A lively, highly informative introduction to significant research in ecology that highlights the importance of conserving...

MONARCHS AND MILKWEED

A MIGRATING BUTTERFLY, A POISONOUS PLANT, AND THEIR REMARKABLE STORY OF COEVOLUTION

The relationship between monarch butterflies and milkweed plants, a story that is “much more…than bright coloration and a penchant for epic journeys.”

The monarch has an abiding fascination for scientists and nature lovers alike. An individual North America monarch may fly up to 3,000 miles from Mexico to Canada annually. Along the way, it will lay eggs on milkweed, which provide sustenance for the next generation of emerging caterpillars. Milkweed is toxic to sheep and horses but crucial to butterflies. Agrawal (Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, Entomology/Cornell Univ.) explains how the monarch and milkweed, both native to North America and likely dating back millions of years, “share a deep evolutionary history.” Their relationship is an example of “coevolution,” and the author shows how they “have spent millions of years evolving chemical traits and reciprocally coevolving in a manner that puts chemistry at the center of their arms race.” Birds that would otherwise feed on monarchs are made nauseous if the butterflies have fed on milkweed and therefore quickly learn to avoid them. In the course of their annual, cross-country flight, the monarchs lay their eggs on the plants, providing shelter, food, and safety for their caterpillars as they emerge. The author describes the extraordinary appetite of these monarch caterpillars, whose birth weight is comparable to that of a bread crumb but whose mass quickly increases more than 200 times in the first two weeks of its life. Over time, monarch butterflies have become impervious to the toxins released by milkweed to deter pests. In response, the plant has evolved an alternate strategy, releasing a blend of volatile compounds to attract wasps that feed on the caterpillars. As Agrawal accessibly demonstrates, this is exemplary of the arms race between predator and prey, which is an important driver of evolution.

A lively, highly informative introduction to significant research in ecology that highlights the importance of conserving our natural habitats.

Pub Date: April 4, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-691-16635-3

Page Count: 296

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: Feb. 2, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2017

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

THE BOOK OF EELS

OUR ENDURING FASCINATION WITH THE MOST MYSTERIOUS CREATURE IN THE NATURAL WORLD

An account of the mysterious life of eels that also serves as a meditation on consciousness, faith, time, light and darkness, and life and death.

In addition to an intriguing natural history, Swedish journalist Svensson includes a highly personal account of his relationship with his father. The author alternates eel-focused chapters with those about his father, a man obsessed with fishing for this elusive creature. “I can’t recall us ever talking about anything other than eels and how to best catch them, down there by the stream,” he writes. “I can’t remember us speaking at all….Because we were in…a place whose nature was best enjoyed in silence.” Throughout, Svensson, whose beat is not biology but art and culture, fills his account with people: Aristotle, who thought eels emerged live from mud, “like a slithering, enigmatic miracle”; Freud, who as a teenage biologist spent months in Trieste, Italy, peering through a microscope searching vainly for eel testes; Johannes Schmidt, who for two decades tracked thousands of eels, looking for their breeding grounds. After recounting the details of the eel life cycle, the author turns to the eel in literature—e.g., in the Bible, Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, and Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum—and history. He notes that the Puritans would likely not have survived without eels, and he explores Sweden’s “eel coast” (what it once was and how it has changed), how eel fishing became embroiled in the Northern Irish conflict, and the importance of eel fishing to the Basque separatist movement. The apparent return to life of a dead eel leads Svensson to a consideration of faith and the inherent message of miracles. He warns that if we are to save this fascinating creature from extinction, we must continue to study it. His book is a highly readable place to begin learning.

Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-296881-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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