Staff Pick

Pyenson is a paleontologist and “reading whale bones is what I do,” he modestly says. “Their bones all tell stories…about where whales came from.” Translated into human language, these tales are full of superlatives: whales outweigh dinosaurs and are the largest creatures ever to have lived on Earth; their fabled songs, which can travel some 900 miles underwater, are “the most acoustically powerful sound made by any organism.” These stories are fascinating for what we know—whales descended from four-legged land-dwelling animals the size of a dog —and what we don’t: when and how did they develop their tremendous sizes? What’s to stop them from getting still larger? Having survived the devastating toll of 19th and 20th-century whaling, can they adapt to climate change? Pyenson takes us through the Smithsonian’s collection of fossil mammals, the largest in the world, with attendant lessons on whale anatomy, feeding habits, migratory range, and the many mysteries particular to the different species of whales, as well as on field trips to Panama, Alaska, the Hvalfjörður whaling station west of Iceland, and the amazing Cerro Ballena site in the Atacama region of Chile. There he helped excavate four different layers of whale skeletons that research showed had been laid down in different episodes thousands of years apart during the Miocene. It was an unprecedented find, and Pyenson mines it for information about the past, present, and future of whales. But there’s only so much we can learn from bones. So far, “no one has ever recorded the beating heart of a wild whale,” Pyenson notes. May he be the first.

Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures Cover Image
ISBN: 9780735224568
Availability: Special Order—Subject to Availability
Published: Viking - June 26th, 2018

Staff Pick

The title of Cooke’s breezy and smart book is partly wishful. She starts with myths and mysteries of thirteen creatures—do storks fly to the moon for the winter? Do frogs spontaneously generate? How exactly do vultures locate their fresh meals?—looks at how natural philosophers have imaginatively answered the question, then shows how modern science has definitively come to conclusions. Or not. We still can’t account for an eel’s entire lifecycle, and in many cases human interference has created new questions, such as how we can breed pandas in captivity that will behave like wild pandas, when they only have humans or other human-raised pandas to learn from. Meanwhile, storks, famous for their astonishing 4,000-mile migrations, may be evolving not to migrate due to a combination of man-made dangers along the route and the availability of food at landfills in Europe. Whether recounting facts, legends, or speculation, Cooke is unfailingly fascinating. Standouts among her many Wow! moments: beavers don’t need water to go into a dam-building frenzy, just a recording of the sound of water flowing will set them off. Hippos are closely related to whales and practice an “amphibious communication” both above and below water, one that sounds like the clicks and ticks of whale songs. The coat of a sloth is a mini-ecosystem that supports many varieties of moths, ticks, mites, and beetles and has the “look and smell” of a tree. Cooke herself belongs to the exuberantly hands-on species of zoologist, readily tasting the beaver’s musk, a “natural vanilla,” and applying a hippo’s sun-screen slime like a skin cream. Ultimately, Cooke reminds us that the greatest danger to the truth about animals, and thus to the creatures themselves, isn’t our ignorance but the anthropomorphizing that leads us to see animals in human terms and miss what’s most important about them.

The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife Cover Image
ISBN: 9780465094646
Availability: Not On Our Shelves—Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Basic Books - April 17th, 2018

Staff Pick

Hoare’s beautiful fantasia on the sea is nature writing at its best—heartfelt and immediate. It’s also a rich cultural history, tracing the ocean’s paths through literature, art, and myth; and a wider world history, covering naval warfare, shipwrecks, imperialism, and the Anthropocene’s effects on climate and biodiversity. As Hoare reminds us, “the planet consists mostly of water, like us, and we are governed by its cycles more powerfully than by any elected body,” so it’s not surprising that he finds the sea in every realm of earthly life, and vice versa; he tells us what makes a blue “navy” and notes that Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando lives 400 years—as long as an Arctic whale.” But like Melville, who “was always at sea, in his head,” Hoare is more mer than man. He swims every day, no matter what the weather, and he’s not alone: at various times Thoreau, Wilfred Owen, Lord Byron, and many others have been as irresistibly drawn to the sea. Like a series of waves and currents flowing into and out of each other, Hoare weaves his own story with those of The Tempest, Moby-Dick, and their progeny (he’s brilliant on Woolf’s recasting of Melville’s novel in To the Lighthouse). He gives vivid and lyrical accounts of beaches from Cape Cod to Bantry Bay to Portsmouth, with meanders to many rivers and lakes and even the watery hellholes of First World War trenches. Close enough to the ocean to feel even jellyfish stings as “venomous caresses,” Hoare acknowledges that the sea “does not care” about him. If one day he fails to return from a swim, he won’t be surprised. He won’t be sorry, either. This is a magnificent and passionate book—fully worthy of its subject.

RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR: In Search of the Soul of the Sea Cover Image
ISBN: 9780226560526
Availability: Not On Our Shelves—Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: University of Chicago Press - April 2nd, 2018