Charming forays into the world of natural history and the ways of animal behavior.
“Much of zoology is little more than educated guesswork,” writes Cooke (A Little Bit of Sloth, 2013), a London-based filmmaker and former student of biologist Richard Dawkins. Thus, even in the recent past, well-meaning people could aver that eels spontaneously generate out of mud and hyenas change sexes at will, and we imagine today that animals lack consciousness or emotion. All of this, writes the author, traces back to our “habit of viewing the animal kingdom through our own, rather narrow, existence.” Is the sloth lazy? Through that narrow lens, yes, but the sloth moves at a speed that evolution has suggested is most appropriate to it. Does the beaver gnaw off its testicles and hurl them at would-be attackers, stunning them so that it can escape? We laugh at the thought; however, as Cooke’s lighthearted but scientifically rigorous exploration reveals, there is a biological basis for the myth, and it is instructive as to the nature of the “cognitive toolbox” the beaver employs. The cognitive and biological toolboxes of the animal kingdom are overstuffed and full of surprises—e.g., one reason we find vultures to be unpleasant is that they practice urohidrosis, “a scientific euphemism for crapping on your legs to keep cool.” That’s the kind of behavior that can get a bird a dodgy reputation, but the resulting ammoniac tang bespeaks a solution to a problem that definitely needed one. Along the way, Cooke touches on theories about bird migration (Aristotle conjectured that some species might transmute into others and thus disappear seasonally), the habit of some animals of dipping into fermented fruit for a little recreation, and our misguided efforts at species-driven animal conservation rather than the preservation of whole habitats.
A pleasure for the budding naturalist in the family—or fans of Gerald Durrell and other animals.