Wells (Zoology/Cambridge Univ.) knows how to write odd, charming, limpid natural history essays, as demonstrated in these vest-pocket introductions to some of the more peculiar denizens of the marine kingdom. Many of the creatures Wells examines here—limpet, chambered nautilus, lugworm, blue-ringed octopus—are unfamiliar, but they are by no means freaks. They are fixtures in his world, the vastness known as marine biology. Just as Wells finds them absorbing ("knowledge of plants and animals makes the fine grain of my surroundings more entertaining"), readers will come to give these living things (even the hideous sea cucumber) at least a grudging admiration, thanks to Wells's enthusiasm. Certainly, broader applications than entertainment often apply, for without a smattering of plant and animal biology, how are we ever going to "rumble the manifest nonsense sometimes fed to us by politicians, the odder greens, and the lunatic fringes of the animal rights movement. At best we might even hope to understand what we are doing to our own environment." This can mean determining how the brainless sea urchin coordinates the movement of several hundred legs or how the strategic advantage of bisexuality helps snails cope with the otherwise dead end of self-fertilization. He ponders the role of toxicity: Why are some animals poisonous beyond comprehension, and why are so many of them in Australia? In the commonsensical, opinionated tone that marks the collection (though Wells is never afraid to say "I dunno"), he unravels the hot-bloodedness of cold-blooded creatures, and the cold bloodedness of the hot-bloodeds. And, as bewitching as Winslow Homer, Wells knows how to paint his chosen place, as he goes along under sail at night in a sea of bioluminescence. These peeks at the wondrous parade of nature will open your eyes wide with surprise and delight and provide not a little ammunition to rumble those who would defile the beauty of the earth.
Read full book review >