On this, the ninth day of book lists, I present to you a motley collection of books about the inner workings of vertebrates and their journeys.
Nature’s Giants: The Biology and Evolution of the World’s Largest Lifeforms by Graeme D. Ruxton, Norman Owen-Smith. 2019. Yale University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0300239881
I loved the show Inside Nature’s Giants, a BBC documentary that can be seen now on PBS. On the show they dissected a variety of large animals, such as a python, giraffe, elephant, and even a whale. As they did so, they discussed what it took to be giant, the evolutionary adaptations of the big. It ran for four seasons and is amazing. This book, while not tied to the show, follows a similar story. The advantage of the book is that Ruxton and Owen-Smith go much farther than a few modern giants. They delve into the giants of prehistory as well. They also don’t stop with vertebrates. They discuss giant, butterflies, squid, and trees as well. They can also have much more nuanced explanations and discuss more things than anatomy. They get into the thermometabolism, behaviors, and the interplay between the animals and their environments, a critical aspect of being large. If you ever looked at an animal or tree and wondered how did it get so big, this is the book for you.
The Bare Bones: An Unconventional Evolutionary History of the Skeleton by Matthew F. Bonnan. Series: Life of the Past. 2016. ISBN: 978-0-253-01832-8
This book has been out a few years and it is on my recommended list already, but I haven’t said much about it before, so I thought I would mention it now. Dr. Bonnan is most famous for his work on sauropod dinosaurs, so he is used to dealing with bones on a large scale. In this book, he discusses the evolution of vertebrates through their most obvious characteristic, their skeleton. What makes this book different is his examples using every day objects. Eggs, cameras, coffee cups, and anything else he could grab as a example is used to explain concepts as he explains how the skeleton changed from the earliest fish to modern mammals. Also, the flashcards at the back of the book are great for games.
Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone by Brian Switek/Riley Black. Riverhead, 2019.
Riley Black (previously known as Brian Switek) covers some of the same ground as Bonnan in his book, but he goes in a different direction with it. Black is less technical than Bonnan and she focuses less on the evolutionary story. This book is more concerned with stories about the bones. Black covers cultural uses of bone in jewelry, construction (such as some churches and ossuaries), song, religion, and others. As such, Black spends much more time on the human skeleton than Bonnan, making this book of more interest to those with an anthropological bent. Both books will give you lots of information about the skeleton. You just have to decide if you want a book about all skeletons, with a mention of yours, or you want a book about your skeleton as a physical and cultural object, with some discussion of others.
Incredible Journeys: Exploring the Wonders of Animal Navigation by David Barrie. 2019. Hodder and Stoughton. ISBN-13: 978-1473656826. Supernavigators: Exploring the Wonders of How Animals Find Their Way by David Barrie. 2019. The Experiment. ISBN-13: 978-1615195374
These two are listed together because they re the same book under different titles. Incredible Journeys is the British version, Supernavigators is the American title. Personally, I prefer the British title. At any rate, this is an interesting book on the many ways that animals figure out how to get where they are going, about some of the truly amazing migrations some animals take, and the adaptations that have arisen to keep animals from getting lost. This is not a technical book, just a fun book on a cool bit of natural history.
My Penguin Year: Life with the Emperors – A Journey of Discovery by Lindsey McCrae. 2019. Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN-13: 978-0062971364
People love penguins. As proof of this, just look at all the movies with penguins. We have had several documentaries with theatrical runs, such as March of the Penguins, which even got a sequel. Another one, simply called Penguins, was released this year. The story of the incredible journey undertaken by Emperor penguins, especially, moves people, as they trundle and slide across dozens of miles of Antarctic ice in the most brutal weather imaginable, not eating for months, to breed. Lindsey McRae, photography director for the BBC Dynasties: Emperor episode shared that journey for 337 days. This is his story as much as it is about the penguins. It is a story worth checking out, As an added bonus, as one might expect from a photographer, the book is lavishly illustrated, making the book a visual treat as well.
Horned Armadillos and Rafting Monkeys: The Fascinating Fossil Mammals of South America (Life of the Past) by Darin Croft. 2016. Indiana University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0253020840
Speaking of journeys, I present this book about rafting monkeys, and other animals. I listed this book in my recommendations page when it first came out, but I have never said anything about it, so now is as good a time as any. If you have any interest in mammals, you will want to check out this book. South America has been home to mammals unlike anything seen in North America. During the Great American Interchange, a lot of North American animals went south, but not many made it north, so the weird and wonderful mammals are not as well known as the North American ones. This book will introduce you to giant rodents, giant armadillos with clubs, tiny deer, and much more. Dr. Croft takes the reader on a journey throughout the Cenozoic, introducing them to a world most North Americans that is similar in aspects, but very different from what they have known.
Across the Bridge: Understanding the Origin of the Vertebrates by Henry Gee. 2018. University of Chicago Press. ISBN-13: 978-0226402864
Dr. Gee is a long time editor of the journal Nature, which keeps him at the forefront of the cutting edge research in evolution. As such, he is admirably suited to discuss the current thinking in the origins of vertebrates. A lot of the work has been done in genomics, a field that has exploded in recent years, and embryology. So one would hope that all this new information would have provided concise answers. Sadly, things are never that easy. More data illuminates some things while creating more questions. Gee provides a thorough grounding in what we know, what we think we know, and what we still need to learn when it comes to the state of our understanding the origins of vertebrates. This book is pretty jargon-rich, there is a lot of terminology to wade through, and he talks little about the fossil record, but if you want a good book on the field of evolutionary development (evo-devo) and what it tells us about vertebrate origins, you will want to check this book out.
Tune in tomorrow for more books about the genetics of who we are and how we got that way.