Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Review - Headless Males Make Great Lovers & Other Unusual Natural Histories by Marty Crump

Short review: The natural world is weirder than any imagined one that people could come up with, and Marty Crump has assembled the examples from the animal kingdom to prove it.

Sex is really great
Creatures do it many ways
Sometimes without heads

Full review: Reality is strange. Reality is, in fact, often stranger than anything humans can come up with in fiction. For anyone who is reasonably educated in the field of zoology, it is readily apparent that no matter how imaginative science fiction and fantasy authors are in their descriptions of alien or fantastical biology, they simply have a hard time matching the wild diversity and bizarreness of the natural world. In Headless Males Make Great Lovers & Other Unusual Natural Histories, Marty Crump places this truth front and center, and gives an accounting of a wide array of bizarre ways that animals breed, care for their young, find food, defend themselves from predators, and communicate. Using nontechnical language Crump effortlessly moves from animal to animal, describing their strange behaviour patterns, explaining the rigors of the lives this sort of activity requires from the creatures, and explains the survival value that some of the odder animal adaptations bring to the animals.

The book is divided up into five sections, each one covering a broad aspect of animal physiology and behaviour. Within each of these broadly defined sections are chapters that group the various animal behaviours into related categories. So, for example, under the section title "Ain't Love Grand" (which covers breeding strategies), there are chapters titled "Sneakers and Deceivers" (covering animals that try to sneak their way into the breeding market), "Trading Food for Sex" (about animals that use food to entice or even ensnare their mates), and of course "Headless Males Make Great Lovers" (about animals, including the praying mantis, where the male has to be careful to avoid being eaten by his partner). As one can tell from the chapter titles, Crump approaches each topic with a mixture of humor combined with the eye of a serious scientist resulting in a book that is both enjoyable to read, and packed with information.

But Crump doesn't just describe the animals and their behaviour. She places their behaviour in context, explaining what survival benefit the often seemingly inexplicable physical and behavioral adaptations give to the various creatures. But Crump also highlights the often extraordinary costs that these attributes extract from the animals, in many cases requiring them to sacrifice their health, well-being, or even their lives in the pursuit of survival and reproduction. Crump places many of the various species into evolutionary context, explaining how these attributes could have developed, and offering the best explanation we have for how such oddity could not only arise, but thrive and prosper. Finally, Crump does this not just by relating facts like a textbook, but by recounting stories from her own research, the research of her colleagues, and her own experiences traveling the world to study fauna on its home ground (with all the attendant hazards that entails). This gives the book a personal touch that draws the reader in even further, and makes the examples that much more compelling.

And the information is often times so extraordinary that if one were to come across the animals described in a work of fiction, one might well assume they were too strange to exist. From praying mantises whose mating reflexes are so strong that the male will continue to mount and mate with a female after it's head has been removed, or even after most of its upper body has been consumed, to male Australian redback spiders who intentionally place themselves into their partner's mouths to be eaten, to frogs that lay their eggs on land and keep them moist by periodically urinating on them, to poison dart frogs that lay additional eggs after their tadpoles hatch to serve as food for the newborns, and on and on. And this list only scratches the surface of the weird, the strange, and the downright creepy that exists out there. The only real problem I had with the book was that it is relatively short at a mere 175 pages of text (plus a list of references and an index). I am sure there is more wonderful bizarreness in the world, and I would have loved to have more included.

Still, a book that leaves you wishing you had more content is usually a great book to read, and this one is no exception. For anyone who is interested in the stranger side of zoology and is not already a practicing zoologist, this book is probably a must read. However, this book is so entertaining that it would be fun to read for almost anyone with any interest in the natural world. In the end, short of traveling the world with a trained zoologist in tow, it is hard to think of a better way to get a guided tour of the strange and wondrous beauty of nature in all of its wild glory.

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