An intriguing study encompassing “a convergence of disciplines ranging from population ecology and animal behavior to...

How differences in coloration within a species reveal new dimensions in the operation of natural selection.

“Studying animal coloration is an exercise in time travel, illuminating the conditions of the past that have produced the diversity of the present,” write Diamond (Curator/Univ. of Nebraska State Museum; World of Viruses, 2012, etc.) and Bond (Center for Avian Cognition/Univ. of Nebraska), who follow their earlier collaboration (Kea, Bird of Paradox: The Evolution and Behavior of a New Zealand Parrot, 1999) with this exploration of how the coloration on bird feathers, fish scales and fur are a response to a complex array of factors. Primary among these is the extent to which coloration allows prey to deceptively merge into the background, providing an edge against predators in the struggle for survival. Equally important is patterning, “the arrangement of splotches, speckles, stripes, and shading that make up an animal's visual appearance.” In a fascinating sidelight, the authors examine how Abbott Henderson Thayer, a prominent American landscape painter, applied his observations about animals to the problem of military camouflage during World War I. Diamond and Bond cover modern research on the change in the numbers of light and dark moths in response to the amount of air pollution and explain how fish have evolved darks scales on top and light underbellies to create the appearance of a flattened object. The deceptive practices of prey also affect the cognitive evolution of predator species, which learn to closely observe their targets, detecting small motions and searching for giveaway signs in order to detect them. This in turn provides an evolutionary advantage to prey that can learn to hide distinguishing features and maintain a still posture. Combining a naturalist’s eye with scientific rigor, the authors report on modern experiments on the mechanisms of the selective process that support these observations.

An intriguing study encompassing “a convergence of disciplines ranging from population ecology and animal behavior to genetics, molecular biology and biophysics.”

Pub Date: April 9, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-674-05235-2

Page Count: 274

Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2013



A quirky wonder of a book.

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. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020



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

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: Feb. 29, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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