If you think of termites as disgusting insects that eat your house, Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology may not be your idea of a fun read — but it turns out that termites have fascinating society structures and perform critical ecological services by moving moisture around in their enormous mounds. The book is structured as a series of stories, interactions with various termite-studying scientists over the course of years or even decades, so it’s at the same time easy to read and also quite discursive, with lavish descriptions of the scientists’ private lives and even other project the author-journalist worked on, unrelated to termites. I did not love that. But I learned a lot about termites, who after all know how to create energy from wood, and that’s very cool!
Tag Archives: animals
Written by a paleontologist, Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures takes us from Chile to North Carolina, from Iceland to the Antarctic, to look at bones, at live whales, and even whales in the process of being rendered into meat (yes, Iceland still hunts whales). The author manages to share his love for whales and the mysteries of their size and organs very effectively, and he also does a great job of showing how very difficult it is to study animals that are simply huge (hence the visit to the Iceland rendering plant: they actually own cranes and other devices that make it possible to maneuver their enormous bodies!)
I wanted to love The Secret Life of Cows and I did — parts of it, the parts where the author describes individual cows of the herd her family raises. Not surprisingly, cows have personalities, preferences, and quirks, and they can be very particular about their food and their humans. Some even have drug problems.
The book is less successful when the author rants against factory farming, but the animal stories are delightful.
Like a good mystery? You will enjoy the very real story told in The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, bringing together a brazen museum theft, a close-knit community of fly-fishing nerds, and a dedicated amateur detective who uncovers not the theft itself (that was done by the UK police) but the network of buyers who took advantage of it. It’s a thrilling entry into a world where possessing rare feathers blinds otherwise respectable people to not only thievery but also evasion of international law and willful destruction of scientific specimens. Fascinating even if you don’t care about bird, let alone fly-making!
A Forest in the Clouds: My Year Among the Mountain Gorillas in the Remote Enclave of Dian Fossey is the raw account of a year the author spent at the research center headed by Dian Fossey, filled with the abusive and disordered antics of its head. (It’s quite a relief when she leaves for several months for a trip around the world!) The author manages to convey both the magic of working with the animals, including an orphaned baby he helped raise, and the hardships of working for a very difficult boss. The book could use a good editor, but the story is fascinating.
Even if you don’t particularly care about wolves, and even if you cannot picture the Yellowstone Park vistas that feature prominently in the book, I bet you will love American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West. It follows a female wolf named “06” so as not to anthropomorphize her, but the author quickly lapses into portraying her and her pack as very real characters, so we root for her all the way to her death, when she is shot by a hunter. The story of the pack is interspersed with stories of the legal disputes around reintroducing wolves into the park, and descriptions of the rapid changes to the environment brought about by the arrival of that keystone species, but the real story is that of the pack. There’s also a sympathetic and delightful portrait of a park employee who observed wolves for decades, every day, and shared his knowledge with visitors (and, likely, drove his supervisors crazy!)
It reminded me of another inspiring book about wolves, A Wolf Called Romeo.
If you are a biology nerd, you will enjoy The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath our Feet. If not, you will certainly appreciate knowing about ichnologists (people who study animal traces, as the author), and many other fun facts, from where to find the secret nuclear bunker for members of congress to the existence of a keratin-eating moth, to the strange molting habits of coconut crabs, and how gophers were the first to reestablish themselves on the site of the Mount St Helen’s volcanic eruption. But I bet that, like me, you will mostly enjoy the first 100 pages of the book, exploring alligator burrows in the South East, rather than the recounting of the author’s Ph.D thesis, or traversing the stories of many extinct creatures with obscure names, linked only by their love of underground living.