Saturday, September 14, 2013

Book Review: Kraken

Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid    

by Wendy Williams

Abrams Image; 2011

Williams, a veteran science and environmental writer, has turned in a fun, engaging, and generally fascinating look at the cephalopods (squid get most of the ink (hah), but she spends some time with the octopuses, especially the giant Pacific octopus, and the cuttlefishes as well).  Much of the material in this book that was new to me concerned the medical utility of the squid. I knew we studied its huge nerve-cell axons, but I didn't know how fundamental squid have been to our understanding of the human nervous system and its diseases. Williams personalizes the book with stories and interviews with veteran teuthologists like Clyde Roper as well as field biologists studying the famous (and perhaps dangerous) Humboldt squid and running Squids4Kids, a program to ship squid to high school classrooms for dissection.  
We encounter are many fascinating facts along the way: I never knew that scientists had ground up and liquefied the ink found in a beautifully preserved 150-million-year-old fossil squid and used it to draw a picture of the animal.  Cephalopods, it seems, have been with us for up to half a billion years, thumbing their noses at extinction events (or so they would have done if they had thumbs, or noses) while evolving some unearthly features. These include skins capable of amazing changes of hue the animal never sees (squid don't see colors) and a brain that is, in essence, distributed through the animal's arms as well as the central gray matter. 
Concerning the latter, one topic that thoroughly fascinates William is the question of intelligence. Cephalopods are the smartest invertebrates on Earth, but how do they compare with the mammals, and how can we even figure that out with a creature whose intelligence is so different from ours?  There are even passing mentions of some tidbits for the cryptozoologists: there's a reference to a reported Pacific octopus weighing 600 pounds, and a theory that there may have been an octopus with a 150-foot arm spread - shades of the disputed Octopus giganteus from Florida and the Caribbean.
This is a terrific book. It doesn't cover all the topics I wish she'd included, but what is here will hold your attention like a tentacle holds a fish.



Very nice book review, Looking forward for more update soon. Thanks for sharing!

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Momma Bear said...