Book Review: Life

Today I’m posting another piece of my MSc coursework, this time a book review. If the review tempts you to read it for yourself I’ve included a link to it on here. I hope to add more reviews of up to date and favourite books in the future, but for now – here it is:

Dazzling Images Paired with Lively Words
A winning combination to unveil and explain some of the most bizarre behaviour on the planet.

Wherever this book falls open, you will find a stunning image, whether a pebble toad bouncing down a rocky slope, a male sea dragon carrying his purple brood or an aerial shot showing a chinstrap penguin colony. Each image inspires curiosity:
How do chinstrap penguin make it up the steep, frozen cliffs when they are well adapted to swimming not rock climbing?
Why does a sea dragon carry eggs in its tail?
How can a living creature bounce like a rubber ball?

This is where the book differs from most others depicting glorious wildlife photography, because it is more than just the pictures. It does not just inspire questions, it answers them too. Captions support the images and truly add another layer to the book because they go further than simple description; they convey the reason, or supposed reason, that the subject is doing whatever it happens to be doing. In chapter six, Brilliant Birds, a burrowing owl is running towards you wings spread, the caption explains that the key to this image is what is beneath the owl – the manure he has collected which will attract beetles whilst he is away. Then there is the text itself, and it is no less engaging than the images.

The introduction begins four pages in following some of the most iconic images of the series, including North American red-winged blackbirds migrating in front of an orange sun, roosting monarch butterflies too numerous to count and an extremely curious crested black macaque. Following the introduction is a world map showing the filming locations, spread widely across the globe, which highlight the lengths the programme makers went to in order to capture footage of the most extraordinary behaviour.

The nine chapters are populated by like groups. This follows the original programme in places, but deviates in others. The focus of the book, as with the programme, is behaviour and this could complicate the book. Examples frequently involve more than one species, so the story could belong in two different chapters; the mass spider crab moult focuses on these spiky animals, but one of the photos could belong in the fish chapter because manta rays use these gatherings of soft shelled crabs as an excellent food source. The horseshoe crab breeding congregations are not told from their perspective, but that of the red knot; a bird species reliant on horseshoe crab eggs to fuel up for the last leg of their migration.

Each example of animal behaviour is told as part of an animal’s life-story. Six to ten stories feature in each chapter after an introduction to the group. Beginning with marine invertebrates, this book then explores fish, plants, insects, amphibians and reptiles, birds, mammals, mammalian predators and lastly primates, in turn. Each time delving into the weird and frequently extreme behaviours that enables the animal in question to survive and breed.

The challenges facing the animals and plants covered are similar because each behaviour originates from the most essential aspects of life; feeding, fleeing, attracting a mate, ensuring survival of offspring, or a combination of the above. Yet they are also diverse because of the different ways each goes about solving the challenges it faces. The basilisk lizard walks on water for the same reason flying fish acquired their name, to escape predators. But these animals live in very different environments and their escaping skills provide different advantages and disadvantages; walking on water is effective at getting rid of a predator, but it is extremely tiring, and easy to trip.

Despite the wide target audience the authors do not hesitate to use quite complex language and specific terminology, rhizomes, for example, is used without explanation whilst discussing bamboo. This level of complexity is possible for two reasons; the first is that most of the cast of animals and plants has been met before – during the television series, the second reason is that the images convey some of the information.

The mixture of formats make the information easier to absorb, “overlapping sheaths covering a predetermined number of leaf-bearing nodes that grow out telescopically like an extending radio aerial” is another bamboo example, the simile and pictures combine to illustrate the unusual way bamboo grows compared to other plants.

The assumption that the reader is familiar with the series is a potential weakness, an individual unfamiliar with the series may find the detail greater than anticipated or desired, and the choice of characters may seem haphazard. It is always difficult to pitch to such a broad audience but, I suspect, reasonable to assume that most of the books’ readers are fans of the series. The core of the book is still accessible if the text is not to your taste – because the captions cleverly indicate the key points for the image, and the essence of each story.

Combining stunning images, interesting narrative and effective captions this book can work for a variety of audiences; functioning as a book that can be read front-to-back, dipped into or flicked through, allowing it to reach the broad audience that the original television series attracted. This is arguably its biggest strength – opening up the diverse behavioural ecology of life on Earth to the most behaviourally diverse animal on the planet.


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