“The world’s waters—fresh and salty, shallow and deep—are teeming with remarkable species” of fish. Marine biologist Scales (Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells, 2015, etc.) introduces readers to a remarkable array.
The author has a canny approach to bringing fish to life on the page: Start with something a little fantastic—bioluminescence, for instance, or toxic fish—and then use that as a jumping-off point to build familiarity with other, less dramatic denizens of the deep. Scales opens and closes with chapters on the history of contemporary fish and ancient fish, but the meat of the book are the chapters in the middle, in which the author provides unhurried, lucid tours through fish colors, luminescence, shoaling, foods, and poisonous fish, among other topics. Some of the information reads like an episode of Ripley’s Believe It or Not—“the most dangerous venomous fish are probably the stonefish, a family that disguise themselves as weedy rocks. One in particular, the Rough Stonefish, also known as the Warty Ghoul, has a row of 13 spines along its back”—but the author consistently situates the odd specimens comfortably with more familiar fish. She explains how their color is a sign of mating attraction, warning, or camouflage; the mechanics involved with bioluminescence (often triggered by agitation); the many sounds they make, including the bass-note singing of the goliath grouper and the higher-pitched tweets of the tetra, which are products of their air bladder and may well be used for communication; how shoaling clearly helps “avoid predators” and “save energy.” Fish are impressively abundant and diverse—at 30,000 species, they make up one-half of all vertebrates—so Scales has a point in getting to know them better.
Entertaining reading for anyone interested in the captivating underworld realm of fish.