Animal adventure tales
debunk wildlife myths
Nearly 2,000 years ago, Pliny the Elder
reported that hippopotamuses find
relief from overeating by piercing their
skin in a hippo version of bloodletting.
Eventually, scientists learned that the
oozing red stuff Pliny described isn’t
even blood but a secretion that may
have antibacterial and sun-blocking
properties. While chasing down the
truth for herself, Lucy Cooke scooped the goo from a hippo
and smeared it on her own skin — if nothing else, her hand was
“noticeably silkier,” she writes in The Truth About Animals.
Cooke, a zoologist and documentary filmmaker, has a
storehouse of such tales of animal adventure. She’s also the
founder of the Sloth Appreciation Society, whose motto is
“Being fast is overrated.” That motto gives a glimpse into
her sense of humor, which shines through page after page,
and her affinity for misunderstood creatures. Cooke battles
the notion that sloths are lazy or stupid just because they’re
slow-moving. In her book, she set out to, as she writes,
“create my very own menagerie of the misunderstood.”
And quite a menagerie it is. Each chapter takes on a differ-
ent animal — bats, storks, vultures and pandas, among
others — long shrouded in myth or misconception. Some, like
bats, are unfairly maligned; others are adored despite shock-
ing behavior, such as Adélie penguins, whose sex lives were
Charles Darwin famously derived his
theory of evolution from observations
he made of species and their geographic
distributions during his five-year voyage
around the world on the H. M. S. Beagle.
But in the introduction of On the
Origin of Species, the naturalist also
cites another influence: the thousands
of fossils that he collected on that trip.
Darwin’s Fossils is paleobiologist Adrian Lister’s account of
that little-appreciated foundation of evolutionary theory.
While sailors on board the Beagle charted the coastal waters
of South America (the actual purpose of the expedition),
Darwin explored the shore and rambled inland on excursions
that sometimes lasted weeks. The fossils he unearthed — some
relatively fresh, others millions of years old — have tremendous significance in the history of science, Lister contends.
The Truth About
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considered so depraved that,
in 1915, London’s Natural
History Museum boldly
marked a paper about the
birds’ mating behavior as
“Not for Publication.”
In many cases, science cre-
ated or perpetuated myths
before eventually debunking
them. Among the ludicrous
ideas once taken as fact: Bea-
vers escape hunters by chew-
ing off their own testicles and
dropping them as a distrac-
tion. To explain where birds
disappear in winter, Aristotle
once posited that they transform into different species.
Even hard-core animal lovers will find surprises in these
histories. I knew, for instance, that the long-running mystery
over European and American eels’ spawning sites eventually
led to the North Atlantic’s Sargasso Sea (SN Online: 4/13/17).
But I had no idea that Sigmund Freud was among the many
who tried to solve another eel conundrum: where the fish hide
their gonads. After disemboweling hundreds of eels to find
their testes, Freud threw up his hands and eventually moved
on to study the human psyche, perhaps slippery enough.
In the end, the history of zoology reveals as much about
our human foibles as about the animals we study. And
this book will leave readers more enlightened about both.
— Erika Engelhaupt
Sloths are wildly misunderstood:
They’re slow, but they’re not stupid.
previously unknown to science, including several giant
ground sloths, compact car–sized relatives of armadillos
called glyptodonts (SN Online: 2/22/16) and ancient kin of
horses and elephants. Because many of those animals were
apparently extinct — but just as apparently related to species
still living in the region — Darwin concluded the fossils were
strong evidence for the “transmutation,” or evolution, of species. This evidence was all the more convincing to him, Lister
suggests, because he had unearthed the fossils himself. He saw
firsthand the fossils’ geologic context, which enabled him to
more easily infer how species had changed through time.
Copiously illustrated and suitable for general readers as
well as the science savvy, Darwin’s Fossils is a quick, easy
read that provides a fascinating overview of the naturalist’s
wide-ranging fieldwork during the Beagle voyage. His insights
from fossils went beyond just biological evolution. Darwin’s
studies of coral reefs (the mineralized parts of which are, after
all, huge fossils) encircling islands in the Pacific and Indian
oceans led him to theorize correctly how such reefs form. And
his observations of strata containing marine fossils thousands
of meters up into the Andes led to an improved understanding of how geologic forces sculpt the world. — Sid Perkins