van Grouw’s Anatomy: The Unfeathered Bird in Scientific American

Who knew anatomy could be ‘sexy?’7-2 van Grouw

So says paleozoologist and science writer Darren Naish in describing the natural science world’s renewed interest in the field. But it’s not because Katrina van Grouw gives a ‘stripped-down’ look at avian remains; rather, it comes courtesy of stream-lined CT scanning and sophisticated 3D visualizations. Yet, Naish’s praise of Katrina van Grouw’s artful spin on ornithology in this behind-the-scenes look at her life and work is much more nuanced than all that fancy stuff. His article in Scientific American explores the all-encompassing passion of this world-class ornithologist, meanwhile loudly complimenting her new book for its precision in rendering every minute muscle, bone, and tendon of the creatures that fill its pages.

Naish doesn’t just jot down his observations from the sitting-room chair; he is given the walking tour, complete with a perusal into the eccentric couple’s inner- and out-sanctums. For example: Katrina and Hein van Grouw are proud owners of a muntjac deer skull collection, a business of ferrets (live ones, it must be noted), and an unsurprisingly vast treasury of mounted bird skeletons, all of which Naish ogles with palpable envy. In many ways, the home epitomizes the research executed for and presented in The Unfeathered Bird: brimming with ornithological insight and too full of artifacts to dismiss as mere decorative ploy.

“It is simply imperative that you get hold of this book if you consider yourself interested in bird anatomy and diversity, or in anatomy or evolution in general.”

Despite van Grouw’s untimely release from her position at a natural history museum, which resulted from her desire to produce the book, Naish commends her for transforming the inconvenience into a wonderful opportunity and looks longingly into the future toward her forthcoming book on domesticates.

The ethically sourced remains of dogs, cats, chickens and pigeons make the cut for the tour, but together, they’re just a small fraction of the never-ending plethora of both bizarre and mundane critters that comprise van Grouw’s professional interests; and we, like Naish, hope to see them all expressed thus in due time.

Katrina van Grouw is the author of:

7-2 Unfeathered The Unfeathered Bird by Katrina van Grouw
Hardcover | 2013 | $49.95 / £34.95 | ISBN: 9780691151342
304 pp. | 10 x 12 | 385 duotones/color illus. | eBook | ISBN: 9781400844890 | Reviews Table of Contents Introduction[PDF]

Quick Questions for Günter P. Wagner, author of Homology, Genes, and Evolutionary Innovation

Wagner_Homology_au photo jpgGünter P. Wagner is the Alison Richard Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University and a pioneer of the field of evolutionary developmental biology. He is the editor of The Character Concept in Evolutionary Biology. Dr. Wagner received training in biochemical engineering, zoology, and mathematics from the University of Vienna, Austria, where he completed his Ph.D. in zoology.

He then spent six postdoctoral years at the Max Planck Institutes for Biophysical Chemistry (Goettingen, Germany) and for Developmental Biology (Tübingen, Germany) before assuming a full professorship in the Biology department at Yale University. His research focuses predominantly on the study of homology, or character identity, one of the most difficult concepts in evolutionary biology. His latest book, Homology, Genes, and Evolutionary Innovation (Princeton) provides a fresh and compelling definition of homology and how it arises in evolution.

Now, on to the questions!

PUP: What inspired you to get into your field?
Günter P. Wagner: I received my initial scientific training in chemistry, and I still love chemistry. It is a beautiful system of ideas and practices with wide applicability and utility. Part of its beauty lies in the fact that chemistry can explain a vast array of facts from the combinatorial richness of a quite limited set of basic elements. In contrast, in biology we are confronted with a vast diversity of life forms that defy a simple combinatorial explanation. Biology has to deal with radically different kinds of things, from viruses to blue whales, where one cannot escape the conclusion that radically new things have originated in evolution: humans with culture and language from non-human primates, animals from single-celled organisms, and ultimately life from non-life. Understanding how these novel forms of existence can originate became my obsession in my professional life. This book is my answer – though a partial and limited one – to this question.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?
Homology, the notion that different organisms can be composed of corresponding building blocks, is one of the fundamental scientific concepts that also induce a lot of frustration among those who truly want to understand them. Homology shares this dubious distinction with concepts like species, gene, time, and space, to name a few. The frustration has one main source: the fact that it is hard to pin down how two homologous parts can be the same in spite of differences in shape, function, and underlying developmental genetic mechanisms. In particular linking character identity with our mechanistic understanding of development proved difficult. I think the main contribution of this book is to show that it is possible to forge such a link. I say possible, since it is likely that much of what I say in the book might be wrong, but it never the less shows that such a mechanistic understanding of homology is possible if we ask the right questions and give answers that are constrained by large amounts of empirical knowledge already available.

What is your next project?
I am thinking of writing a textbook on “Comparative Developmental Anatomy of Vertebrates” together with three colleagues. The idea is to recast the vast knowledge of the structure, variation, and development of the vertebrate body in light of the recent progress in comparative developmental biology and also in light of the ideas developed in this book.

“Dealing with the intellectual challenges was the reward, not the obstacle, in this project.”

What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
Be myself! In the sciences there is an enormous pressure to conform, which is in part necessary to make science the coherent communal effort that it is. But it also has the potential to kill creativity and thus the search for answers where there have not even been good questions before.

What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?
Certainly the biggest challenge was to find a way to have the focus and the continuity of effort for writing the book, while at the same time running a lab, teaching courses, and responding to the needs of the University. It is not so much time, per se, that is hard to come by – but a predictable continuity of quality time for thinking and writing. Dealing with the intellectual challenges was the reward, not the obstacle, in this project.

Why did you write this book?
The topic of homology and innovation has fascinated me for many decades, but at one point I had to accept that the subject matter was way too complex to adequately be dealt with even in a very long article. The complexity of the subject results from the large amount of factual, relevant information and from the many facets it has from genetics, developmental biology, anatomy, and evolutionary biology, and even philosophical issues. There was no way I could deal with this in any other format than in a book.


Günter P. Wagner is the author of:

5-29 Wagner Homology, Genes, and Evolutionary Innovation by Günter P. Wagner
Hardcover | 2014 | $60.00 / £41.95 | ISBN: 9780691156460
496 pp. | 6 x 9 | 25 halftones. 105 line illus. 4 tables. | eBook | ISBN: 9781400851461 |Reviews Table of Contents Introduction[PDF]

Quick Questions for Peter and Rosemary Grant

Grant and Grant_ In Search ofPeter R. Grant and B. Rosemary Grant are both emeritus professors in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. They are the co-authors of How and Why Species Multiply: The Radiation of Darwin’s Finches and co-editors of In Search of the Causes of Evolution: From Field Observations to Mechanisms (both Princeton).

B. Rosemary Grant received her B.Sc. (with Honors) from Edinburgh University in Scotland, and completed her Ph.D. at Uppsala University, in Sweden. Peter Grant received his B.A. (with Honors) from Cambridge University, England, completed his Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia, Canada, and completed his Post-doctoral Fellowship at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Their combined research efforts continue to offer “unparalleled insights into ecological and evolutionary changes in natural environments,” and in 2013, the couple was awarded the Margaret Morse Nice Prize by the Wilson Ornithological Society.

Now, on to the questions!

PUP: What inspired you to get into your field?
Peter and Rosemary Grant: Early experience followed by stimulating teachers. Before the age of five, we had each enjoyed the English countryside: the lake district of the north in Rosemary’s case and south of London in mine. Some of our earliest memories are similar, such as the thrill of finding a fossil, catching a butterfly, and smelling a flower. Much later as undergraduates we had inspiring teachers, and many of them. Foremost among them were the Edinburgh geneticists C.H. Waddington and D.G. Facloner (for Rosemary) and Yale ecologist G.E. Hutchinson (for me).

There is widespread misunderstanding about evolution; that it occurs extremely slowly….The idea that animals as large as birds might evolve before our eyes is not so well known.

What was the most influential book you’ve read?
Each of us read Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species at an important stage in our lives. This magisterial book opened our eyes to an understanding of the natural world that is within reach with careful observation, experiment, and logical reasoning, It is extraordinarily rich in insights, and repays re-reading, even with people like us who are older than Darwin when he died!

Why did you write this book?
Having written numerous papers in the specialized scientific literature, as well as three books on our research, we believed the time had come to synthesize all we had done and learned by following the fates of finches on Daphne for 40 years. We also wanted to explain and illustrate the excitement of scientific discovery to a broader audience than the professional biologists who might have read our more technical papers. Finally, we wanted to inspire and encourage students who might wish to study the workings of nature in remote places unaffected by humans, but who are not sure if and whether this can be done.

What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing this book?
Perhaps many scientists make the last observation and then start writing a book without returning to their scientific material. This is not what happened in our case. As we developed the main argument in the book about how new species are formed we were stimulated to improve the way we expressed the main ideas, to think along new lines, and to ask new questions. In a few instances those questions led us back to the files of data, to new analyses, and to a greater appreciation of the role of hybridization in evolution.

We are collaborating with no less than five different groups in pursuing evolutionary questions with the data we have collected.

What do you think is book’s most important contribution?
There is widespread misunderstanding about evolution; that it occurs extremely slowly and therefore cannot be studied in a person’s lifetime. This was the view of Charles Darwin. Many biologists and others now know that this is not correct. For example, evolution occurs in the bacteria that cause illness in us, such as streptococcus bacteria in hospitals, and in insects and weedy plants that are agricultural pests. We do our best to control our biological enemies and persecutors, and they evolve in ways that repeatedly thwart us. The idea that animals as large as birds might evolve before our eyes is not so well known, yet our study in the entirely natural world of Daphne Major island has revealed this does in fact happen when there is a change in the environment, and it takes place over a period as short as a year, and repeatedly.

PUP: How did you come up with the title or jacket?
The title is the essence of the book. That was an easy choice. The jacket was the brain-child of a designer employed by Princeton University Press. We already had a strong image for the cover with a picture of Daphne taken at sea level. However, the designer improved on this by picking one of our photographs taken from the land and cropped it creatively to present of visualization of what it is like to actually be on the island.

What is your next project?
Not sure. Our involvement in finch research has not ended with the publication of the book. We are collaborating with no less than five different groups in pursuing evolutionary questions with the data we have collected. We are also thinking about returning to the island to check on the birds, to see who has survived and who has not, and to find out what has happened to the new lineage of finches whose ups and downs we followed for thirty years.




Peter R. Grant and B. Rosemary Grant are the authors of:

5-23 Grant 40 Years of Evolution: Darwin’s Finches on Daphne Major Island by Peter. R. Grant and B. Rosemary Grant
Hardcover | 2014 | $49.50 / £34.95 | ISBN: 9780691160467
432 pp. | 6 x 9 | 44 color illus. 129 line illus. 21 tables. |
eBook | ISBN: 9781400851300 | Reviews  Table of Contents[PDF]  Chapter 1[PDF]

Happy Darwin Day!

We’re celebrating with Steve Palumbi, co-author of The Extreme Life of the Sea.

In 1837 Charles Darwin first speculated that atolls, ring-shaped coral reefs that encircle lagoons, formed by growing around volcanic islands that eventually sunk. It took 100 years to prove Darwin’s theory of atoll formation correct. Why? Steve Palumbi explains in this video at his Stanford-based Microdocs site.

The Extreme Life of the Sea highlights other fascinating facts about these delicate yet enduring creatures.  Black corals, Steve and his co-author Anthony Palumbi explain in their chapter “The Oldest”, can be smashed to bits by the smallest waves yet have been known to live up to 4,600 years and are likely the oldest living organisms on the planet. Instead of becoming frail as they age like many other species, the longer black corals live the more likely they are to survive and reproduce.

Photo by Steve Palumbi.

The book is just now shipping to stores, but we’ve made the book’s prologue available online to tide you over until you can get your hands on a copy.