environment Reviews

‘Every Creature Has a Story: What Science Reveals about Animal Behaviour’ review: Beastly tales

A tiny tailor bird is a daily visitor to the hedge that grows next to my work area. As he struts around and picks insects off the leaves, he calls out piercingly. Sometimes, the calls seem rather hysterical and I often wonder what the fuss is all about. Is he calling for a mate? Has he seen a potential predator? Or is he just telling other birds that this is his territory and to stay away?

It was of this little fellow that I thought, as I read Janaki Lenin’s latest book Every Creature Has a Story: What Science Reveals about Animal Behaviour. The book features a selection of 50 essays from her column in the online news portal The Wire. In her Introduction, Lenin offers an explanation for the diverse and disparate range of creatures featured. “...there are no discrete categories in Nature. It leaks, overflows, overlaps and intrudes across man-made boundaries,” she writes.

Crooning nightingales

Lenin breaks down scientific information and research for a lay person in simple, easy-to-understand language. A couple of times, Lenin sent me off another kind of hunt. In the first chapter ‘Good singers make the best dads’ (a title that tells you exactly what the essay is about), she writes: “Nightingale songs don’t only say — ‘I’m a King Bee, Baby’, ‘Stay Out of My Territory’, and ‘Won’t You Be My Love’.” I chuckled and promptly began looking up the songs.

Of course, the pieces that dealt with creatures that I see around me everyday like the chameleon and bees were the ones I looked up first. ‘The eye of the chameleon’ makes for fascinating reading. Did you know that a chameleon can actually watch two things at the same time? “Each eye is controlled by the opposite eye of the brain so the brain’s left hemisphere knows what the right eye is doing and the right hemisphere the left.”

Another gripping one is about bees. Worker bees, she writes, “range far and wide to gather pollen and nectar” and pick up germs too. This pollen is used to create royal jelly but how is it that the bees are not infected. Lenin goes on to describe experiments that will not only increase the immunity of the bees but also “reduce threat to human food security.”

Slave for a wasp

Other equally engrossing essays are about how temperature causes a sex change in the bearded dragons of Australia; the wasp that enslaves a spider to spin webs for it; the reason male sticklebacks hold back their urine for the length of their breeding season; and the parasite that alters animal behaviour. This is not to say that the other articles are not interesting.

The good thing is that one doesn’t have to read the essays in any particular order. Lenin makes even rats interesting. I am wondering how I will react to the next one I see after reading the essay, ‘Empathetic rodents’. Though, of course, she’s talking about prairie voles and not the ones we consider a pest.

Every Creature Has a Story: What Science Reveals about Animal Behaviour; Janaki Lenin, HarperCollins, ₹599.

krithika.r@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Aug 6, 2020 8:00:23 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/every-creature-has-a-story-what-science-reveals-about-animal-behaviour-review-beastly-tales/article32237369.ece

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