Friday, April 11, 2014

Book Review: Book of Animal Records

You may think all "record" books have "Guinness" in the titles, as kind of a natural law, but this edition of Mark Carwardine's Book of Animal Records is sponsored by the Natural History Museum in London.  It's a lot of fun and is often eye-opening, but its utility is limited by the complete lack of references.

The Natural History Museum Book of Animal Records
Firefly, 2013

The book is colorful, readable, and has an intriguing collection of odd records (the fastest-digging monotreme is the echidna, just in case someone asks)   along with the usual biggest, heaviest, smallest, and all that. It adds up to some 900 records from all over the animal kingdom.  Carwardine is a veteran of wildlife books (I have his Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises and the touching Last Chance to See, with Douglas Adams) and is qualified to undertake this endeavor.  Most of the time, his details are accurate, and they are certainly interesting.
Since my current area of interest is marine animals, it was cool to spend some time with the largest pinniped (a southern elephant seal caught in 1913 weighed an estimated 4,000 kg) and the fastest of the seals (the leopard seal's ability to leap onto a flow 2m above the water indicates a launch speed of 22km/hr). On the sirenian side, did you know the Florida manatee has been known to migrate 850km? 
When it gets to records, of course, the whales grab most of the superlatives. The biggest sperm whale brain weighed was 9.2kg.  A blue whale caught in 1931 was weighed in pieces: with an estimate added for lost blood (6.5 metric tons) the whole whale weighed a stupendous 199 mt.  Orcas have been known to prey on 25 species of their fellow cetaceans using their speed (timed at 55.5km/h), smarts, and nasty jaws: one of those prey species is the blue whale, which while not swimming for its life communicates with low-frequency calls at 188 decibels, audible 3,000km away.
The dominant ocean vertebrates, in numbers, are are the fishes, and we learn plenty of nuggets about them:  puffer fish kills 30 people a year in Japan, while the top location for shark attacks in the years 2000-2011 is Florida (281). There are 410 species of sharks (a number probably already obsolete) and 42 are "known or suspected" of taking at least the occasional bite out of a human. (I wish there was a list provided: I've never seen an estimate that high.)
There is the occasional moment of clunky writing: e.g., coelacanths "have been dubbed as 'living fossils.'" There is also the occasional mistake. The claim on page 195 that marine biologists in 1963 saw an oarfish 15m long is flat wrong: the animal was a nearly-transparent invertebrate. Speaking of invertebrates, a deep-water crustacean in the genus Gigantocypris has, according this the text, better night vision than any living animal, though you have to read a bit further to learn Carwardine means the most sensitive, in terms of f-number (0.25).  The author gives a maximum weight of 272kg for the Pacific giant octopus, a number disputed in other references, though he adds a cautious note on the cephalopods by  saying there's no evidence for the monster Octopus giganteus once believed to have been stranded in 1896.  Also speaking of the invertebrates, they get short-changed a bit here: there are only 41 pages on them, despite their vastly outnumbering the vertebrates.
The question of dueling sources brings me to the huge problem with this book. There are no sources. No footnotes, no endnotes, no bibliography.  While it's understood Carwardine was going for the interest of popular audiences and wasn't trying to write a textbook, having NO references just flummoxes me.  With them, this book could have been terrific: instead, it's always interesting but rarely authoritative. 

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