Beetles do it. As do fish. And squid, sharks, jellyfish, salps, dinoflagellates, and a host of other invertebrates. Bioluminescence, the production of light by living organisms, is one of nature’s most awe-inspiring spectacles and has fascinated humans since time immemorial. Luminous Creatures, written by bioluminescence researcher Michel Anctil, is a chunky book that charts the history of scientific research on this phenomenon by examining the lives and achievements of many of the key players involved. Along the way, it lifts the lid on many of the wondrous details of bioluminescence.
Orcas or killer whales have been at the centre of a swirling controversy for decades. Popular attractions in aquaria, their plight there has been highlighted in recent books and documentaries, further strengthening opposition to keeping cetaceans (i.e. whales, dolphins, and porpoises) in captivity. However, as Jason M. Colby meticulously documents in this book, there is a cruel irony at play here: this very practice of captivity is what raised our environmental awareness in the first place.
If I asked you to name the most endangered cetacean species, I doubt the vaquita would come to mind. You might mention the baiji, the dolphin living in China’s Yangtze river, but alas, no living members of this species have been seen for years, despite intense search efforts, and the species is presumed extinct. Unfortunately, the vaquita seems to be next in line. Biologist Brooke Bessesen here tells its sad story, revealing the complex world of species conservation.
Helen Scales is a marine biologist, diver, and surfer, and is no stranger to writing good books. I have previously read Poseidon’s Steed: The Story of Seahorses, from Myth to Reality from her hand. The book after that, Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells, received critical praise in the press and was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Biology book prize. Here, Scales turns her attention to fish. Is this another page-turner waiting to be recognised?
It has become cliché to say that we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the depths of our oceans, inaccessible as they are to us landlubbers. Nevertheless, technological advances have allowed us to discover more and more about the denizens of the deep. Anyone who has watched Blue Planet II or similar recent documentaries can testify to the bizarre and wonderful life forms that can be found there.
Cephalopods, the group of molluscs that include the octopus, squid, cuttlefish and nautilus, are some of the most fascinating invertebrates to live in the world’s seas. Especially the octopus is famed for its intelligence and mind-bending acrobatics, being able to squeeze through the smallest hole. There have been some fantastic popular books on cephalopods recently, from William’s entertaining Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid to several works focusing on the octopus (Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life, Montgomery’s touching The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration of One of the World’s Most Intriguing Creatures, which made me tear up in more than one place, Mather et al.‘s Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate, and Harmon Courage’s Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea). But, as marine biologist Danna Staaf remarks, what’s been missing is a popular book on the evolution of cephalopods. Having been fascinated with them since childhood, she eventually decided to write Squid Empire. All hail the squid!
If there is one group of animals that Steven Spielberg has not done a favour, it must be sharks. Already feared as a dangerous predator in an environment where humans are not in their element the 1975 movie Jaws drove this fear to stratospheric heights and painted a portrait of these fish as ruthless man-eating monsters. Browse any selection of books on sharks, and you’re likely to see photos of a breaching great white, jaws agape. Many people are not happy with this Jaws effect (see for example Lindsay Abrams’s post on Salon or Marc Lapadula’s piece on Screenprism), and this lingering fear even affects policymakers (see Christopher Neff’s article in the Australian Journal of Political Science). Tobey Curtis provides an interesting counter note to this sentiment on The Fisheries Blog, also pointing out how – ironically – Peter Benchley, author of the book on which Spielberg based his movie, was actually an advocate for shark conservation (see his book Shark Trouble). As a side-note, shark attacks have happened for as long as human have entered the sea, though have long been poorly documented – Richard Fernicola’s Twelve Days of Terror: Inside the Shocking 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks is a bit of an exception.
This, by way of a short introduction, brings us to the current book: Chapman’s Shark Attacks. The problem with shark attacks is that they are a bit like plane crashes: low-probability, high-impact events. You’re not likely to experience either, but when you do, the results can be disastrous. And thus we fear both flying and sharks.
This book presents a historical analysis of overfishing, following up on her 2012 book All the Fish in the Sea: Maximum Sustainable Yield and the Failure of Fisheries Management. Though many reviews have been written on overfishing, and everyone agrees that too many fishing boats have been built, Finley contends that the question is never asked who built these boats in the first place. Her analysis aims to show that government policies, especially during the Cold War (1946-1990), have been responsible, with subsidies for the fishing industry being a proxy to attain other goals. As the opening sentence puts it: fishing has always been about more than just catching fish. The US-side of the story is scrutinised most intensely, though developments in other nations are covered at length.
Cetacean intelligence remains a topic of intense interest, and has been the subject of several excellent books in recent years, such as Are Dolphins Really Smart?: The Mammal Behind the Myth, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, and Dolphin Communication and Cognition: Past, Present, and Future. Ivy Press typically produces entry-level pop-science books, which is by no means intended as a disparaging qualification. I have read several of above-mentioned books, and even for a biologist coming from a different discipline, these are technical works. Ivy Press’s Deep Thinkers stands out by being both accessibly written and richly illustrated, making it a perfect entry to this topic.
Based on the book’s title I was expecting a myth-busting pop-science book. There is some of that, but this book is foremost a very thorough and in-depth literature review of decades worth of research on dolphins to give an as dispassionate and impartial analyis as possible of what the science is, or is not, telling us about dolphin intelligence.