Books: The Book of Animal Ignorance

I found this rather oddly titled book using the library’s online catalog, trying to answer my 9-year-old’s question about hornets. (A classmate had told him a hornet was part wasp, part queen bee, and part bumblebee, and I assured him that was wrong but I didn’t know exactly how to define what a hornet was.) I doubt I’d have picked it up otherwise, as the title makes it sound like it’s about how much animals don’t know, rather than how much we don’t know about animals. But having read a few pages, I was delighted with it and just had to check it out to read the whole thing.

This book attempts to be a modern version of the medieval bestiary, full of fascinating descriptions of bizarre animals – except that, unlike the bestiaries, this book tells real information about real animals. Unlike many books about animals, which give all kinds of details about habitat, food, reproductive cycle, size, and so on, that are likely to be of interest only to real animal lovers, this one only bothers with the information that is unusual enough to really be interesting.

For instance, while I had heard of some cicadas that only reproduce every seventeen years, I had no idea that others had life cycles tied to other numbers – all of them prime numbers. By avoiding cycles of even numbers of years, it makes it virtually impossible for a species of predators to manage to match its cycle to that of the cicadas. How the cicadas manage this bit of mathematics, scientists don’t know.

Even more odd – to me – they were kept as pets in ancient Greece. I can see the appeal of having fish, even though you can’t play with them and if they have any personality it’s pretty well hidden. But cicadas? (They would be a particularly boring pet if you had the seventeen-year variety, as the larvae spent the intervening years underground. Of course, the ones kept by ancient Greeks weren’t that variety, as those only live in the eastern U.S.)

I could understand a little better the habits of the Native Americans, who deep-fry their cicadas and snack on them. Apparently they taste a lot like asparagus – not one of my favorite foods, but if I had to eat an insect, I’d rather eat one that tasted like asparagus than like – well, what you’d think an insect would taste like.

Then there are cows. They seem pretty boring, and we know lots about them. But did you know they get something called “hardware disease”? Apparently they aren’t too careful what gets mixed in with their food as they munch away, and swallow bits of wire, staples, and nails. To prevent the damage these objects would cause to the cows, farmers feed them magnets, which sit in the first part of the cow’s stomach, attracting those bits of metal and keeping them from going any further along the digestive tract.

And how about dogs? I knew they had a superb sense of smell, and that there had been cases where they somehow knew their owners had cancer. But I had no idea that their accuracy in detecting lung and breast cancer was better than state-of-the-art medical equipment such as mammograms or CT scans. Certainly it would be a lot more pleasant to have a dog sniff my breath than to get a yearly mammogram.

I’ve also been watching our dog’s tail since reading this book. A cheerful dog’s tail swings more to the right than to the left. He’ll still wag his tail when sad, but it will go more to the left. So far I would say our dog is very cheerful, though that tail swings so much and so fast that it’s not easy to measure the angles.

Having been hit by that tail a number of times, I’m impressed by its strength, flexibility, and apparent imperviousness to the pain of impact. But a dog’s tail is nothing compared to an elephant’s trunk. I knew the trunk was very versatile, both strong enough to lift tree trunks and sensitive enough at the tip to pick up small objects (though I didn’t know they could be as small as a grain of rice!). But I had no idea just how many muscles went into that trunk – a hundred times more muscles than we have in our entire bodies. (Of course, that trunk is also bigger than most of our bodies, typically close to seven feet long and weighing four hundred pounds.)

I knew that medical researchers these days often find promising new compounds in nature, rather than just experimenting with synthesizing new drugs in their labs. But the examples I had heard of came from plants. Did you know there are powerful painkillers found in the bodies of frogs? Some are hundreds of times more powerful than morphine, while being non-addictive and causing no side effects.

The book makes an interesting case for preserving species based on this. It may do no significant harm to the world as a whole if a few dozen or a few hundred species become extinct. But if those species might have yielded new life-saving drugs for humans, we will be the poorer for having lost the opportunity to study them.

Having grown up in New England, I knew a bit about lobsters (though I had no idea lobster sex involved urinating on each other and I still don’t really care). I never cared for eating them myself, and was happy to have breaded fish cakes when the rest of the family dined on lobster. Since it’s generally considered a delicacy, I wondered if perhaps my tastes were a bit unrefined. But now I think I’m in good company.

Early New England settlers considered lobsters barely edible. When storms blew them onto the beach, farmers used them for animal feed or fertilizer and served them only as food for prisoners.

Despite my expectations from the blurb on the front cover (Everything you think you know is wrong), it was not until the latter half of the book that I found a fair number of what I recognized as common misconceptions about animals. For instance, a pearl oyster (which is only a distant relative of the oysters served in restaurants) does not make a pearl in response to the irritation of a grain of sand (which is a normal part of an oyster’s environment) but to a larger irritant such as a piece of shell or, more commonly, to a parasite which has drilled through the oyster’s shell. And a raccoon does not care about getting its food clean. It handles the food prior to eating it, with or without water, in order to make sure it is safe to eat – its highly sensitive hands are much better suited to this inspection than its eyes.

Scorpions give birth to live young – I thought only mammals did that. Walruses are all right-handed – well, right-flippered. Giraffes need less water than camels. Parrots in the wild have never been observed to mimic sounds they hear, the way they do so readily in captivity. Some penguins live in coastal rain forests, or in tropical volcanic caves. Female bears give birth in their sleep.

Some things I already knew. Pigs are rather fastidious animals, and quite intelligent. Rabbits are not rodents. Moles are not blind, though they can only tell light from dark. Rats can make very good pets. Very few people are killed by sharks. (Jellyfish kill more, as do dogs and alligators.) It’s virtually impossible to eradicate dust mites from your home.

What surprised me primarily was the level of intra-species violence. I grew up knowing that nature was “red of tooth and claw” but was under the impression that only humans killed their own kind, and that only humans killed for reasons other than food or self-defense. I learned later of the violence that sometimes accompanies males’ battles for a female’s attentions or for a leadership position, and that healthy animals might kill their sick companions to keep disease from spreading or to put the dying out of their misery. But all those instances of violence have clear reasons, related to survival of the individual or the group.

According to this book, however, “schools of dolphins batter porpoises to death for no obvious reason, and occasionally practice infanticide.” Gangs of male Hawaiian monk seals may batter a female to death when she is in heat. Groups of male lions not only fight over leadership of a pride, sometimes killing their rivals, they will also kill any cubs sired by previous pride leaders. Komodo dragons are as happy to eat young komodos as deer, goat, or buffalo.

There’s a great deal about sex in the book. There’s one species, I forget which, where the male has two penises. In another, the female has three vaginas. In some species, copulation is violent. Sometimes it takes hours. In others, male and female never even touch. And then there are some where the female can fertilize herself, and one where a male can turn into a female.

There’s also a lot about urine (used not only for communication but for arousal during sex in some species) and dropings (rubbing oneself with droppings, eating droppings). I don’t consider myself squeamish, but those were hardly my favorite parts of the book.

But all in all it’s a fun read and a fairly quick one. I wouldn’t mind if they had covered two hundred or three hundred animals instead of only one hundred.

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One Response to Books: The Book of Animal Ignorance

  1. Karen O says:

    Thanks for sharing this stuff, Pauline. Very interesting.

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