BOOK REVIEW: Methuselah’s Zoo by Steven N. Austad

Methuselah's Zoo: What Nature Can Teach Us about Living Longer, Healthier LivesMethuselah’s Zoo: What Nature Can Teach Us about Living Longer, Healthier Lives by Steven N. Austad
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: August 16, 2022

This book offers a fascinating look at which animals are long-lived, and – to the extent that it’s known – why. It’s not so much, as the subtitle suggests, a book about how humans can live longer by applying understanding of other creatures of longevity. The advice for living longer would include tips such as: be a relatively large species, be a species that flies [of its own devices,] be ectothermic, be a cold-water aquatic creature, mature slowly, live underground, etc. This kind of knowledge, while interesting, isn’t really applicable to humans. Other takeaways are relevant to humanity, but still don’t change the calculus– e.g. have a relatively big brain. So, if one’s entire interest in this book is based on learning about how humans can live longer by applying ideas from other species, there is little to be gleaned, e.g. a brief discussion of antioxidants, free radicals, and metabolism. That said, it’s an excellent overview of long-lived animals and the evidence for why said creatures (including humans) live so long.

The book is divided into four parts, animals of the air, land, sea, and humans – respectively.

If you’re interested in nature and biology, I’d highly recommend this book. I learned a tremendous amount and the discussions of bats and Greenland Sharks were among the most illuminating — not to mention learning about creatures like clams and ant queens that I had no idea could live so long. Again, my only proviso would be that if you are interested in a book about what humans can do to live longer, there won’t be a great deal of information available [though, as mentioned, the last section does talk about longevity in humans, specifically, but not so much in a blue zone (this is what you should do) kind of way.] It’s more an argument for why more research is needed into animal longevity than it is a book about how to exploit the knowledge that already exists.


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BOOK REVIEW: Nature is Never Silent by Madlen Ziege

Nature Is Never Silent: how animals and plants communicate with each otherNature Is Never Silent: how animals and plants communicate with each other by Madlen Ziege
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: Hardcover out February 8, 2021 [e-book is out now]

The central premise of this book is that humans miss the tremendous amount of communication that is going on among and between other species. We miss it because we think of communication in an extremely limited way that revolves around visual and auditory expressions of human style languages. It doesn’t occur to us that different senses (e.g. smell) or other activities (e.g. stinging or passing gases,) could be used to convey messages as overt as, “Don’t touch me!” to as complex as, “There are good flowers to the southeast, roughly four-hundred meters along this line” or “Watch out! Some beetles have started chewing on my bark.”

While one might still dismiss all this communication as extremely simple compared to the infinitely complicated endeavor humans have made communicating, it’s not all just warning signaling. Many species engage in a form of communication that most people would probably attribute to humanity alone, specifically, deception. There are female fireflies who cannot only send a mating signal to males of her species to engage in reproduction, but can send counterfeit signals of other species to attract a male of another species of which she can make a snack.

It’s also important to note that it’s not just the species most similar to us who communicate. There are chapters devoted to both unicellular creatures and plants, species that one might be surprised to learn are quite active communicators.

I found this to be a highly thought-provoking book for the nature-lover, and I’d recommend it for anyone who wants to expand his or her horizons with respect to what is being transmitted in the natural world on those cold and quiet days when it seems like not a creature is stirring, and yet there’s always something.

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BOOK REVIEW: Body Heat by Mark S. Blumberg

Body Heat: Temperature and Life on EarthBody Heat: Temperature and Life on Earth by Mark S. Blumberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I picked up this book for an odd–and potentially disconcerting–reason. I sweat when I work out. I know that everyone sweats while active, but for me it’s preternatural. It’s at a level that has the potential to be a superpower, if I had any control of it. I’ve finished muaythai sessions with the ring floor looking like it’d rained inside—granted Thailand takes humidity to its heights, but still. I was hoping to gain some insight into what this anomaly was all about. After reading the book, I can’t say I have any greater insight on the issue. However, having lived in the tropics for over three years now, I’ve recently begun to notice that my level of sweating seems normal—at least within a range acceptable for our species.

There are nine chapters. The first examines the basics of heat. While the examples are zoological, the substance is largely what one would study in an introductory physics class—sans the math. Chapter 2 dips more into the biology, considering the various ways in which organisms achieve an ideal temperature. The third chapter explores the role that temperature plays in impregnation, gestation, and genetic information transfer.

Chapter 4 explains how various creatures work internally to create a comfortable temperature. It’s related to chapter 2, but the second chapter deals more with external regulation, i.e. animals’ interaction with their environments. Besides explaining the human need to control the brain’s temperature, chapter 4 explores how birds who keep their feet in chilly water manage to keep from getting hypothermia. In the next chapter, Blumberg considers various ways in which animals fight the cold. There’s an extended discussion of Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT)–a fat that is particularly useful in generating heat–that was interesting.

Chapter 6 raises an intriguing question: should one take fever reducer when one develops a fever? Obviously, a fever can become so high that one needs to combat it, but here we’re talking about a fever of a level that won’t cause any long-term harm. Chapter 7 discusses a range of heat related topics including the connection between spiciness and the feeling of heat and the evolution of language related to heat, but the chapter is mostly about the thermal dimension of sex.

Chapter 8 is about how our body regulates fat so that it can be used both as an energy reserve and as insulation, and what can go wrong with the process. The final chapter addresses the thermal dimension of sleep. If you’ve ever woken up soaked in sweat or chilled, it may have occurred to you that our thermal regulation doesn’t work as usual through sleep.

There is a point in the Introduction that reads as though the author is calling Tibetan Buddhists monks charlatans, and that seems both harsh and offensive. However, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he used an example in unfortunate juxtaposition to his charlatan comment—which is well taken. He’s referring to monks who wrap themselves in wet sheets in subfreezing conditions. His point is that it’s not a suspension of the laws of physics that the monks don’t end up with hypothermia—true enough. The monks’ point is likely that it’s a tremendous challenge to be able to maintain a tranquil mind under such conditions, which I would argue is true as well.

There are only a few graphics, and they consist of tables, line drawings, and photos. There is an extensive bibliography that is organized by chapter.

The Kindle version of the book that I have has some formatting irregularities. However, they didn’t really detract from the reading experience, and will probably be corrected in newer editions. [But it wasn’t an ARC, so the formatting should have been finalized.]

I found this book to be interesting, and I learned a lot from reading it. It’s an important topic, but for many it won’t be a subject that one thinks of learning about in isolation. If you are interested in finding out more about the many ways in which animals (humans included) are influenced by temperature, I’d recommend you give this book a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Stationary Ark by Gerald Durrell

The Stationary ArkThe Stationary Ark by Gerald Durrell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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If you’re like me, you have mixed feelings about zoos and aquaria. On the one hand, it’s an awe-inspiring experience to see the mighty, ferocious, and odd creatures that don’t make it into one’s backyard (for those who even have yards.) On the other hand, one has to wonder whether the creatures on display are as miserable as one would be in their shoes. (i.e. Figurative shoes. I do know that other animals don’t wear shoes… Except for horses… but I digress.)

In this book, Gerald Durrell examines the question of what makes for a zoo that’s good for the animals as well as for its human visitors. Most of us are sophisticated enough to realize that straight-up anthropomorphization (projecting human thought processes onto animals) isn’t a sound way to get to the bottom of an animal’s experience. Animals seem much more resilient than humans, but they aren’t infinitely tolerant. While one can’t conduct a “zoo resident satisfaction survey,” there are means by which to gain insight into the animal’s state of well-being, including: its health, its appetite, and its sex drive / reproductive success.

Durrell had the experience of opening a zoo, and was himself dismayed by what he saw at many of the zoos he visited. In some cases, they were designed for optimal viewing but didn’t give adequate consideration to the well-being of the animals. However, some zoos genuinely tried to act in the best interest of the animals, but they missed the mark by projecting human thinking onto animals–instead of examining the evidence for what conditions positively (or negatively) impact the animals’ health, appetite, and sex drive.

This short book (less than 150 pages) consists of seven chapters. The first chapter presents the challenges Durrell went through in trying to open a new and different kind of zoo. Chapters 2, 3, 4, and 6, respectively, examine the issues that must be taken into account with regards to enclosures, feeding, mating, and sick animals. Obviously, these chapters don’t cover the entirety of the subject in detail, but rather combine generalities with a few interesting (and often humorous) examples from specific species. Chapter 5 gets into the challenges of keeping records in a zoo that isn’t just about entertainment but is also focused on conservation and education. The last chapter sums up Durrell’s arguments for how Zoos can be of benefit to animal species other than humans.

There are no graphics, notations, or bibliography. It’s not that kind of book, but is rather an extended essay. It does feature both humor and insight in good measure.

I’d recommend this book for those who want to better understand what features of a zoo are good (or bad) for the animals, and how zoos might be restructured to advance their roles in conservation and education.

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