Reading matters


I’m just about done with a couple of natural history books I got myself in the post-Christmas binge (one of the few times a year I allow myself to purchase new, rather than pre-owned, books). Confession: I lose interest in well over half the books that seem perfect for me; never getting around to finishing them, always thinking I’ll get back to it later. Not so with these books; I read the first one in under a week, and devoured the second one practically in one sitting.

The first was Robert Michael Pyle’s Mariposa Road, the story of the first butterfly Big Year (after the fashion of the birding big years by Fisher and Peterson in the 50s, Kauffman in the 70s, the Dunnes in the 90s, and Weidensaul in the 00s, all of which are classic birder memoirs, and most decidedly NOT after the fashion of the “competitive” big year chronicled in Mark Obmascik’s 1998 The Big Year). I was predisposed to enjoy this read, having devoured his Handbook for Butterfly Watchers a year or two ago, but I have to say it took me a while to really get into it. I was expecting, I don’t know, more reflection and philosophizing, and what I got was often too much intellectual shorthand. Engaging shorthand, but the story didn’t really flesh out for me. It wanted to be about twice as long as it is (and at 500 pages, it’s already “too long” for most readers, so I understand why it isn’t longer), so I could get a better feel for the places and people described all too briefly.

To be fair, Pyle had a lot to contend with on this project. The big year was 2008, and the story of it published in 2010–lightning speed for a book like this, that needs to distill the hot, dusty, freezing, wet experiences of an entire year of driving, flying, trainhopping, side-of-the-road sleeping into a meaningful narrative arc. Pyle even quotes James Fisher, co-author of the first big year story, who opined pithily (in a quote that I have yet to source) that

It invariably takes longer to “write up” an incident than to experience it. Every naturalist who writes needs ten days to sort out one really productive day in the field.

And there’s just no way, given the production schedule this book must have been on, that Pyle had the luxury of those ten days. No matter how hard he tries to dress it up, at times the book reads like a list of species seen, but in language that can only fascinate a committed lepidopterist.

I might be judging a bit unfairly, though, because I notice that, where my own knowledge comes into play, I find the writing much more interesting. As he drives from Montana down into Utah, naming the geologic formations and their productions along the way:

The coal-bearing Frontier Formation folded into the Cretaceous, fluvial Dakota, then Early Triassic fossil sand dunes of the Navajo… Across Flaming Gorge Dam I entered the Browns Flat Precambrian volcanic ash. Up into lodgepoles the mauve Lodore Formation kicked in, then in Uintah County, the also-purplish Madison Formation from the Mississippian.

The Pennsylvanian Weber Formation “produces oil.” My highway monopoly dissipated behind a pod of road whales called “Wilderness” and “Pioneer,” using that oil at a clip…. At the last hairpin, the Park City Formation gave up its phosphate to a giant mine and its oceanic holding pond. After the Triassic Moenkopi and Chinle formations, the Mississippian and Navajo reappeared, and then the Jurassic Carmel—produces dinosaurs!

And on in that entertaining vein. So I’m glad I stuck with this one, as I would have been committing an injustice against a favorite author of mine to give up on him before his interests and mine reconnected. (Not that I’m ALL that into geology, but I’ve read about a lot of dinosaurs, and I have practically as much experience with them as I have with butterflies: which is to say, almost none!)

The second book, and the one I finished much more quickly, is Mike Brown’s How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, the story of a young astronomy professor at CalTech finding Pluto-sized objects in the Kuiper Belt, thus finishing off the demise of that unlikely 20th-century planet discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona. This story is truly engaging, and has enough human interest to keep even the nonastronomically inclined reader turning pages.

The title pretty much gives the story away, but the plot is actually quite entertaining, and well worth reading for yourself. The only thing I’ll give away is that it involves a nerdy CalTech professor, romance, international intrigue, scientific conservatism meeting radical elements, and a little girl who knows that her daddy killed Pluto, and killing is wrong so she’s mad at him.

Fabulous finds

I was browsing my favorite used bookstore in Boca the other day (I say “my favorite,” but actually, I think it’s the only used bookstore in Boca. Nevertheless.) when I ran across four volumes in the Florida’s Fabulous… series. I pounced on them the way a tiger beetle pounces on other beetles, or a robber fly pounces on a bee, even though paying full price for these large format mass market volumes wouldn’t break the bank.

Mark Deyrup, the author of Florida’s Fabulous Insects, is another of those entomological writers who proves how one can relate charming stories in an engaging way. (Thomas Eisner and E.O. Wilson being the modern flagbearers of this writing style that goes back at least as far as Darwin, the beetle-lover. May Berenbaum comes to mind as well.) I was going to quote you some, but then I discovered that I would pretty much have to just blog the entire book, which isn’t cool.

So I won’t be able to show you quotes like this one:

So varied are the Hymenoptera, that there are no simple features that label its members at a glance, except perhaps the possession of two pairs of transparent wings, the forewings much larger than the hind wings. This is one of those classroom distinctions that is wonderfully obvious in diagrams, but not at all obvious out in the garden. (138)

Or this one:

Studies of Florida Hymenoptera are still in a pioneering stage, and even guesses about the number of species in the state have a wild and wooly quality: probably more than 3,000; probably less than 6,000. More than 1,000 species have been found on the Archbold Biological Station in south-central Florida, so there can be masses of species even at a single site. All specialists working on groups of Hymenoptera find species unknown to scientists when they begin working in Florida. (138–9)

Or this one:

Florida has many more species of horse and deer flies than most people realize, largely because one squashed fly looks rather like another. There are about 100 species in Florida. (124)

Well, my unofficial quote limit is three, so that’s all you get. If you want more, go to any bookstore in Florida and you can find a new copy; I was just excited because I found this one at a discount in a used store. And I think I met the author several years ago when I visited Archbold in the company of an astronomer friend of mine who works there… So, yay me! (Where can you say yay me, if not your own blog?)

Florida's Fabulous Insects

Florida’s Fabulous Insects, by Mark Deyrup


Deyrup, Mark. (2000). Florida’s Fabulous Insects. Tampa, FL: World Publications.

UPDATE: After joining Odonata Central, I discovered that back issues of their newsletter, Argia, are open to the public. So I thought I’d add this review of the book by none other than Sidney Dunkle. It appears in Argia: The News Journal of the Dragonfly Society of the Americas, 12:2, 20 July 2000, pp. 16-17:


Book review by Sid Dunkle, Plano, TX.

This, one of the most beautiful insect books I have seen, is a large-format, soft-cover book, filled cover to cover with color photos. The principal author is Mark Deyrup, a very knowledgeable entomologist, from whom I learned interesting snippets of information throughout the 169 pages of the book. The Odonata are covered on pages 6 to 25, including 54 color photos oftarvae and adults. The book, published in 2000, has already had 3 printings, and courtesy of editor Tim Ohr, I was able to correct nearly all of the (few) errors that were present in the odonate chapter of the second printing. Some of the odonate photos were posed, some were not. A few of the posed photos are misleading, namely: 1) Three dragonflies are shown perched on flowers, which they rarely do, 2) One female Erythemis simplicicollis is shown eating another as they face each other, and 3) Tramea onusta is shown eating a honeybee, although I have no records of such large prey for this species. My only other objection is that scientific names of species are not given, although the reader will be able to identify nearly all the photos of adult odonates by referencing my Florida field guides.

[Updated to correct a couple of typos. Sorry!]

The Diversity of Life

I’ve been reading Edward O. Wilson’s The Diversity of Life recently*, and was struck by some of his  turns of phrase, and thought I’d share a couple of them with you. I’ve also been reading two of his three books co-authored with Bert Holldöbbler (Journey to the Ants and Superorganism), where the writing is much less dynamic. In this more personal book, though, Wilson writes lyrically and movingly about the “big picture” biology that so many of us need to remind ourselves about.

On mental puzzles that verge on obsession

Wilson opens the book with a vivid scene of walking through the rain forest at night, at leisure after a very long day; he is pondering new possibilities to explain the incredible profusion of life in the tropics, a weighty topic that he is extremely well suited to ponder (from Old French, ponderer, from Latin ponderāre, from pondus, ponder, weight). After all, he co-authored the theory of island biogeography, and had only been studying the natural world in the tropics for over forty years at the time! His thoughts kept returning to this idea, which he describes as

…the kind of favorite puzzle that keeps forcing its way back because its very intractability makes it perversely pleasant, like an overly familiar melody intruding into the relaxed mind because it loves you and will not leave you (5).

The puzzle Wilson is writing about is how to explain the existence of biological diversity rather than simpler systems dominated by one or a few organisms. In other words, why don’t dominant species dominate globally? Why would a successful organism not be able to succeed in every habitat without bothering to go through the process of speciation? Read more

More books

Berkeley’s best book store, Moe’s, is probably the best book store in the world. I’ve been to many a book store, in London, Los Angeles, Edinburgh, Chicago, Paris, Boston,  New Delhi, Portland, and New York, and I still think Moe’s is the best. The Strand in Manhattan may be bigger, and Powell’s, in Portland and environs may have more branches and a better web presence, but I always seem to come back more heavily laden from Berkeley than I do from anywhere else in the world. From this latest haul (trip report still to come):

  • Seabirds of the World: The Complete Reference, by Jim Enticott (Stackpole, 1997). Not as much detail as either of Harrison’s books on seabirds, or as good reading as Rich Stallcup’s Ocean Birds of the Nearshore Pacific, but an interesting large-format book.
  • Sealife: A Complete Guide to the Marine Environment, by Geoffrey Waller, Marc Dando, and Michael Burchett (Smithsonian, 1996).
  • Biophilia, by E.O. Wilson (Harvard UP, 1986).
  • Sirius: Brightest Diamond in the Night Sky, by Jay Holberg (Springer, 2007).
  • The Book of the Moon, by Rick Stroud (Walker, 2009). An ambitious book by an amateur, it compiles an amazing amount of source material into one volume, and it’s pitched at a good level: not too technical for laymen, and not (too) insulting to informed amateurs. One giant hole in the bibliography though: no notice taken of Charles Wood’s Modern Moon, by far the best introduction to the moon for amateur astronomers.
  • Deep-Sky Companions: The Messier Objects, by Stephen James O’Meara. (Reprinted with corrections, Cambridge UP, 2000).
  • Life in the Undergrowth, by David Attenborough. (BBC Books, 2005).
  • The hardcover boxed set of Lord of the Rings released in 2002 in conjunction with Peter Jackson’s film of the trilogy. I finally gave up trying to find the 1988 edition at a reasonable price, and when Moe’s had it for $50, I was sold. (Of course, it turns out all I had to do was check Amazon; they had the set I was looking for $40. But then I wouldn’t be supporting independent local booksellers, now, would I?)

Who knows when I’ll get a chance to read through this haul, but at least I have some good long reads to look forward to!

The seabird syndrome

Tony Gaston’s Seabirds: A Natural History (Yale UP, 2004) is a book-length exploration of an idea that he calls the “seabird syndrome.” Based on the idea that feeding ecology in the marine environment is what drove the evolution of all seabirds, Gaston’s treatment ties together almost every aspect of seabird life that one can imagine. Taken in this light, seabirds’ “low reproductive rates, long lives, deferred breeding, coloniality, and sexes that behave alike and look alike” can be explained by that one element of their lives: their feeding ecology. All of the above characteristics of seabirds “form part of a strongly correlated suite of adaptations that characterise birds that feed far out at sea” (22).

Since I don’t have much experience with this group of birds, I can only absorb information that looks like it will help me when I do get out to sea. Here’s something that seems to make a lot sense:

At first sight, the most salient characteristic of seabird wings is their length. The Wandering Albatross has the largest wingspan of all living birds and even small gulls seem to have huge wings. However, when we examine wing length in relation to mass, we find that, for a given weight, the wings of seabirds are not dramatically different from those of other birds, especially swallows, swifts, and birds of prey. The wings of seabirds appear particularly long for two reasons: the tail is usually rather short…and the wings tend to be narrow. (51)

That’s the kind of information I’m looking for in a book about an unfamiliar taxon (seabirds isn’t technically a taxonomic rank, but a convenient grouping). Gaston gives me information in a way that I can process it easily. Short tails and narrow wings provides a “long-winged jizz” that, when analyzed with respect to mass, is surprisingly similar to landbirds.

Another example of Gaston’s helpful presentation is in a discussion of how the shearwaters (fulmars, gadfly petrels, and shearwaters) hold their wings in flight. All the bird ID books mention that fulmars “look like gulls but flight pattern is different.” Well, Gaston tells us why the flight looks so different:

Initially, the large gulls appear somewhat convergent with the medium-sized tubenoses (fulmars, gadfly petrels and shearwaters). However, the way that the two groups use their wings is very different. No one can mistake the flight of a shearwater for that of a gull. Despite the difference in relative wing length, shearwaters look more like auks than like gulls, in flight. This is because they hold their wings very stiffly while flapping and gliding. Some albatrosses, large petrels, and shearwaters have a very broad patagium (skin membrane) between the humerus and ulna, supported at the trailing edge by a tendon that is held away from the ‘elbow joint’ by a small bone. The patagium thus formed is an important part of the gliding surface (Warham, 1996), making these large tubenoses somewhat convergent with Pterosaur dinosaurs (pterodactyls: having no feathers they depended entirely on the patagium, like modern bats). In addition, the tubenoses have a system by which the elbow joint locks in place, reducing the muscular tension required to keep the wing extended, but reducing its flexibility (Yudin, 1957). (55)

Gulls may be less efficient than petrels at long-distance flight, but they are much more versatile and manoeuvrable at slow speeds. (56)

How’s that for explaining the “stiff-winged” flight of the Northern Fulmar compared to the “deep, steady” wingbeats of many gulls?

Not everything Gaston writes about is entirely accurate, though. When he talks about how birds use the feet differently for take-off and for swimming, he draws an analogy between swimming humans and swimming birds that is a bit off:

The use of alternate strides at take-off, where the feet may function to raise the body off the water more than to create forward thrust, probably maintains greater continuity of thrust between wing-strokes than would be possible with feet together. However, the preference for using feet together underwater, rather than alternating, is harder to explain. It is consistent with the practice in frogs and marine mammals, but contrasts with the most efficient form of swimming in our own species (crawl beats breaststroke) and the technique preferred by Polar Bears. (61, my emphasis)

I’m not familiar enough with the underwater propulsion of birds to comment on relative efficiencies of alternate versus simultaneous recovery motions, but I can say that Gaston has never had to go through entire weeks of swim practice with an injured shoulder. Anyone who has, and remembers the hours upon hours of “kicking-only” practices will attest that underwater “dolphin” kicks, with feet together, are much more efficient than  the crawl kick, with alternating legs. There’s almost no comparison in speed and power.

Of course, Gaston is talking about the underwater kick motion of birds, which apparently recover to the side, rather than underneath (except for penguins, right?), and who can’t do the dolphin kick, presumably “because the rigid design of the body skeleton, in which the majority of the vertebrae are fused, prevents them from developing the sinuous body motion evident in seals and dolphins” (61). But even the breaststroke kick performed underwater is relatively more efficient for humans than the freestyle kick, when you throw in the arm motion that is occurring simultaneously. There simply isn’t an “underwater crawl” motion that would make sense, hydrodynamically.

Here are Gaston’s conclusions on the evolutionary adaptations that make the seabirds as a group distinct from landbirds:

The things that are most characteristic of seabirds, compared with other birds, are their well-developed salt glands, webbed feet and the rearward position of the legs. [… S]pecialisations for marine life do not necessarily preclude a return to land. On the other hand, landbirds are totally excluded from moving out to sea by the wetability of their plumage. It is the development of methods for staying warm and dry at sea which constitute the essential element in colonising the sea. (66)

To sum up: Seabirds have all evolved to handle one important ecological requirement: finding enough food in a large, unpredictable offshore environment that they can not only ensure their own survival, but that of their offspring as well. Different species have done this in a couple of different ways. Albatrosses, for example, have huge bodies and wingspans, and spend days on the wing foraging over vast distances to gather enough food to get back to the nest and feed their chick. Auks, on the other hand, have small bodies, remain fairly close to shore, and make repeated trips daily to feed their offspring. But what they have in common is their adaptation to the marine environment: the seabird syndrome.

Frog Concertos

Lang Elliott, author and coauthor of many fabulous compilations of nature sounds (the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs, Frogs and Toads of North America, Songs of Insects, and many more) has just (finally!) released his much-anticipated CD of Frog Concertos. No narration, nothing to get in the way of the sounds of these wonderful little critters. Just 20 tracks, 1.2 hours (118.6MB in my iTunes), of frog recordings.

Downloadable through Amazon, or you can buy the CD from the author’s website. He has also posted descriptions of the songs (where and when recorded, what species are on the track) to the website, for those of you who might like to know more about what you’re listening to. Here is an excerpt of his description of one of my favorite tracks, Track 9 (I like this track because it’s so richly layered, with insect sounds, treefrog sounds, and pig frogs, all of which can be heard in my neck of the woods, in addition to Saint Marks NWR where he recorded it):

Saint Marks Rainfrogs. The rough nasal quank, quank, quank of Green Treefrogs is a signature sound of southern swamps. Green Treefrogs dominate the chorus in this recording made at the Saint Marks National Wildlife Refuge near Tallahassee, Florida (May 8, 1988). Listen also for the throaty grunts of Pig Frogs, the bellowing notes of Bullfrogs, and the high-pitched trills of crickets.

You have to admire someone who puts this much love and attention to detail into his work. Well, you don’t have to, but I sure do.

I just downloaded the set this morning, and am already on my second listen-through. It’s so much more conducive to the type of work I do than the radio that our office is constantly playing. My coworkers have asked me what “that squeaking noise” is, and I’ve already started spreading the gospel. Give it a listen! You’ll be glad you did.

To find out more about the frogs we have here in Florida, click here or here.

Book Review: Paradise Found

Despite being a fairly committed environmentalist, I rarely have the patience to read through an entire book about any of the environmental problems facing our generation, let alone Eric‘s. They’re usually written by committed treehuggers, a group of people with whom I sympathize, but with whom I have very little in common. I love trees, I respect their contribution to clean air, soil retention, habitat creation, and so on, but I can’t help thinking that if it comes down to a choice between me and a tree, I’ll choose myself every time. And I have a hard time denying anyone else the right to make that choice. At least, as long as they’re making it with the full knowledge of treeness that informs my own decision.

Imagine my enthusiasm, then, for Steve Nicholls’ Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery (2009, University of Chicago), a history of the environmental loss and degradation that North America has undergone in the last 500 years. Nicholls’ book, though, is both engaging and thoughtful, and, while slightly repetitive in places (“the role of x in the ecology of y seen by the first explorers and settlers must have been a very complex one. Which effects prevailed must have varied from place to place and from time to time creating an ever-changing pattern in the mosaic of z”), it is, on the whole, an engaging and thorough environmental history of our continent.

The Cliff’s notes version of this book review is below; those of you who have a bit of patience can follow me across the jump.

  1. Incredible abundance and biodiversity at the time of European settlement. Much much greater than most people today realize (due to the phenomenon of the shifting baseline);
  2. Incredible abundance leads to subsistence harvesting (think native americans, yeoman farmers), then economic exploitation;
  3. Economic exploitation leads to either ecological extinction (a depauperate but still “stable” population, no longer able to fulfill its role in the ecosystem, but still “present”) or real extinction (like the Carolina Parakeet, Passenger Pigeon, Great Auk, Sea Mink, etc.).

Read more

By way of review: Conniff’s Swimming with Piranhas

Entomology is, apparently, dangerous work. In the 1950s, apparently, an insect researcher (a human entomologist, not an insectoid scientist) by the name of Paul Hurd went to work in Point Barrow, Alaska with a faulty aspirator (that’s a sort of siphon operated by the researcher’s own mouth), which resulted some months later in “four major groups of insects (Coleoptera, Colembola, Diptera, Hymenoptera)” passing out through his nostrils.

In his write-up in Science magazine, the author recommends that “those persons who utilize this apparatus so modify it that the flow of air will not be toward the operator’s mouth” (815).

This is just one of the fascinating articles I promised myself I’d look up after I finished Richard Conniff’s Swimming with Piranhas on the flight home from New York yesterday. While I won’t have a full review ready for some time, here are some other things that caught my attention while reading this fascinating collection of essays: Read more

Swimming with piranhas

Basically just an update to yesterday’s post. For technical reasons (technically: I’m a softhead), I didn’t link to the book that sparked the blog entry that sparked the post. I’ve got some reading to do over the weekend, and maybe then I’ll post an actual review. (Of course, I’ve been promising a review of Paradise Found for about 10 days now, and where is it? Still in my drafts file…). Read more

Why Herptiles? Some recent books…

If you’re like me, you might never have really wondered why the word herptile was invented. After all, “Reptiles and Amphibians” is easy enough to say. And besides, “reptiles” aren’t such a simple class, anyway: lots of reptiles have no business being included in the class Reptilia. Until recently, though, no one like me has really had to care about this, because until recently there hasn’t been anything like the slew of high-quality books about the herpetofauna of North America, and particularly of the Southeast, where I live, that has recently hit the market. Read more

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