Princeton Univ., $ 27.95
Neurobiologist Kenneth Catania’s passion for examining strange animal adaptations began with a creature with a 22-point star on its face.
Catania first saw a star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata) in a children’s book. Later, at age 10, he found a dead man near a stream near his home in Columbia, Md. From then on, he kept his eyes open for more. He had to wait until he was in college, when he got a research position that required him to catch star-nosed moles in Pennsylvania wetlands. At the time, no one knew what that unique nose was for and wanted to find out.
In Great Adaptations, Catania describes her search for the mystery behind the mole's undulating star-shaped appendage (it helps the underground animal detect prey without using sight), as well as a number of other animal tricks. The account of his adventures as a biological detail offers a detailed look at curiosities such as how "angry" water shrews perform the fastest documented predatory attack on a mammal and how cockroaches resist turning into zombies during parasitoid wasp attacks (SN : 31/10/18).
“It is part of human nature to be intrigued by mysteries, but mystery only leads us to the door,” he writes. "You never know what you might find on the other side."
In search of answers, Catania created some strange but fun experiments. To film wasps attacking cockroaches, he created a game suitable for a horror movie, filling a small kitchen with warning signs and a human plastic skull for the wasp to keep its zombified victim. Keeping the theme of terror, he also stripped the painting. he pulled out decorative arms from cut-off zombies and offered the plastic limbs to the electric eels (Electrophorus electricus) to demonstrate that the animals jump out of the water as an attack strategy (SN: 6/9/16).
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Each chapter follows a logical flow as Catania describes her discoveries, from what first aroused her interest in an animal to her latest discoveries. However, science is rarely as simple as it sounds. The work of scientific detectives in Catania did not always go smoothly, but, he points out, including all the failures would mean a much longer book. Still, the book alludes to some ideas that didn’t scare you away. “Animals are always able to do something unexpected and more interesting than I had imagined,” he writes.
For example, the idea that a tentacled snake (Erpeton tentaculatum) could use small appendages close to its mouth to attract nearby fish, as well as turtles with its tongue, was wrong. Instead, tentacles help a snake perceive the position of a fish in the water and know when to attack. What’s more, snakes have hacked the natural escape reflexes of their prey. In a fatal mistake, flee in the wrong direction – straight into a snake’s mouth – when it cheats with a snake neck contraction just before the predator kicks.
Catania’s cheerful and fun narrative presents science in an easy-to-understand way for anyone with a basic knowledge of biology. But even the most experienced expert will probably learn new details, the kind that never turns them into scientific work. For a particularly daring experiment, in which Catania offered her own arm for the shock of an electric eel to measure the electricity of the shock, Catania admits that she certainly could not subject another animal or a volunteer student to the unpleasant jolt (SN: 9 / 14/17). His own arm was the "obvious solution."
Page after page, Catania’s enthusiasm and fear for animals shines through. When she discovered that snakes with tentacles are born knowing how to attack prey instead of learning through failure, Catania recalls that she did not find "enough superlatives to summarize these results." He also describes a fight between a parasitoid wasp and a cockroach as an "insect rodeo." The wasp attacks the head of a cockroach in an attempt to lay an egg, but in defense the cockroach "dollars, jumps and skinny with all its might."
Part of that enthusiasm is likely to rub off on readers and provoke a sense of wonder. Great adaptation packs with lots of amazing details about some remarkable creatures. As Catania says, "I stopped assuming I know the limits of animal abilities."
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