fuels presents a clear break from what has come before. Riffing on the concept of the Anthropocene, environmental historian Stephen J. Pyne calls ours the Pyrocene: an age of fire. Drawing on a long career writing about and working with fire, The Pyrocene is a short book that overflows with interesting ideas.
Scottish geologist Charles Lyell quipped that the present is the key to the past. To say that the reverse also holds is more than just circular reasoning. Felisa Smith, a professor in ecology and evolutionary biology, studies extinct mammals and applies this knowledge to the present. This book is a neatly crafted package that gives the reader all the required background knowledge, while its case studies make for fascinating reading. (Spoiler alert: packrat middens are my new favourite discovery.)
When humans abandon a place, nature comes rushing back in. Dotted around our planet are numerous areas now devoid of human habitation: ghost towns, conflict zones, pollution hotspots, and areas wrecked by natural forces. Author and journalist Cal Flyn explores thirteen such locations and here reports their sights, sounds, and smells. Surprisingly rich in ecological and biological detail, Islands of Abandonment is a poetic and spellbinding travelogue. A dark howl of decay and human hubris, shot through with the inevitable rebirth of nature, this book haunted me long after I finished it.
The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park is one of the best-known examples of wildlife conservation. To celebrate its 25th anniversary and summarise the many lessons learned, Yellowstone Wolf Project leaders Douglas W. Smith and Daniel R. Stahler, together with wildlife ecologist Daniel R. MacNulty, bring together research from over 70 colleagues in this large, edited collection. The combination of academic content, excellent photography, guest essays, and an online bonus documentary with interviews make this the go-to reference work for anyone wanting to go beyond the headlines on this reintroduction project.
Where do humanity’s evolutionary roots lie? The answer has long been “in Africa”, but this idea is being challenged from various sides. I previously reviewed Begun’s The Real Planet of the Apes as a warming-up exercise before delving into this book. My conclusion was that its discussion of archaic ape evolution, although proposing that species moved back and forth between Africa and Eurasia, ultimately did not really challenge the Out of Africa hypothesis. Not so Ancient Bones. German palaeontologist Madeleine Böhme, With the help of two co-authors, journalists Rüdiger Braun and Florian Breier, firmly challenges the established narrative in an intriguing book that is as outspoken as it is readable.
Charismatic as big cats might be, their origins and evolutionary history are still not fully understood. In a mind-bogglingly beautiful marriage of art and science, On the Prowl provides a current overview of big cat evolution that will have many a book lover purring with pleasure.
Why are we, from an evolutionary standpoint, the last man standing? This question fascinates archaeologists and anthropologists, and the dominant narrative is one of humans outcompeting other hominin lineages, driving them extinct. In the process, our evolutionary cousins, such as Neanderthals, always get the short end of the stick, being clumsier, dumber, or just generally inferior to us. In a book that is both a popular summary of his work and a critique of current thinking in archaeology, evolutionary biologist Clive Finlayson aims to redress this balance. Neanderthals, he says, were a lot smarter than we give them credit for, and one unexpected line of evidence comes from the birds that lived alongside them.
For all my reading of scientific books, I have a little secret (though judging by the number of books, it is actually not all that little): I am a huge fan of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and of books exploring his world in further detail. Despite Tolkien’s world being fictional, he populated it mostly with real plants. Retired plant systematist Walter Judd, also a huge fan, took it upon himself to write a flora with detailed species accounts of all the plants Tolkien mentions, with artist Graham Judd providing illustrations. The resulting Flora of Middle-Earth is a tastefully illustrated and botanically sound book, but who on (Middle) Earth will read this?
Primaeval, pristine, playground of Indiana Jones, home to ancient ruins and primitive tribes – nothing says wilderness more than tropical rainforests. They have had a firm grip on our collective imagination for centuries as the antithesis of civilization. But after reading archaeologist Patrick Roberts’s Tropical Forests in Prehistory, History, and Modernity, it seems my introduction is a load of lyrical rubbish. Synthesizing an enormous body of scientific literature, this book dispels the Victorian-era explorer-mystique to reveal a picture that is far more fascinating.
Before plate tectonics became an accepted idea in geology, Lyell’s doctrine of uniformitarianism still ruled supreme (see my review of Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century for a short introduction). A corollary was that the continents supposedly had always been where they are now. One observation scholars had to explain away was that the same fossils occur on both sides of the various oceans. Looking at maps, some people noticed the thin strip of land connecting North and South America and concluded that land bridges must have formed and sunk beneath the waves at just the right times in history to enable migrations (see Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth for more details). As explained in The Tectonic Plates are Moving!, we know better nowadays. Nevertheless, the concept of land bridges is still alive and well today, and palaeobotanist Alan Graham here introduces five of them, exploring their effects on biogeography, climate, and human history.