David Hu on How to Walk on Water and Climb Up Walls (Part 2)

Insects walk on water, snakes slither, and fish swim. Animals move with astounding grace, speed, and versatility: how do they do it, and what can we learn from them? In How to Walk on Water and Climb up Walls, David Hu takes readers on an accessible, wondrous journey into the world of animal motion. From basement labs at MIT to the rain forests of Panama, Hu shows how animals have adapted and evolved to traverse their environments, taking advantage of physical laws with results that are startling and ingenious. In turn, the latest discoveries about animal mechanics are inspiring scientists to invent robots and devices that move with similar elegance and efficiency.

In the second part of our Q+A with David Hu, he describes what we know (and don’t know) about animal motion, and what the future of robots will look like. Check out the first part of our Q+A here.

Don’t we already know everything about animal motion?

From cave paintings to today’s videos of cats on YouTube, the movement of animals has always fascinated people. The thesis of my book is that there is an explosion of new interest and progress in understanding animal motion. Recent technological developments and the teamwork of biologists, computer scientists, physicists, and engineers, are leading to changes in the way animal motion is now studied.

What can we learn from studying animal motion?

Animals have existed for millions of years. As a result, they have evolved a huge diversity, inhabiting nearly every part of the planet, across terrains from desert to forest to sea. This range of environments, combined with their intense competition to eat or be eaten has led to the evolution of ingenious methods of locomotion. Their varying locomotion mechanisms can inspire new ways of propulsion for humans, from robots that walk across the clutter in our homes to tracked vehicles that move across the dusty surface of Mars. But before we robots are improved sufficiently to enter our everyday lives, an understanding how animals movement is of great benefit.

What kind of approach is needed to study animal motion?

We already have many of the tools to understand the movement of animals.  Because animals move through air and water, the same tools that engineers use to design boats and airplanes can be applied to animals. The brains of animals can be studied in a similar way. To react quickly to their surroundings, animals rely on a system of nerves that can act autonomously, similar to the cruise control in your car, and the motion of an autonomous robot. Since animals share things in common with boats, airplanes, and robots—the same tools to study these human-made systems can be used to reverse-engineer systems in nature.

How did you become interested in studying animals and insects?

My PhD was on the physics of insects that walk on water. People who study the motion of fluids have often looked to birds and fish for inspiration. During my PhD, I realized that while we often see insects as annoying, they are the dominant non-microscopic life form on earth, and their small size gives them an even greater versatility to move. After my PhD study on water striders and a postdoctoral study on snakes, I founded my own laboratory for studying animal movement.

What are the applications of your work, whether it’s a shaking wet dog or animals waving their tails?

In the course of my work, I often design and build new devices based on animal movement. My work on water striders led to a collaborator building a palm-sized water-walking robot. My work on cat tongues led to a cat-tongue inspired brush that combs with lower force and is easier to clean. From this book, I hope to show curiosity-based research on animal motion can lead to useful new inventions.

What are the robots of the future going to be like?

Many robots rely on wheels and are tested on linoleum floors. Robots built for such structured environments often do poorly in nature. A grassy field, a moss-covered stream, even a living room littered with children’s toys. These are terrain that is impassible by most robots. To traverse these cluttered areas, robots will likely need multiple legs, or no legs at all, resembling insects or snakes. I bet that robots that successfully traverse outdoor environments will show some resemblance to the animals that make this place their home. This is because the laws of physics provide immutable constraints that have influenced the shape and kind of motion that is most effective on these terrain.

David L. Hu is associate professor of mechanical engineering and biology and adjunct professor of physics at Georgia Institute of Technology. He lives in Atlanta.

Stephen Blackmore on How Plants Work

All the plants around us today are descended from simple algae that emerged more than 500 million years ago. While new plant species are still being discovered, it is thought that there are around 400,000 species in existence. From towering redwood trees and diminutive mosses to plants that have stinging hairs and poisons, the diverse range of plant life is extraordinary. Stephen Blackmore’s How Plants Work is a fascinating inquiry into, and celebration of, the complex plant kingdom.

Why is the book called How Plants Work?

Too many people overlook the fact that plants are at work all around us. The title helps convey the idea of plants as active players, not just a green background. Our species and other animals could never have evolved if photosynthesis, first in blue green algae,  later in plants, had not made the atmosphere and oceans rich in oxygen. Plants are now known to make up 80% of the living biomass of our planet, and having created the conditions for animal life they are essential for our continued survival as the base of our food chain and as providers of essential ecosystem services.

What attracted you to becoming a botanist?

As a child, I was fascinated by nature and curious about all living things. As such, I wanted to know their names and understand how they lived. At first I was most interested in animals, especially, butterflies, birds and reptiles. As I began to learn more about them I understood that each lived in a specific kind of vegetation, fed on different fruits or seeds, or laid eggs on a particular species of food plant. It dawned on me that plants were at the heart of nature and I wanted to know more about them. I have been fortunate to travel widely as a botanist, collecting plants in several continents.

My own journey led me from studying pollen grains and spores to plant conservation. Pollen fascinated me because each cell-sized grain is an entire male gametophyte plant. I wanted to understand how their enormous diversity of form, surprising since they all perform the same task of delivering the male gametes, originated during their development in the anther. I came to plant conservation through seeing some of the finest forests and grasslands disappearing before our eyes. Botanists are now in a desperate race to save plant diversity to keep the biosphere working.

But, aren’t plants all more or less the same?

Plants are deceptively simple in that they are constructed from so few, very familiar, organs: roots, stems, leaves, and flowers or cones. But within each of these organs there is great diversity of form, a consequence of plants solving such problems as how to live in widely differing environments, from a desert to rain forest. Because they are literally rooted to the spot plants have found ingenious ways to colonize new places, dispersing seeds, pollen, and spores on the wind or harnessing animals to carry them from place to place. A major theme of the book is to explore the diversity of each major organ of the plant and to understand their life cycles and reproduction as products of this diversity.

How were the authors selected?

In bringing together a team to write the book it was important to select world leading botanists, people with the experience as research leaders, and teachers to be able to share their specialist understanding of the workings of different parts of the plant. Just as medical practitioners specialize in different parts of the human body, so botanists focus on investigating specific organs or processes in plants. By engaging such talented botanists, the most authentic information emerges, in a new telling, hopefully resulting in a freshness rarely found in standard textbooks.

What do you hope the book will achieve?

The authors, in sharing their passion for plants, hope to attract people to look more closely at plants and to understand more deeply how diverse they are and how important for our future. Plants, as the source of our food, the foundation of the natural and agricultural landscapes we cherish, are a vital for the future of our species. It matters profoundly to the quality of life in the future that as many people as possible understand the value and importance of plants, as much as their great beauty and endless fascination.

 

Stephen Blackmore is a botanist and conservationist. His books include Green Universe and Plant Conservation Science and Practice. He was the 15th Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and was appointed Her Majesty’s Botanist in Scotland in 2010. He is chairman of Botanic Gardens Conservation International and the Darwin Expert Committee.

David Bainbridge on Stripped Bare

For more than two thousand years, comparative anatomy—the study of anatomical variation among different animal species—has been used to make arguments in natural philosophy, reinforce religious dogma, and remind us of our own mortality. This stunningly illustrated compendium traces the intertwined intellectual and artistic histories of comparative anatomy from antiquity to today.

Stripped Bare brings together some of the most arresting images ever produced, from the earliest studies of animal form to the technicolor art of computer-generated anatomies. David Bainbridge draws on representative illustrations from different eras to discuss the philosophical, scientific, and artistic milieus from which they emerged. He vividly describes the unique aesthetics of each phase of anatomical endeavor, providing new insights into the exquisite anatomical drawings of Leonardo and Albrecht Dürer in the era before printing, Jean Héroard’s cutting and cataloging of the horse during the age of Louis XIII, the exotic pictorial menageries of the Comte de Buffon in the eighteenth century, anatomical illustrations from Charles Darwin’s voyages, the lavish symmetries of Ernst Haeckel’s prints, and much, much more.

Why The Art of Animal Anatomy?

Although my day job is teaching anatomy to veterinary students, it has taken me until my seventh book to write about it. All my other books have been about how very strange and unusual human biology is when compared to animals, but this time I thought I’d try something different. Animal structure has been a central artistic element since early humans were painting on cave walls, and I wanted to write a book that reflects how much it has permeated our artistic culture. To do this, the format had to be right – everything else I’ve written has been very text-heavy, but Stripped Bare had to let the images speak for themselves. I did have to weave it into a narrative, but just as important is the quality of the reproductions. Enormous effort and skill went into them, so we wanted to do them justice.

Has the artistic side of science always interested you?

I’ve always found that some of the most interesting aspects of science are when it interacts with language, culture and the arts. Right back when I was slogging through my science subjects to get into vet school, I was also lucky enough to be able to take a two-year course in Art History. I suppose that’s where I learnt the language – knowing my Cubists from my Fauvists, and so on – but also understood for the first time the very real ways that changes in the visual arts reflect, and are reflected by, changes in thought and society. It didn’t take long for me to realise that animal anatomy is not only depicted for its own practical sake, but has also become an eerie, visceral motif to which artists have returned again and again. It has the power to both shock and inspire, and often that’s just too good for artists to ignore.

So how important is it to be familiar with anatomy and art history to enjoy the book?

Not at all, I would say. I assumed nothing of the reader, other than an intelligent inquisitiveness. Comparative anatomy is so much more interesting than seeing the striking ways in which a human, a flamingo and a trout differ, and are similar. It’s a story which almost writes itself. In the book, I tried to highlight what I think are fascinating snippets of the science, but anatomy is a huge topic, and I couldn’t assume any prior knowledge of it. I guess I assumed slightly more foreknowledge of art history, but still not much. A general sense of the flow of the centuries and movements is beneficial, but that’s all. And if readers are teased into finding out more about Futurism or Hyperrealism, then that’s great.

Who is the most important character in the book?

It would have to be Carlo Ruini, an anatomist from Bologna who wrote the remarkable 1598 Anatomia del Cavallo (Anatomy of the Horse), what I like to think of as the Principia Mathematica of comparative anatomy. Before the Anatomia anatomical writings just looked ancient – rare, error-strewn, unscientific, fragmentary, and worst of all, often unillustrated. In contrast, for all its four centuries of existence, Ruini’s book looks recognisably modern: structured, enquiring and detailed. For example, Ruini discovered the one-way nature of the valves of the heart, an important component of later discoveries of the circulation of the blood. The anatomical precision in the book is amazing, especially as it seems to have sprung into existence as if from from nowhere, but most striking is its artistic beauty. There are hundreds of meticulous wood-block engravings, capturing not just the science of the animals’ structure, but also the emotional visual impact of gnarled bones, contorted intestines and convoluted brains. Most of all, the animals retain a remarkable dignity, despite their progressive ‘disrobing’ – they stand proud, or even sometimes trot gaily through renaissance landscapes.

And which artist brings you the most pleasure?

It would have to be Georgia O’Keeffe. In many ways she’s at the other end of the spectrum. Ruini’s book was a practical, scientific book, whereas O’Keeffe uses animal bones solely as elements, often central elements, in her compositions. Just like her paintings of libidinous flowers, her depictions of animal bones allowed her to explain her own feelings about her adopted environment in the American Southwest. Bleached skulls become the central band in the American red, white and blue, while a crumbling pelvis on the desert floor becomes a grand, eroded rock arch framing the distant sierra. I believe that the use of the dusty white skull as a symbol of the desert states (think of an Eagles album cover!) can be traced directly back to O’Keeffe’s decision to place them centre-stage in her compositions.

Has the art of animal anatomy run its course, do you think?

Not at all. If anything, there’s more happening now than ever before. Over recent decades it has become clear that biology is bewilderingly complex and detailed, and one of the major challenges we face is explaining and depicting the new superabundance of information in a comprehensible way. As soon as a neuroscientist generates a scan of the internal nervous pathways of the brain, they have to make artistic – yes, artistic – decisions, if they are to intelligibly represent the tangled and cascading neural superhighways they’ve discovered. Modern, computer-generated diagrams of animal structure and biology are usually beautiful, and always striking. Animal anatomy has even made its way into modern street art. One of the most inspiring images in the book is of a dog’s skull, spay-painted freehand apparently, by the artist SHOK1, onto a building-site hoarding in Walthamstow, North London. It’s one of the most anatomically accurate depictions in the book, a true memento mori for the modern age. The pace of anatomical art is hastening, not slowing – I’m sure there is much more to come.

 

David Bainbridge is University Clinical Veterinary Anatomist at the University of Cambridge. His books include Curvology: The Origins and Power of Female Body Shape and Beyond the Zonules of Zinn: A Fantastic Journey through Your Brain.

José R. Castelló on Canids of the World

This stunningly illustrated and easy-to-use field guide covers every species of the world’s canids, from the Gray Wolf of North America to the dholes of Asia, from African jackals to the South American Bush Dog. It features more than 150 superb color plates depicting every kind of canid and detailed facing-page species accounts that describe key identification features, morphology, distribution, subspeciation, habitat, and conservation status in the wild. The book also includes distribution maps and tips on where to observe each species, making José R. Castelló’s Canids of the World the most comprehensive and user-friendly guide to these intriguing and spectacular mammal.

What are Canids?

Canids are the family of carnivores that includes wolves, coyotes, jackals, foxes, dogs, dingoes, dholes, and other dog-like mammals, with at least 37 extant species, ranging in weight from less than one kilogram to well up to eighty kilograms. Most people would readily recognize the more well-known members of the family Canidae. However, some of its members, as the short-eared dog or the bush-dog, are very elusive and are poorly known, even to enthusiasts. Other species, as the African golden wolf, have just been recently rediscovered. Canids are present in each continent except Antarctica and inhabit every major ecosystem, from arctic regions to deserts and tropical forests. Many canids have distributions that span over a whole continent, and red foxes and grey wolves have the most extensive natural range of any land mammal, with the exception of humans and perhaps some commensal rodents.

What makes Canids so attractive?

Canids are charismatic animals and possess an interest to many readers who are not necessarily biologists or students. The long association of man and dog have guaranteed a greater than usual interest in the knowledge of canids. They are a group with which humans have had the most longstanding and profound associations. They are also one of three modern families of carnivorans notable for including top predators, species capable of hunting down prey several times their own size (the other two are the cat family and the hyena family). Canids are also highly intelligent and develop complex social systems, and adapt rapidly to changing circumstances, as well as different habitats. A canid – the wolf – was the first animal to be domesticated. Domestic dogs have accompanied us for some 15,000 years and have been useful to humans in many ways, such as guarding of livestock, protection, or as pets. Wolves may be the most familiar of large mammalian carnivores and have always held a fascination to humankind; people either love them or hate them, and folklore has portrayed them as vicious and devious killers, but also as symbols of wilderness. Many species of canids are also viewed as pests to humans, and populations of many species have been decimated. Wolves, coyotes, and foxes are persecuted by ranchers, who blame them for losses to livestock. Foxes have been targeted as carriers of rabies and likewise have been the target of hunting, and some foxes are valued for their pelts, which have been used in the fashion industry.

Why is conservation of Canids so important?

Members of this group are widely hunted, persecuted, and used by humans. At least 25% of Canid species are threatened and need urgent protection. Others are rare and even declining or involved in major wildlife management issues, such as disease transmission, predation on livestock, sports hunting, or fur trade. Grey wolves, for instance, have been extirpated from many areas and several of their subspecies have vanished. The Red wolf was declared extinct in the wild by 1980. African Wild Dogs are extinct in most countries that they formerly inhabited, with fewer than 5,000 free-ranging remaining, while Dholes, formerly living throughout Asia, are extinct in half of the countries that they inhabited. Ethiopian wolves, the most threatened canid in the world, number fewer than 500 in the wild. And one species has gone extinct in recent times: the Falkland Island wolf was declared extinct in 1876.

Why did you write this book?

The main reason for writing “Canids of the World” is to showcase people the great, and sometimes unknown, biodiversity of this family of mammals, and also to enable the observer to identify most species of wild Canids from all over the world. Most canids are easy to recognize, but morphological variation within the family is relatively slight, which creates problems of species recognition and classification. Most canids have a similar basic form, as exemplified by the wolf, although the relative length of muzzle, limbs, ears and tail vary considerably between species. Canids also demonstrate a high clinal variability which also may create problems of recognition.

The second reason is to try to clarify the taxonomy of this group. Taxonomy of canids is somewhat controversial and this ever-changing classification can seem confusing to the enthusiast. The family Canidaecurrently includes 37 species and a larger number of subspecies whose status is under constant revision. There are still uncertainties regarding the taxonomic status of some species (eastern wolf, red wolf), while the use of some generic names (Lupulella for some African jackals) is also disputed. Recent phylogenetic studies have found that red foxes in North America are genetically distinct from Eurasian red foxes and merit recognition as a distinct species. In India, two small endangered populations of wolves, the Himalayan and Indian wolves, have also been shown to be genetically distant from other wolves, and some have proposed to treat them as separate species, while dingoes and New Guinea singing dogs are now considered by most authors as feral derivatives of ancient breeds of domestic dogs. It should be pointed that difficulties regarding this taxonomic delimitation among canids can lead to underestimating species and subspecies richness, and these problems can compromise biodiversity conservation.

Last but not least, this book is written to raise awareness for species of canids that has become endangered and to protect wildlife. This book includes information on reproduction, behavior, diet, and conservation of these species. “Canids of the World” is a book for everyone interested in canids, from the expert requiring a reference work, to the layperson fascinated by their beauty, biology and diversity. You certainly can’t protect what you don’t know!

 

José R. Castelló is a medical doctor, naturalist, and wildlife photographer. He is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and the Spanish Society for Conservation and Study of Mammals. He is the author of Bovids of the World: Antelopes, Gazelles, Cattle, Goats, Sheep, and Relatives (Princeton).

Dave Smallshire and Andy Swash on Britain’s Dragonflies

Britain’s Dragonflies is the only comprehensive photographic field guide to the damselflies and dragonflies of Great Britain and Ireland. Written by two of Britain’s foremost Dragonfly experts, this fully revised and updated fourth edition features hundreds of stunning images and identification charts covering all 57 resident, migrant and former breeding species, and six potential vagrants. The book focuses on the identification of both adults and larvae, highlighting the key features. Detailed species profiles provide concise information on identification, distribution, flight periods, behavior, habitat, status and conservation.

What does the book cover?

This is a practical field guide covering every species of dragonfly and damselfly recorded in Britain and Ireland up to the end of 2017. It also includes a few species that might occur in the future. Dragonfly biology and preferred habitats are covered in the introductory sections. Detailed accounts describe and illustrate each species, and give details of status and distribution, along with helpful identification tips. Although the book focuses on the identification of adults, there is also a unique guide to the identification in the field of larvae and exuviae (larval ‘skins’ left behind when adults emerge from water). The concluding chapters give tips on photography, conservation and recording.

Who is the book aimed at?

The target readership includes both beginners and experts alike. The book is written in an accessible style and has a user-friendly design, making it easy to understand for beginners, but with the level of detail needed occasionally by experts. Scientific jargon is avoided as much as possible and the book follows a sequence that leads the reader to likely species in a logical order. An e-version gives enthusiasts the chance to carry this wealth of information, as well as other WILDGuidesbooks, in their pocket during excursions into the field.

How is the book illustrated?

Britain’s Dragonflies is lavishly illustrated with over 500 superb color photographs. Photographic guides are often preferred over those with painted illustrations because of their better reflection of reality. We have carefully selected photographs that were taken specifically for this book by ourselves, as well as many by some of the world’s foremost dragonfly photographers. We have used these in combination with graphics specially produced by WILDGuides’ Chief Designer, Rob Still, to summarize the finer identification details.

This is the fourth edition, so what has changed since the first?

As with many other insect groups, Dragonflies are taking advantage of warmer conditions around the globe. Populations have spread generally northwards in Europe, including in Britain and Ireland, and we have seen rapid extensions in the ranges of many species in recent years. Indeed, we have experienced colonizations by species previously unknown in these isles, as populations have built up in continental Europe. For example, the Small Red-eyed Damselfly has spread rapidly across southern Britain following its discovery in 1999. At the same time, powerful fliers such as Emperor Dragonfly and Migrant Hawker have spread north and west within Britain and Ireland. The quality of images available has improved tremendously since the advent of digital photography, allowing us to incorporate even better examples. Our close links with the British Dragonfly Society have enabled us to build on the experience of others to produce what we, and many of the reviewers of previous editions, consider to be the ultimate field guide.

Why did you write this book?

As keen all-round naturalists we built up many years’ experience in running field courses for both professional and amateur naturalists, and felt it was time to put this wealth of experience on paper. Our key driver, as keen conservationists, was in encouraging others to take an interest in this amazing and enigmatic group of insects. The WILDGuides Britain’s Wildlife series has set new standards in the development of photographic field guides,  and provided us with an ideal platform to give Dragonflies the coverage they warrant.

Mohamed Noor on Live Long and Evolve

Live Long and Evolve CoverIn Star Trek, crew members travel to unusual planets, meet diverse beings, and encounter unique civilizations. Throughout these remarkable space adventures, does Star Trek reflect biology and evolution as we know it? What can the science in the science fiction of Star Trek teach us? In Live Long and Evolve, biologist and die-hard Trekkie Mohamed Noor takes readers on a fun, fact-filled scientific journey.

You teach courses introducing genetics and evolution, yet rather than writing a book that simply presented the science from your courses, you wrote this book that uses examples from a fictional TV show. Why?

My aim is to try to reach people who may be less inclined to read something that seems like a textbook, but who may consider a different “entry-point” to learning about science and evolution in particular. Science fiction is popular and often quite approachable, so leveraging interest in science fiction may be a means for getting people excited about learning the scientific truths (or fallacies) underlying in what’s presented. Reading or watching science fiction is often what inspired people to become scientists, so why not use its popularity to have people learn more science?

But why Star Trek? Isn’t that about space travel in the far future? Do they really cover much genetics and evolution?

Part of the stated mission of the spaceship in many Star Trek series is “to seek out new life”. You may be surprised at how much genetics and evolution crop up across the series given this emphasis: for example, roughly one quarter of the episodes of the 2001-2005 series Star Trek Enterprise had the word “DNA” in the script, and an episode of the current series Star Trek: Discovery references results from a 2015 genome sequencing study. Importantly,Star Trek tries to explain observations in the context of science rather than falling back on magic or “the Force.” More generally, Star Trek offers a very large and mostly internally consistent volume from which to draw examples. Over 700 non-animated Star Trek episodes and 13 movies have aired so far (with one series continuing). That’s a lot of material, making it possible to find examples of almost anything you could want to explain! Of course, while what I’ve told you above is all true, a big added reason for me is that I just love Star Trek, and I think a lot of other people do, too.

How do you approach the science in your book?

The book follows the structure and topics of an introductory biology course at Duke University, where I teach. Each chapter is devoted to a broader idea, like “common ancestry of species” or “microevolutionary processes”. Within each chapter, I start sections by describing a scene from a Trek episode or movie that is relevant. The scene is described in enough detail that someone who hasn’t seen the episode gets the gist of what happened. I then talk about the underlying science that was described using real examples and analogies, and I try to mention recent research in these areas when appropriate. Finally, I return to the focal scene as well as other depictions in Star Trek and assess the accuracy of what was shown and/ or speculate on what may not have been shown (or suggest a tweak to what was shown) that would make it more precise. I follow this approach for several specific topics within each broader chapter idea to help the reader learn the underlying biology.

But how good is the science in Star Trek? Presumably it often gets things quite wrong in terms of biology, like showing hybrids between alien species. Don’t these errors make it hard to teach people your science if you’re using flawed material as your source of examples?

Trek definitely takes some liberties with the biology. There are also times when it gets things quite wrong. However, these errors often reflect broader misunderstandings the public (and sometimes scientists as well) have about genetics and evolution, and thus they provide teachable moments. For example, there’s an episode in which the cast are infected with a virus that caused them to “de-evolve” into various other life-forms (e.g., a spider), due to activating the introns within genes. This example is ludicrous, but it then opens the door to discussing misconceptions about evolution and ancestry and why they are wrong. For instance, humans share a common ancestor with spiders, but none of our direct ancestors were spiders. This is analogous to how we share a common ancestor with our second-cousins, but none of our second-cousins was a direct ancestor of ours. I discuss the evidence for evolution and common ancestry in some detail to try to combat these misconceptions. Later in the book, I also discuss what introns are and why they do not retain instructions for earlier evolutionary states.

How has your background in genetics and evolution informed this book?

While my intent is to cover some basics principles of evolution, one cannot understand evolution without a grasp of genetics, so I present a lot of genetics in the book as well. Genetics and genetics-related terms also seem to crop up in the public eye frequently: DNA sequencing, cloning, personal genotypes, epigenetics, CRISPR, etc. Even beyond explaining evolution, I am eager to have readers learn some basic genetics so they understand what is and what is not possible in real life.

If you wanted people to learn just one thing about evolution, what would it be, and is that one thing covered in your book?

The most basic evolutionary concept is the truth of all species on Earth sharing a common ancestor. We are related to other animals, to plants, and even to bacteria, and the evidence for these relationships is overwhelming. I cover this at some length in the book. However, another idea which I personally have found fascinating since college is how evolution by natural selection is a “mathematical inevitability” if a species has three simple features: heredity (offspring typically resemble parents more than random other individuals), variation (offspring vary in their traits), and differences in survival or reproduction associated with the varying traits. This concept, too, is covered in the book using examples from reproducing “nanites” in an episode of Star Trek.

I apologize— that’s TWO things about evolution rather than one, but there’s so much fascinating science in this field that it is hard to pick a single example. To quote the last line of Darwin’s most famous book, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; … from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

 

Mohamed Noor is a professor and former department chair of the Biology Department at Duke University. He previously wrote the book You’re Hired! Now What? A Guide for New Science Faculty. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

David Lindo on How to Be an Urban Birder

Urban birding is fast becoming ornithology’s new rock ’n’ roll. Birds and birding have never been cooler—and urban birding is at the cutting edge.

How to Be an Urban Birder is the world’s first guide to the art of urban birding—which is so easy and great fun! Here, urban birding pioneer David Lindo tells you everything you need to know about birds and birding in towns and cities in the UK.

How did you first become interested in urban birding?

I believe that my interest in birds spawned from a previous life. Yes, I was once a Puma! I hunted birds then somewhere along the line I started to watch them. Fade to black. Credits.

Actually, I was born in northwest London with an innate interest in natural history. Initially, it was the invertebrates in my garden that caught my attention. Eventually, by the time I was six birds had entered my life. I had no mentor nor was there anyone around to teach me so I had to educate myself. By the age of eight I was a veritable walking encyclopedia on birds.

What are the characteristics that separate an ‘urban birder’ from a more traditional birder?

The biggest difference between urban versus rural birder is style. Urban Birders tend to wear less green and have a more fashionable look. As an Urban Birder you will have to work harder to tune into nature’s wavelength over the hubbub of the city but once you are locked in you will be on the same wavelength as the folks in the country.

What inspired you to write this book?

How to be An Urban Birder has to be defined as a labor of love. It took me five years to pen and I felt that it was a book that I needed to scribe. Over the years many people have asked me to define Urban Birding so I decided to write the definitive guide to being an urban birder, especially seeing as I am The Urban Birder!

What has been your best experience as an urban birder?

My best moments as an Urban Birder usually occur when I least expect it often in the most innocuous locations. Examples could include an Osprey flying over Covent Gardens in Central London, a Red-naped Sapsucker on a solitary palm tree in the middle of Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles. Staying with LA, I will never forget watching a vagrant wintering Black-and-white Warbler in a rough junkie infested park in the Downtown area!

What about your biggest challenges?

I think that the biggest challenges in my urban birding life is getting members of the general public, local authorities and city councils to protect vulnerable urban sites. All too often the hand of ‘development’ has touched and ruined great urban wildlife spots.

What kinds of people are drawn to urban birding, and how are activities like this important to conservation efforts?

The types of people attracted to Urban Birding are often what I term as ‘bird-curious’. In other words, folk who are curious about birds but typically feel too nervous to get involved. Once these people realize that they do not have to be an expert or even know the names of birds, they come forward.

Urban Birding is a great way to get city people involved in nature. These people may not ever become full blown and paid-up birders but they will at least become aware that nature exists within their urban areas. Hopefully, they will then go on to become part of what I term as the ‘Conservation Army’ – a vast swathe of environmentally aware urbanites who will have empathy for the plight of nature around the world.

What are some tips you’d give to aspiring urban birders who are just starting to bird watch as a hobby?

My main tip to aspiring Urban Birders is to enjoy yourselves. Don’t worry about the need to learn all the names and songs but instead, revel in the excitement of just watching and listening. Over time, the names and identity of the birds will fall into place.

Discover a local patch and make it your own. Visit it on a regular basis and get to know the birds that inhabit the space. You will soon find that your knowledge of birds will increase at an amazing pace. Oh, and don’t forget to look up!

 

David Lindo, popularly known as The Urban Birder, is a naturalist, writer, broadcaster, speaker, photographer, wildlife tour leader and educator. His mission is to connect the city folk of the world with the wonderful wildlife that is all around them—even in the middle of the Concrete Jungle. His motto is simple: Look up! He is also the author of The Urban Birder and Tales from Concrete Jungles: Urban Birding around the World (both Bloomsbury). He is a Londoner and runs the website The Urban Birder World.

You can follow David Lindo on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Walter Perez on Galápagos

The Galápagos Islands are home to an amazing variety of iconic creatures, from Giant Tortoises, Galápagos Sea Lions, Galápagos Penguins, and Ghost Crabs to Darwin’s finches, the Blue-footed Booby, and Hummingbird Moths. But how precisely do these animals manage to survive on—and in the waters around—their desert-like volcanic islands, where fresh water is always scarce, food is often hard to come by, and finding a good mate is a challenge because animal populations are so small? In this stunning large-format book, Galápagos experts Walter Perez and Michael Weisberg present an unprecedented photographic account of the remarkable survival behaviors of these beautiful and unique animals. With more than 200 detailed, close-up photographs, the book captures Galápagos animals in action as they feed, play, fight, court, mate, build nests, give birth, raise their young, and cooperate and clash with other species.

How did you start as a photographer?

Approximately 30 years ago, my Dad was known as the official photographer for the small town I grew up in. He photographed weddings, baptisms and different events in town. I am not sure if he really understood photography, but I was curious and started to wonder if I could take better pictures. I begged my Dad to let me take a picture with his Polaroid camera. That was the moment I became hooked on photography. 

Moving to the Galapagos as a young teenager, I had the opportunity to buy my first camera and started taking pictures of  the animals to show my family and friends in mainland Ecuador. For the past twelve years working as a Galapagos Naturalist Guide I have met both amateur and professional photographers which became an everyday learning experience.  I also participated in photography workshops with photo experts from National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions because I enjoyed talking and learning about photography.

With my understanding of the fauna of Galapagos and my photography skills, I was able to create this book.

Do you enjoy working in the Galapagos? Why?

I have lived in the Galapagos for more than twenty years and, for the last twelve years, worked as a Galapagos Naturalist Guide and Photographic Instructor onboard the National Geographic/Lindblad Expeditions ships – the Endeavorand the Islander.

My day-to-day routine in the Galapagos is like attending university; every day is a learning experience because you never know what you are going to see while you are out in the field. People often think that by seeing the same sites and wildlife every day must be boring and tiring, but to be honest it is one of the best jobs on the planet. It is rare that you are paid for doing what you enjoy, like capturing these unique moments in nature with my camera.

Why do you photograph the pictures you do? What is your favorite picture? 

After 12 years of photographing animals in action, I have learned that animals are very unpredictable. Animals that you see everyday in their daily activities can surprise you. You never know when a unique moment in nature may occur. 

Working as a photographer and naturalist in the Galapagos, I have become an expert in anticipating and predicting what is going to happen with the wildlife around me. I capture unique moments in nature that you will probably never see or have a chance to photograph again.  As a visitor to the Galapagos, you may be lucky enough to see one unique moment. However, the likelihood of realizing that this moment was a unique in nature is low. For me, being able to photographically document and share these unusual occurrences is the reason behind the book. Because of this truth, I do not have a single favorite photograph. All of them are my favorites because each shot is unique.

When taking a picture, how many shots do you take of the same action?

Working in the Galapagos as a photographer and naturalist for more than twelve years has given me a deep understanding of animal behavior. It is like going to a zoo but with one exception—you are inside the enclosure and a part of the story. 

Being part of the story has given me the opportunity to predict the precise moments when animals are ready to fight, mate, steal and eat. I am always ready to capture that precise moment in time when nature’s movements occur, when I hold the shutter button down I capture the movements of the wildlife. The end result of these subjects in action became the title of the book: Galapagos: Life in Motion.

How would you describe your day to day life in the Galapagos? 

Working in the Galapagos is like a dream come true. I never imagined that I would have to get up at the crack of dawn to head to work, and that my office would be in the field in the Galapagos archipelago. Every day I escort people onto the different islands and explain the importance of the Galapagos to the guests. Watching the expression on the faces of both adults and children as they explore this enchanted land is rewarding and brightens my day.

 

Walter Perez is a photographer and naturalist who has been working in the Galápagos for two decades. His award-winning photograph of a Great Frigatebird stealing nesting material from a Red-footed Booby, Battle of the Sticks, which is featured in this book, is on permanent display at the University of Connecticut’s Stamford campus. He lives in Galápagos, Ecuador.

Fabrice Schmitt on Birds of Chile

This is the first modern-style photographic field guide to the birds of Chile, an increasingly popular destination with birders and naturalists. Compact and easy to carry, pack, and use, Birds of Chile is ideal for curious naturalists and experienced birders alike, providing everything anyone needs to identify the birds they see. Clear photographs and brief, facing-page species accounts highlight what to look for and how to quickly identify species. The photos include both close-ups and birds-in-habitat images to further aid real-life identification. An introduction and maps provide an overview of Chile’s geographic regions and their distinctive birdlife. Birds of Chile is also a great resource for birding in nearby countries, especially Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.

Who is this book intended for – seasoned bird watchers, novices, or both?
Both! The idea is to have a book that’s useful to anyone interested in the identification of Chilean birds, regardless of skill level. To help beginners, there is a pictorial table of contents, which will help them quickly find the group of birds that they’re looking for. We also group together species with similar behaviours or that are found in similar habitats (for ex. swallows together with swifts) in order to help readers find the birds in the book. Finally, we did not cover rare species that are unlikely to be seen in Chile. Meanwhile, experienced birders will enjoy the book because of the images of species in their habitats, which are helpful when seeking them out, along with key ID features highlighted in pale yellow text boxes.

Can you offer some tips for identifying different kinds of birds?
Perhaps the two key questions to ask are, “What is the bird doing?” and, “Where is its  habitat?” That’s why, in our book, we decided not to present the birds in an arbitrary taxonomic order. Instead, we chose to present them in groups such as, “Walking Waterbirds” and “Aerial Landbirds.” Once you find the right group, just scan the photos for the closest match to what you have seen.

Why do you think Chile is becoming a popular destination for birders?
Chile is a beautiful and incredibly diverse country, with stunning mountains and volcanos, extensive desert and a sublime, temperate forest— the landscapes alone justify a trip! And obviously, you can find some fantastic bird species. If you want to see the charismatic Moustached Turca running between cacti, the beautiful Magellanic Woodpecker in the Patagonian forest, the sublime Diademed Sandpiper-Plover breeding in high Andean bogs, or the endangered and superb Chilean Woodstar in an oasis of the Atacama Desert, then you should plan a trip to Chile! Also, since their bird habitats are mostly open or semi-open, birding is easy there, making it a wonderful destination for birders traveling to South America for the first time.

How have your experiences as a bird tour leader with WINGS prepared you to write a field guide like this?
Bird identification is a challenging hobby, and leading birding groups helped me to realize how field guides could make it easier. For example, most field guides still present the birds following the taxonomic order, which is generally useless in the field. In our guide we preferred to place the grebes together with the ducks and coots because they are all “Swimming Waterbirds,” and not between flamingos and pigeons according to the actual (and ever-changing) taxonomy. Also, we really wanted to present the birds in their habitat so readers realize what they must look for. Leading tours to Chile for many years has also given me a good sense of the most common miss-identified species; hopefully this guide will help to make it easier!

What is your favorite bird in all of Chile, and why do you like it?
Mmm, that’s a hard one! I really like all the large tapaculos found in Chile, so let’s choose one of them: the Black-throated Huet-huet. That species lives in the beautiful Nothofagusforest in the South of Chile. As they are found in dense understory especially with bamboo, they are usually hard to see but fairly common by voice. When agitated, they call their name ‘huet-huet’ (pronounce wet-wet), and another of their vocalisation is a loud Wook! wook wook wook, wook, wook, … it sounds like they are laughing at you because you can’t see them! But with some patience (or luck), you can cross path with one of these fantastic birds!

Fabrice Schmitt is an international bird tour leader with WINGS and a lecturer on Ponant Antarctic cruises. He lived in Chile from 2005 to 2015, founded the online birding magazine La Chiricoca, and helped develop the eBird online birding tool for Chile and the rest of South America. His co-writer, Steve N. G. Howell, is an international bird tour leader with WINGS and a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences and Point Blue Conservation Science. 

Mark Serreze on Brave New Arctic

In the 1990s, researchers in the Arctic noticed that floating summer sea ice had begun receding. This was accompanied by shifts in ocean circulation and unexpected changes in weather patterns throughout the world. The Arctic’s perennially frozen ground, known as permafrost, was warming, and treeless tundra was being overtaken by shrubs. What was going on? Brave New Arctic is Mark Serreze’s riveting firsthand account of how scientists from around the globe came together to find answers. A gripping scientific adventure story, Brave New Arctic shows how the Arctic’s extraordinary transformation serves as a harbinger of things to come if we fail to meet the challenge posed by a warming Earth.

Why should we care about what is going on in the Arctic?

The Arctic is raising a red flag. The region is warming twice as fast as the globe as a whole. The Arctic Ocean is quickly losing its summer sea ice cover, permafrost is thawing, glaciers are retreating, and the Greenland ice sheet is beginning to melt down. The Arctic is telling us that climate change is not something out there in some vague future. It is telling us that it is here and now, and in a big way. We long suspected that as the climate warms, the Arctic would be leading the way, and this is exactly what has happened.

There are a lot of books out there on the topic of climate change. What makes this one different and worth reading?

I wanted to get across how science is actually done. Scientists are trained to think like detectives, looking for evidence, tracking down clues, and playing on hunches. We work together to build knowledge, and stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. It a noble enterprise, but a very human one as well. We sometimes make mistakes (I’ve made a few doozies in my time) and get off the rails. Too often, science gets twisted up with politics. I tell it like it is, as a climate scientist who was there back when the Arctic was just beginning to stir, and both watched and participated in the story of the changing north.

You’ve hinted about how growing up in Maine got you interested in snow and ice. Can you tell us a little about this?

I grew up in coastal Maine in the 1960s and 1970s when there were some pretty impressive winters. Winter was my favorite season. I was way into daredevil sledding, and spent countless hours building the iciest, slickest track possible and modifying my sled for maximum speed. I developed a reputation for building tremendous snow forts with five or six rooms connected by tunnels. We’d would go crawling through the tunnels at night and light candles in each room. Then there was the simple primal joy of watching a big Nor’easter snowstorm come through and grind commerce to halt. The craziest winter activity I got into with my sister Mary and friend Dave was riding ice floes on the Kennebunk River. I probably should have drowned several times over, but, in retrospect, I learned a lot about the behavior of floating ice. Now, this was all back in an era when most of us were free-range kids—my mom would say, “get out of the house, I don’t want to see you ‘til dinner.” So you made your own fun and it wasn’t always safe. But it prepared me very well for a career studying snow and ice.

It took you quite a few years to be convinced of a human role in climate change. Why so long?

As mentioned, scientists are detectives, and we are always weighing the evidence. For me, it was never a question of if we would eventually see the human imprint of climate change in the Arctic—the basic physics behind greenhouse warming had been understood as far back as the late 19th century. Rather, it was a question of whether the evidence was solid enough to say that the imprint had actually emerged. The challenge we were up against is that natural variability is quite strong in the Arctic, the system is very complex, and most of the climate records we had were rather short. By the late 1990s, it was clear that we were seeing big changes, but at least to me, a lot of it still looked like natural variability. It was around the year 2002 or 2003 that the evidence became so overwhelming that I had to turn. So, I was a fence sitter for a long time on the issue of climate change, but that is how science should work. We are trained to be skeptical.

What happened in the year 2007?  Can you summarize?   

In the early summer of 2007, sea ice extent was below average, but this didn’t really grab anyone’s attention. That quickly changed when ice started disappearing at a pace never seen before. Through July and August, it seemed that the entire Arctic sea ice community was watching the daily satellite images with a growing sense of awe and foreboding. Huge chunks of the ice were getting eaten away. By the middle of September, when it was all over, the old record low for sea ice hadn’t just been beaten, it had been blown away. There was no longer any doubt that a Brave New Arctic was upon us. Arctic climate science was never really the same after that.

We keep hearing about how science tends to be a male-dominated field. But the impression that one gets from your book is that this isn’t really the case in climate research. Can you comment?

I don’t know what the actual numbers look like in climate science versus, say, computer science, but in my experience,  when it comes climate research, nobody really cares about your gender. What’s important is what you know and what you can contribute. What you do see, certainly, is more female graduate students now coming through the system in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Education, Mathematics).

Are you frustrated by the general inaction, at least in the United States, to deal with climate change? 

I’m constantly amazed that we don’t take the issue of climate change more seriously in this country. We are adding greenhouse gases to the air. The climate is warming as a result. The physics are well understood. Just as expected, the Arctic is leading the way. Sure, there are uncertainties regarding just how warm it well get,  how much sea level will rise, and changes in extreme events, but we know plenty about what is happening and where we are headed. The costs of inaction are going to far outweigh the costs of addressing this issue.

Mark C. Serreze is director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, professor of geography, and a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the coauthor of The Arctic Climate System. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Michael Brooke on Far From Land: The Mysterious Lives of Seabirds

Seabirds evoke the spirit of the earth’s wildest places. They spend large portions of their lives at sea, often far from land, and nest on beautiful and remote islands that humans rarely visit. Thanks to the development of increasingly sophisticated and miniaturized devices that can track their every movement and behavior, it is now possible to observe the mysterious lives of these remarkable creatures as never before. Far From Land takes you on a breathtaking journey around the globe to reveal where these birds actually go when they roam the sea, the tactics they employ to traverse vast tracts of ocean, the strategies they use to evade threats, and more.

What inspired you to write this book?

I like nothing more than being at a seabird colony under a sky full of whirring wings, hearing the raucous clamour of thousands of birds while the pungent smell of guano (the polite term!) oozes into my nostrils. For sure, research at such colonies, coupled with observations of seabirds from ships, has taught us much about seabirds’ lives. But the truth is that, once the birds dipped over the horizon, our knowledge of where they were and what they were doing also dipped, even plunged. This began to change around 1990 when results from the first satellite-tracking of Wandering Albatrosses was published. Then, in the last 15-20 years, knowledge of what seabirds are doing at sea has expanded amazingly thanks to solid-state electronic devices. The transformation of our knowledge of their habits has arguably been more profound than for any other group of birds. It is now possible to document where a seabird is when far from land, whether it is flying or sitting on the water. If it is on the sea, it is possible to register whether it is on the surface or underwater, and not just underwater but at what depth at what moment. It is possible to record when it opens its mouth – I should say beak – to take in food, and how big that food item is. A seabird one thousand kilometres from land can be monitored almost as intensively as a patient in hospital. My hope is to bring this astounding knowledge revolution to many, many readers who, like me, enjoy the salty tang of sea air.

Can you give us some stand-out findings that have emerged?

  • i) Murphy’s petrels, mid-sized oceanic birds nesting on South Pacific atolls, go for 20-day journeys covering up to 15,000 km, before returning to the colony to relieve the mate sitting on the egg at home.
  • ii) Male Brunnich’s Guillemots (Thick-billed Murres) may swim southward from Greenland for 3,000 km accompanied by their chick at the end of the breeding season.
  • iii) Arctic Terns, migrating south from Alaska, enjoy feeding stopovers off Oregon and Ecuador before crossing the Andes and Patagonia to reach the South Atlantic for the (northern) winter.
  • iv) Atlantic Puffins nesting in the UK use many different parts of the North Atlantic in winter, but each individual tends to have its own consistently-used ‘patch’ that is repeatedly visited year after year.
  • v) Wandering Albatrosses nesting on the Kerguelen Islands in the Southern Ocean adopt different strategies when not breeding. Some linger in that region, while others repeatedly circumnavigate the globe at high latitudes. Once a bird has adopted one habit, it sticks with it for the rest of its long life, perhaps 30 or more years.
  • vi) Penguins, leaping out of the water onto sea ice, start their ascent at a greater depth, and accelerate to a faster exit speed, the higher the ice ‘cliff’ they need to clear.

I realise the book is not really about the electronic devices that have yielded so much information, but can you give us a sketch of some of the devices researchers deploy?

Yes, positional information comes from three main categories. There are devices which transmit the bird’s position to satellites overhead, devices that use the global GPS array, and light-sensitive devices called geolocators that detect the time of local sunrise and sunset. This geolocator data can be translated into a somewhat imprecise estimate of the bird’s position, an estimate that is good enough for plotting migration routes but inadequate for plotting, say, 5-hour feeding journeys from the colony.

Loggers attached to a bird’s leg can register every few seconds whether the leg is immersed in salt water and the bird swimming, or dry and the bird flying. Coupled with information about the bird’s location this can tell us when the bird is feeding, which normally means getting the feet wet!

Depth recorders combined with accelerometers which register a bird’s acceleration along three mutually perpendicular axes can yield a detailed picture of a bird’s underwater track. For example there may be spells of steady movement interspersed with abrupt wiggles which are likely moments when prey is captured, at a known depth.

What biological messages have emerged from the studies you describe in the book?

Two messages instantly spring to mind. The first is that seabird movements across the high sea are not random wanderings. For example the routes seabirds take on long-distance migrations often take advantage of prevailing winds, and indeed mirror the routes taken by sailing ships in days of yore. And, on those journeys, there may be mid-ocean ‘pit-stops’ that are used by most individuals. The existence of such mid-ocean refuelling stations was not anticipated 20 years ago. On a smaller spatial scale, birds leaving colonies to feed frequently head directly to areas where water mixing probably enhances local marine productivity and the availability of food. The birds clearly ‘know’ the whereabouts of rich pickings.

A second finding is that individual birds often have consistent habits that may differ from those of their fellows. I mentioned earlier the consistent habits of Kerguelen Wandering Albatrosses and wintering Atlantic Puffins. This pattern tells us that there may be several ways of making a living on the high seas, ways that are pretty much equally successful.

What are the remaining unknowns? What further advances do you anticipate in the next decade?

Devices are becoming ever-smaller. Even so, there remains limited information about the smallest seabirds, for example storm petrels weighing under 100 g, for which a 5 g device would be too great a burden. I am sure smaller devices will be developed that allow more tracking of these waifs but perhaps it will transpire that their habits are not fundamentally different to those of their larger cousins.

It is also likely that greater use will be made of base stations planted at colonies that can ‘interrogate’ devices attached to the colony’s seabirds. This will eliminate the need to re-catch a bird to download the information on a device; convenient for bird and researcher alike. But the old-fashioned dinosaur in me might yearn for the old days when seabird research involved clambering over slimy boulders rather than peering at a computer screen.

Michael Brooke is the Strickland Curator of Ornithology at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge. He is the author of Albatrosses and Petrels across the World and the coeditor of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ornithology, and has written widely on science and travel for outlets such as the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian.

Elizabeth A. Dauncey & Sonny Larsson on Plants That Kill

Have you ever wondered which are the most poisonous plants in the world, why they produce toxins, and what those toxins are? Are you interested in the ingenious ways that humans have found to exploit these plants for good or evil? Plants That Kill, a new, beautifully illustrated, popular science book provides the answers.

Authors Elizabeth A. Dauncey and Sonny Larsson met when they were both working as scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London, and have now combined their experience and expertise in the botany and chemistry of poisonous plants and their toxicity to animals to write an informative and engaging book that gives you the facts.

Why did you write the book?

ED: When the chance arose to introduce this fascinating aspect of plants to a worldwide popular science audience, I just couldn’t resist. Plants are essential to the survival and wellbeing of humans and animal life in general and this book is a way of engaging with the public and showing them that plants are interesting. Also, poisonous plants always make a good news story (not a good-news story) and this book was an opportunity to present more fact-based information that is still entertaining. It might dispel a few myths and definitely includes more than a few surprises.

SL: How could I say no to an opportunity to explain how and why plants produce compounds that are poisonous? Its just a great subject! I never cease to be amazed by the sheer variety of chemicals that plants produce and the numerous mechanisms by which they can cause harm. I also think the book provides an opportunity to get people curious about new aspects of the subject regardless of whether one’s particular interest is in plants, poisons or ecology.

Who is this book aimed at?

ED: Anyone interested in how plants or nature works, such as people with an academic or general interest in biology or chemistry, the natural world more broadly or man’s interaction with it. We couldn’t avoid including some rather long names of chemicals and the scientific names of plants, but people shouldn’t be put off by these as the rest of the text has been written to be accessible.

SL: The plants are the focus and center of attention in this book, so it is for anyone curious about how poisonous they can be, or their natural history more widely. I actually think everyone will get something out of reading this book — in the end the subject is a mix of science and human-interest stories.

What makes this book special or different?

ED: Plants That Kill really is one of a kind. Its uniqueness is to bring together in one package a global survey of the most harmful plants (particularly those that have killed humans and other large animals), describing the toxins that they produce and exploring their effects illustrated by interesting cases of poisoning. We’ve chosen to organise the plant toxins, and the plants that contain them, according to the part of the body that they affect most, which is an unusual but useful way of approaching the subject.

SL: I think what sets the book apart is our handling of the chemistry of poisonous plants within a biological framework — you’ll not only learn about the toxin and how it works on the animal body, but for many substances we also give examples of its role within the plant.

How did you decide which plants to include in the book?

SL: The book is intended to present the most poisonous plants from around the world, but there are so many plants that are potentially deadly that finding a fitting selection of actual killers took some deliberation. We didn’t want to restrict the book to only those plants that have killed humans, but broadened the scope to include other animals whose death might evoke at least some sympathy — very few people would miss a mould or a microscopic worm, but they would notice the demise of an elephant.

ED: To draw up our list of potential plant candidates, we consulted books about poisonous plants from around the world and research papers on particular topics such as arrow poisons. From each we picked out the most poisonous ones and then grouped them by the toxins that they produce. The final selection of plants was easy for some, such as the castor oil plant whose seeds contain ricin, a highly toxic plant protein. For others, the toxin group was clearly important but the particular plant or plants to feature was less obvious. Those took more research looking for the deadliest examples and weighing up the evidence to decide which one should be highlighted rather than another.

You’ve included a chapter on medicinal plants, why?

SL: I think it is important to put the concepts of “poisonous plant” and “toxin” into perspective, and giving examples of plants containing really dangerous compounds that we are now using as drugs fighting disease is a very good way of doing that.

ED: In addition to the chapter, we’ve actually included medicinal uses of plant toxins throughout the book. It provides balance to the description of a plant’s toxicity and illustrates how humans have adapted this for their own benefit. Many killer plants really are far more useful to man than dangerous and that’s an important thing to mention.

Did you learn anything new while you were writing Plants That Kill?

SL: So much! Even though I used to teach pharmacognosy and now work at a poison information center, the emphasis has been on local plants and in Sweden we have very few representatives of the really dangerous ones growing in the wild. Reading up on poisonous plants from all over the globe introduced new hazardous substances, species of exotic (at least to me) plant families and stories from cultures far away.

ED: Yes, taking time out to review the latest literature across the board meant that there were plants, toxins and circumstances of poisoning that were completely new to me too. We treated such novelties with the same evidence-based scientific approach to researching that we used for the more familiar plants and toxins, so I’ve learnt a lot during the process of writing, particularly around the chemistry and the mechanisms of toxicity. It was absolutely fascinating and absorbing, which I hope is reflected in the finished book.

Do you have a favorite plant or toxin?

ED: I’d choose a plant family, the carrot family — also known as the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae. Most members of the carrot family can be easily recognised by the structure of their heads of flowers, which form umbels (imagine an umbrella with the canopy formed from clusters of small, usually white, flowers). It gives us root vegetables such as carrots and parsnips, and we happily eat the green parts and seeds of celery and herbs like fennel and coriander. But amongst these wonderful food species lurk some of the most poisonous plants in the world. Examples include dead man’s fingers and hemlock that can kill if a root or leaves are eaten, whilst giant hogweed can cause severe skin reactions if physical contact is combined with bright UV light, such as you might experience on a sunny day.

SL: I am rather partial to colchicine, which is restricted to the autumn crocus family, the Colchicaceae. It has been used as a medicine for gout and a poison since antiquity, and is an important tool in the study of chromosomes and cell division. The fact that it has a very peculiar chemical structure that took over a century to discover also adds to my fascination.

 

Elizabeth Dauncey is a botanist and taxonomist who for the past 25 years has specialised in poisonous and more recently also medicinal plants. She has also written Poisonous Plants: A guide for parents and childcare providers, which provides the information and tools to assess the risk posed by plants in homes, gardens and the countryside.

Sonny Larsson is a pharmacist and pharmacognosist who for almost two decades has studied the connection between plant chemistry and evolution, trying to figure out why and how we can use plants to develop drugs. At the Swedish Poison Information Centre he works as a specialist consultant on plants, herbal drugs and dietary supplements.