Skin Deep

When it comes to animals, everyone loves cute. If you need proof just visit your local zoo. People will be lining up and jostling each other to see the bears, lions, elephants and monkeys but you will have no trouble getting into the reptile house. This phenomenon is reflected in the book world as well. The majority of titles seem to be dedicated to animals we can relate to and that many see as cute or lovable. But there are exceptions. A dedicated few choose to write about, and often champion, the animals that we find odd, frightening and sometimes disturbing. While I would hesitate to call it a trend, I have noticed a number of new books that seek to appreciate the animals many find unlovable. Read on for a few recent examples.

Vulture: the Private Life of an Unloved Bird by Katie Fallon

Often seen in films circling a dead or dying victim and, let’s be honest, not being the most photogenic of birds, vultures are definitely in need of some good PR. Luckily, author Katie Fallon is up to the task. She creates a sense of empathy by following a typical North American turkey vulture throughout the year. Along the way the reader learns of the crucial role turkey vultures play in cleansing the landscape of carrion and the dangerous pathogens such as anthrax, rabies and botulism that carcasses can harbor. You will also come to appreciate the vultures’ keen sense of smell and its ability to soar on six-foot wings for extended periods of time. While few will ever consider the vulture cute, this work will make you appreciate them and reconsider their negative stereotype.

The Secret Life of Flies by Erica McAlister

Getting readers to appreciate a creature that many swat without a moment’s hesitation is a tall order but Erica McAlister manages to do just that. While there is plenty here to make you a tad nauseous, with a whole chapter dedicated to ‘the coprophages,’ you will also learn of the important role flies play in pollination and as a food source. Most importantly, the author realizes that many see those who study flies, a dipterist for those in the know, as rather odd and the flies themselves as, well, pretty disgusting. She counters this with a healthy sense of humor and curious fly related facts: Flies were the first creatures sent into space and are still being studied on the International Space station; vinegar flies enjoy alcohol and when imbibing they become more amorous and less able to choose an appropriate mate; there is such a thing as the The Society for the Study of Flies. In the end, you can’t help but be interested.

Squid Empire: the Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods by Danna Staaf

Perhaps it is the tentacles or maybe the large, sometimes saucer size eyes that put people off, but squid, and cephalopods in general, don’t get a lot of love from humans. But as the bold title of this work implies, squid don’t need your love. You see, they have been around a long time and I mean a long time: before the mammals, before the dinosaurs, and even before the fishes. Sure there are fewer of them around today, but they had a glorious 400 million year run as the ruling class on the planet. Danna Staaf charts their rise, dominance, fall and comeback in this fascinating work with humor and narrative skill. The key to their survival turns out to be an amazing ability to adapt. Starting out in shells, the cephalopods went on to develop tentacles, beaks, ink, and a masterful camouflage ability all to keep one step ahead of the competition. Long live the Empire!

Spineless: the Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone by Juli Berwald

While beautiful when seen floating behind plexiglas in a tank, getting close to a jellyfish in the wild can be a harrowing experience, especially while swimming. In this mixture of scientific inquiry, travelogue, and memoir Juli Berwald examines the prolific and ancient jellyfish and tries to allay some of those fears while describing its role in the ecosystem today. While this book is definitely packed with fascinating jellyfish facts, they are made of 95% water and have barbs that pierce with five million times the acceleration of gravity, it is also about the jellyfish as a bellwether of a changing planet. Their incredible success, with huge ‘blooms’ of billions of jellyfish causing damage to fisheries and infrastructure, says much about the acidification of the oceans and a warming climate. Finally, this book is also a tale of the author’s rediscovery of her love of science, and jellyfish in particular, after raising a family.