Biology

Raptor at Kirkus Reviews

April 5, 2017
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Raptor at Kirkus Reviews

James Macdonald Lockhart’s Raptor: A Journey through Birds was recently covered by Kirkus Reviews; their review follows in full, below. *** When William MacGillivray (1796-1852) published his History of British Birds in 1845, a fellow ornithologist was lavish with praise: “There is a peculiar mountain freshness about Mr. MacGillivray’s writings, combined with fidelity and truths in delineation, rarely possessed by Naturalists, and hitherto not surpassed.” Literary agent Lockhart’s elegant, engrossing literary debut deserves equal acclaim. Buoyed by MacGillivray’s journals and books, particularly his first, on rapacious birds, Lockhart evokes in precise, vibrant detail every aspect of the fascinating predators and their habitats. Although their behaviors vary, all raptors share startlingly acute vision. Humans have about 200,000 photoreceptor cells; birds, 1 million. Like binoculars, their eyes magnify images by around 30 percent. “Birds of prey,” writes the author, “see the whole twitching world in infinite, immaculate detail.” And their world is vast. Ospreys, for example, spend winters in the mangrove swamps of West Africa, flying thousands of miles across the Sahara to arrive in Britain to breed. Peregrine falcons, “specialist” predators that prefer “medium-sized avian prey,” return to the same nest sites each year, guided by droppings left from the previous year’s young. In . . .

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Free e-book for April: Walden Warming

April 3, 2017
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Free e-book for April: Walden Warming

  Our free e-book for April is Richard B. Primack’s Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods. Download your copy here. *** In his meticulous notes on the natural history of Concord, Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau records the first open flowers of highbush blueberry on May 11, 1853. If he were to look for the first blueberry flowers in Concord today, mid-May would be too late. In the 160 years since Thoreau’s writings, warming temperatures have pushed blueberry flowering three weeks earlier, and in 2012, following a winter and spring of record-breaking warmth, blueberries began flowering on April 1—six weeks earlier than in Thoreau’s time. The climate around Thoreau’s beloved Walden Pond is changing, with visible ecological consequences. In Walden Warming, Richard B. Primack uses Thoreau and Walden, icons of the conservation movement, to track the effects of a warming climate on Concord’s plants and animals. Under the attentive eyes of Primack, the notes that Thoreau made years ago are transformed from charming observations into scientific data sets. Primack finds that many wildflower species that Thoreau observed—including familiar groups such as irises, asters, and lilies—have declined in abundance or have disappeared from Concord. Primack also describes how warming temperatures have altered . . .

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#ReadUPScience: Monkeytalk(ing)

March 15, 2017
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#ReadUPScience: Monkeytalk(ing)

Check out an excerpt from a recent review of Julia Fischer’s Monkeytalk: Inside the Worlds and Minds of Primates, at Science News, after the jump. *** “Fischer catapulted into a career chasing down monkeys in 1993. While still in college, she monitored captive Barbary macaques. That led to fieldwork among wild macaques in Morocco. In macaque communities, females hold central roles because young males move to other groups to mate. Members of closely related, cooperative female clans gain an edge in competing for status with male newcomers. Still, adult males typically outrank females. Fischer describes how the monkeys strategically alternate between attacking and forging alliances. After forging her own key scientific alliances, Fischer moved on to study baboons in Africa, where she entered the bureaucratic jungle. Obtaining papers for a car in Senegal, for instance, took Fischer several days. She first had to shop for a snazzy outfit to impress male paper-pushers, she says. Fischer and her local guide then shuttled from one government official to another until a well-timed phone call from a local police chief to a key bureaucrat finally produced the forms. Monkeys get the job done using their own brand of intelligence, Fischer writes. Macaques and baboons navigate their home . . .

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#ReadUPScience: A Digital Menagerie from The Paper Zoo

March 13, 2017
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#ReadUPScience: A Digital Menagerie from The Paper Zoo

American Scientist explores several centuries-worth of zoology on paper at the British Library in a review + “digital menagerie” from The Paper Zoo, an excerpt from which follows below. *** Historian Charlotte Sleigh’s book The Paper Zoo, which taps into the British Museum’s rich collection to explore and contextualize five centuries of zoological illustration (our sampler), leads one to conclude that the refrain’s origin can be traced back to 1659. Johann Amos Comenius’s elementary reader Orbis sensualium pictus (“The Visible World in Pictures”), Sleigh explains, “is commonly regarded as the first picture book for children.” By combining didactic text with illustrations Comenius had, with the stroke of a printing press, invented multimedia instruction. His petite depictions of animals, each appearing alongside a letter of the alphabet meant to represent the sound the animal makes, are clear and endearing without being especially cute. It’s easy to see how they would capture a child’s interest and, as Sleigh observes, ease memorization: Presenting the image of an animal next to a letter whose sound replicates the creature’s hooting, braying, growling, or hissing was an instructional breakthrough. In addition to their utility in the classroom, Sleigh notes, zoological illustrations helped far-flung naturalists keep up with discoveries made in . . .

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Touch Press sale: Gems and Jewels app

February 23, 2017
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Touch Press sale: Gems and Jewels app

Gems and Jewels is an app and the product of a unique collaboration between the University of Chicago Press and the Grainger Hall of Gems at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History (along with the Field Museum’s senior vice-president and curator of gems and gemstones, Lance Grande), published by the digital mavens at Touch Press. Crystals, crystals, crystals—also Etruscan gold necklaces, insects paralyzed in Baltic amber, and a 16th-century Aztec opal made in the image of the Sun God—all in 360-degree rotation, along with detailed captions and scientific data from Wolfram|Alpha, including classification, group, hardness scale, and chemical compound. Accompanying text unfolds from the upper left corner of each page and explores the roles of particular gems in human culture, explains geographic origins, and recounts the extraordinary histories of particular jeweled pieces. Starting today and for the next week, all Touch Press apps are 50 percent off at the iTunes store, including Gems and Jewels. You can check out the sale here. If you’ve never had a look at the app before, the video below should give you an indication of what you’re missing: To read more about Gems and Jewels, click here. . . .

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How to make a minor motion picture about the timber rattlesnake

February 10, 2017
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How to make a minor motion picture about the timber rattlesnake

Michael Swingen was assigned to review Ted Levin’s America’s Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake for Rain Taxi Review of Books. What did he do instead? He created the 30-minute short film, “Snakes and Such,” about “the book, the author, and the process of reviewing.” Watch it in full below: To read more about America’s Snake, click here. . . .

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How the Zebra (and the researcher) Got Its Stripes

February 6, 2017
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How the Zebra (and the researcher) Got Its Stripes

If that doesn’t grab your attention, then perhaps this? A recent piece at WIRED profiled wildlife biologist Tim Caro’s fieldwork for Zebra Stripes, under the zingy headline, “The Man in the Zebra Suit Knows the Secret of the Stripes,” though the article itself willingly deep dives into Caro’s behaviorial-ist adventures. Zebra Stripes is based on Caro’s decade of fieldwork, which questioned the significance of black-and-white striping, and through every possible hypothetical series of circumstances, arrived at an unexpected conclusion: zebra markings are nature’s defense against fly bites. As WIRED writes: At four in the morning, Tim Caro roused his colleagues. Bleary-eyed and grumbling, they followed him to the edge of the village, where the beasts were hiding. He sat them down in chairs, and after letting their eyes adjust for a minute, he asked them if they saw anything. And if so, would they please point where? Not real beasts. Despite being camped in Tanzania’s Katavi National Park, Caro was asking his colleagues to identify pelts—from a wildebeest, an impala, and a zebra—that he had draped over chairs or clotheslines. Caro wanted to know if the zebra’s stripes gave it any sort of camouflage in the pre-dawn, when many predators hunt, and he needed the sort of replicability he . . .

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Microbes from Hell in Nature

November 7, 2016
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Microbes from Hell in Nature

From a sterling write-up of Patrick Forterre’s pursuit of the single-celled archaea, via a review of Microbes from Hell in Nature: Forterre was fascinated by the ideas of microbiologist Carl Woese. In the 1970s, Woese realized that ‘archaebacteria’ were distinct from bacteria, for instance in the sequences of their ribosomal RNA. In 1990, Woese and his colleagues proposed to divide life into three domains: bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes. The concept has gradually been accepted, but Forterre — with microbiologists Wolfram Zillig and Otto Kandler, among others — was an early ‘believer.’ As he relates, most of the archaea that had then been isolated were extremophiles. These include hyperthermophilic microbes that thrive above 80 °C and are typically found in habitats such as deep-ocean vents. Up to the 1970s, the consensus had been that most such habitats were hostile to life, but a handful of groundbreaking microbiologists changed that. Thomas Brock, for instance, began to isolate hyperthermophilic archaea, including the genus Sulfolobus, from hot springs in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Later, German microbiologist Karl Stetter showed that many surprising habitats, even oil fields, teemed with microbial life. In the 1980s, Forterre began to analyse the hyperthermophilic archaea isolated by Stetter and Zillig, looking . . .

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October 4: Happy World Animal Day!

October 4, 2016
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October 4: Happy World Animal Day!

In honor of World Animal Day and to raise awareness of its significance, University of Chicago Press author Marc Bekoff dedicated his recurring Huffington Post column to the event, which originated in 1925 (and whose fascinating history you can read here). The purpose of World Animal Day? From the mission statement: Raise the status of animals in order to improve welfare standards around the globe. Building the celebration of World Animal Day unites the animal welfare movement, mobilising it into a global force to make the world a better place for all animals.  It’s celebrated in different ways in every country, irrespective of nationality, religion, faith or political ideology.  Through increased awareness and education we can create a world where animals are always recognised as sentient beings and full regard is always paid to their welfare. Bekoff’s post considers the ongoing relevance of a day devoted to invoking awareness around animal needs and welfare, including the hyperlink-filled excerpt below, which connects to just a few of the concerns worth our attention, chief among them the continued role we play in animal abuse, and what we can do about it: There’s no shortage of examples in which billions of nonhuman animals (animals) are abused by humans . . .

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Free e-book for September: Hope on Earth

September 6, 2016
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Free e-book for September: Hope on Earth

Our free e-book for September is Paul R. Ehrlich and Michael Charles Tobias’s Hope on Earth: A Conversation. Download your copy here. *** Hope on Earth is the thought-provoking result of a lively and wide-ranging conversation between two of the world’s leading interdisciplinary environmental scientists: Paul R. Ehrlich, whose book The Population Bomb shook the world in 1968 (and continues to shake it), and Michael Charles Tobias, whose over 40 books and 150 films have been read and/or viewed throughout the world.  Hope on Earthoffers a rare opportunity to listen in as these deeply knowledgeable and highly creative thinkers offer their takes on the most pressing environmental concerns of the moment. Both Ehrlich and Tobias argue that we are on the verge of environmental catastrophe, as the human population continues to grow without restraint and without significant attempts to deal with overconsumption and the vast depletion of resources and climate problems it creates. Though their views are sympathetic, they differ in their approach and in some key moral stances, giving rise to a heated and engaging dialogue that opens up dozens of new avenues of exploration.  They both believe that the impact of a human society on its environment is . . .

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