Living at Extremes: Tootsies and Tardigrades
Posted by Richard Conniff on November 6, 2013
This is a piece I wrote a while back for The New York Times. It’s a review of a children’s book, Extreme Animals: The Toughest Creatures, by Nicola Davies, and I thought you might enjoy it for the instances of strange behaviors (hers and theirs):
By RICHARD CONNIFF
In the course of any literary or journalistic career, all of us at one time or another write something that’s utter poop. But few dare to make that word the title of a book, as this writer-illustrator team did in their last, much-praised outing together, “Poop: A Natural History of the Unmentionable.”
This time around, they take on animals that have evolved to thrive in the most extreme conditions on Earth, from the “frogsicles” that get through the winter “frozen solid and brittle as glass” to the high-jumping click beetles that manage to survive a 2,000 G-force without passing out (the way wimpy humans do at five G’s).
The authors bring just the right note of whimsy and scientific accuracy to their task. Nicola Davies, a sometime zoologist, is a writer, producer and presenter of radio and television programs in Britain. On her British publisher’s Web site, she reveals that she keeps sheep and trims them with kitchen shears. Also that “I’m expert at wringing chickens’ necks,” and, oh dear, that “I used to study whales in Newfoundland dressed in nothing but wellies (only on hot days).” Well, talk about hands-on! And what is going on with the weather in Newfoundland?
But this is a highly promising note for the sort of mischievous, nitty-gritty, unsentimental approach to nature that immature readers of all ages will love. The illustrator, Neal Layton, gets the right number of legs and eyes on his spiders, and does so with a suitable joie de doofiness. The title page shows extremophile bacteria “being BOILED alive in super hot mud,” saying “Yay!” and “Fab!”
Though I have often reported on the same territory of odd and extreme animals, this book still managed to surprise me. I didn’t know, for instance, that polar bears have black skin, the better to retain heat. Nor was I aware of the Sahara Desert ants that endure a body temperature of up to 128 degrees. (When I compared Davies’s account with the original scientific report on these ants, the only thing I thought she missed was the nice detail that they get to dine on the carcasses of other creatures that can’t stand the heat.)
Davies is clear and creative about explaining concepts like the cell (“the tiny, delicate building blocks from which all bodies are made”) and the “countercurrent mechanism” for keeping emperor penguins from losing body heat “through the tootsies.” But one term she never defines is “evolution,” which strikes me as an unfortunate omission.
Evolution is of course how all these creatures adapted to living in such extreme circumstances in the first place. That’s half the fun of the story: desert lizards that eat ants have to hide in the shade at, say, 126 degrees. So Saharan ants have gradually changed to take advantage of that toasty little free time between 126-128 degrees. Davies knows this process of natural selection as well as anyone. “Once upon a time,” she writes, “all living things were tiny, each made of just one cell, like bacteria. Then some of these single-celled beings started living together in colonies.” So far so good, especially when she adds that we humans have thousands of different cells in our bodies. But then she writes, “Living bodies are designed to … .” Yikes! Call me paranoid, but when the word “design” comes up these days in biology, it’s often a lead-in to “intelligent design,” the idea that a divine creator, rather than natural selection, cooked up all these quirky behaviors.
I suspect the word choice was just unlucky, not an attempt to give equal time. But in any case, “Extreme Animals” leaves parents to explain the concept of evolution on their own. Or alternatively, Mom or Dad can describe how God sat at the workbench to design, say, the tardigrade, so it could “survive being frozen, boiled, squashed and quite a few other trials besides.” (And what fun it will be answering those darned questions the kids will ask about a divine psyche with a penchant for putting creatures in such circumstances.) I prefer to imagine God busy with weightier matters, but now and then sitting back, feet up, to be amused and delighted by the strange ways the natural world has worked things out by itself.
That’s also how merely mortal readers will feel with this pleasant little volume in hand.
Richard Conniff has written about extreme animals for National Geographic and the Discovery Channel, as well as in his book “The Natural History of the Rich.”