The phenomenon of “shifting baselines” is, to me, one of the most powerful concepts in ecology, explaining a lot of the damage humanity has wreaked on its environment. Vanishing Fish is a career-spanning collection of previously published essays, with some new material, from the pen of fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly who coined this term in 1995. And when a man like him speaks, I listen. The book gives an eye-opening overview of the state of the world’s fisheries, and the research that revealed the institutional ignorance that partially obscures the gravity of the situation.
Sea otters don’t eat algae. And yet, their diet influences the abundance of seaweed. How? Indirectly. Sea otters eating sea urchins (spiky animals in the same class as sea stars) eating kelp has become a textbook example of a trophic cascade, and Serendipity is a first-hand account by ecologist James A. Estes of how this happened. A trophic cascade refers to the indirect effects that ripple through a food web as a result of, for example, a predator consuming its prey. Simultaneously, the book is a searingly open account of how science is done, how ideas change, and how fortuitous events can suddenly send your research programme off in a whole new direction.
Not so long ago, the idea that giant reptiles once roamed the earth was novel, unbelievable to some, but their reign represents only one part of deep time. Go back further in time, to the Carboniferous (358.9 to 298.9 million years ago), and you will find a world of giants as bizarre and otherworldly as the dinosaurs must have once seemed to us. A world where clubmoss trees grew up to 50 metres tall, with scorpions as large as dogs and flying insects the size of seagulls. With Carboniferous Giants and Mass Extinction, palaeobiologist George McGhee, Jr. presents a scholarly but fascinating overview of the rise and fall of this lost world, and why it still matters to us.
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.