Emlen (Biology/Univ. of Montana) presents a bestiary equipped with outsize weaponry.
“What strikes us about antlers is that they are big,” writes the author in this absorbing exploration of the exaggerated fighting instruments sported by animals and the uncanny ways in which they seem to march in lockstep with human weapons—up to a point. For the animals, it really comes down to sex; for the humans, it comes down to money. But Emlen is not a hurried or simplistic storyteller. He is a writer of nuance, and he traveled to many different environments to get the story. He prefers to meet the creatures on their own ground, to take in the habitat and consider the big picture. He introduces us to a pleasing variety of creatures, including sticklebacks, saber-toothed tigers, ibex rams, bamboo bugs and dung beetles, cuttlefish, alligator gar and porcupines, and he combs over their evolutionary advantages and disadvantages. It might seem obvious that an elk with a massive rack would be the king of the harem, but Emlen reminds us that the bull grows those monstrosities every year, and from his own bone. Just when his rack is ready for the rut, his skeleton is ready for rehab: “[A]nimal weapons under strong sexual selection, for example, may attain astonishing proportions before costs catch up and place the project in check.” There are moose flies and harlequin beetles and fiddler crabs, which work mostly through threats, as well as the biochemical weapons deployed by skunks, polecats and stink bugs. Throughout the book, Emlen’s demonstrations of the many parallels between human and animal weapons are fascinating, even when the possibilities are frightening. “I stand awed and shaken,” he writes, “thrilled by the parallels and, at the same time, terrified by the prospects.”
Solid natural history, along with a well-turned thought or two about when weapons spell their owner’s doom.