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.
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness is basically a love letter to the octopus, written by a philosopher who also sent hours diving to a magic spot off the coast of Australia where multiple octopuses live, making meticulous observations, and taking magical pictures, some of them included in the book.
It seems that the author was not too sure of how to organize the book, as it starts much like a textbook, navigating the tree of life and relating some in-lab experiments with octopuses (wily guests: they seem to recognize individual experimenters and play mind games and splashing games with them!). Eventually it settles into an extended description of the goings-on at Octopolis (the dive site) and I bet that by the end, you will be as sorry as I was to realize that octopuses have short life spans. If they lived longer, they may take over the under-the-sea world!
Animals Strike Curious Poses is a collection of essays about famous animals (or groups of animals), some more historical, and others with a more philosophical bent. Some of the essays are interesting, even delightful. I got a chuckle from the “Osama the Crocodile” essay, which exposes both the weight of first names and the absurdity of children readers. And who knew that an elephant inspired the merger of the P.T. Barnum and Bailey circuses? But other essays are tedious, obscure, or seemingly pointless.
Ever wondered what it’s really like to be a bird? A worm? The author of Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide did not attempt being a worm, although he ate worms and lived for weeks in a man-sized badger den (bringing his young son with him!), slept under rhododendrons on urban lawns to live like a fox (it turns out not to be a good explanation for curious police officers, who knew?), and tried valiantly to be a river otter (wetsuits are not as cosy as otter pelts). His adventures are, literally, fantastic, all the more since, in between eating worms and venturing outside only at night, as badgers do, he will suddenly wonder if badgers may, well, use adjectives. Never mind that it doesn’t exactly make sense to explore another species life in a human body, the exploration of alternative points of view will stay with you.
It’s been just two days and already there is stiff competition for Sex In the Sea to remain my favorite science book of 2016. Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? is a sweeping review of the often awkward methods scientists have used through the years to assess the intelligence of animals (non-human animals, that is, since humans are animals too!), and how evolutionary biologists, using more modern approaches, are changing the perception of animals as essentially dumb. There is the too-small mirror that “proves” that elephants cannot recognize their reflections — but they can, if the mirror is 8 feet tall! There are crows who congratulate fledglings after a successful flight. Apes that play subtle political games that would put our politicians to shame. Chimps that perform flawlessly on many trials, then get tired of the exercise and clearly show the experimenters that they could continue with the task, but they are just too bored with it. Another chimp that can remember dozens of digits (humans can manage 5-7). Wolves that follow humans’ hand gestures, but only if raised by humans (otherwise they figure out the tasks independently!)
The stories are entertaining but also deeply endearing.
Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel mixes inspiring stories of animals, mostly elephants, wolves, and whales, as observed in the field by long-time observers, with long rants about conservation and the limitations of scientific studies in the area of animal cognition. I could have done without the rants, which obscure the stories and occasionally put the author in an anti-science mode that seems downright silly. Still, the stories are wonderful and clearly suggest great intelligence and complex family structures in the three main groups he describes.