Mind of the Raven

Mind of the RavenMind of the Raven
by Bernd Heinrich
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781515978404
Publication Date: June 1, 2016
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: Tantor Media

Bernd Heinrich involves us in his quest to get inside the mind of the raven. But as animals can only be spied on by getting quite close, Heinrich adopts ravens, thereby becoming a 'raven father,' as well as observing them in their natural habitat. He studies their daily routines, and in the process, paints a vivid picture of the ravens' world. At the heart of this book are Heinrich's love and respect for these complex and engaging creatures, and through his keen observation and analysis, we become their intimates too.

Heinrich's passion for ravens has led him around the world in his research. Mind of the Raven follows an exotic journey-from New England to Germany, and from Montana to Baffin Island in the high Arctic-offering dazzling accounts of how science works in the field, filtered through the eyes of a passionate observer of nature. Each new discovery and insight into raven behavior is thrilling, at once lyrical and scientific.

I don’t know what to think about this book.  Would I have liked it more if I’d read the print version instead of listening to the audio?  I don’t know, but I suspect … maybe.

Heinrich is a published scientist who studied ravens, so the book is pure behavioural science, no deviations, no asides; all very on-point and full of pure observational research and field studies.  I have no complaints about this in theory – it was all very interesting and I can’t remember ever thinking it was getting dull or monotonous.  Except that the narrator came very close to making it sound very dull and monotonous.  This is why I suspect I’d have liked it more if I’d read it, or if there had a been a different narrator. Norman Dietz was competent; maybe even more than competent, as his delivery tried to be lively and was never wooden.  But it was also obvious that he’s an older man, whose voice was often gravely and always a bit breathy, and in spite of his obvious efforts to bring the text alive, his voice still gave the narration a slight monotone that was hard to get past.

If I have any complaint about the content itself, it’s only that as a scientist, Heinrich is a bit cold-blooded.  While it’s obvious he thoroughly enjoys his ravens and has no problem admitting to often having favorites, his objectivity and efforts to not anthropomorphise means that the ravens’ personalities never really come through.  He doesn’t treat them as pets and they are, for the most part, semi-wild, but still, as someone who anthropomorphises everything, I’d have liked to have a better sense of they were as individuals.

I also struggled quite a bit at times with what Heinrich was willing to do in the name of science.  While he always fed the ravens using roadkills (apparently ‘fresh’ is as relative a term to a raven as it is to vultures), there were a few studies he did where he blithely sacrificed untold numbers of animals to the ravens – while still alive – just to see how the ravens would react, and in one study he introduced a wild female raven to a tightly knit group of 4 ravens who had grown up together to see how they’d react, which wasn’t a positive experience for the poor caught raven. After a couple of days of witnessing her ostracism, Heinrich went out of town for a day and came back to find her dead from being basically pecked to death.  He seemed surprised, but not remorseful, and the whole thing left a sour taste, as I’d have no problem arguing that that little experiment was not only unethical, but valueless from a scientific viewpoint.

Mostly, however, the information was interesting, if a little dated (most of his studies were done in the 90’s).

An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us

An Immense WorldAn Immense World
by Ed Yong
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: June 30, 2022
Pages: 449
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Penguin Books

The Earth teems with sights and textures, sounds and vibrations, smells and tastes, electric and magnetic fields. But every animal is enclosed within its own unique sensory bubble, perceiving only a tiny sliver of an immense world. This book welcomes us into previously unfathomable dimensions - the world as it is truly perceived by other animals.

We encounter beetles that are drawn to fires, turtles that can track the Earth's magnetic fields, fish that fill rivers with electrical messages, and humans that wield sonar like bats. We discover that a crocodile's scaly face is as sensitive as a lover's fingertips, that plants thrum with the inaudible songs of courting bugs, and that even simple scallops have complex vision.

We learn what bees see in flowers, what songbirds hear in their tunes, and what dogs smell on the street. We listen to stories of pivotal discoveries in the field, while looking ahead at the many mysteries which lie unsolved.

Ed Yong coaxes us beyond the confines of our own senses, allowing us to perceive the threads of scent, waves of electromagnetism and pulses of pressure that surround us. Because in order to understand our world we don't need to travel to other places; we need to see through other eyes.

I’d been looking forward to this book since I heard it was coming out, and I started it soon after I received it, but Halloween Bingo came up and the book got set aside for the duration of the game.  I had to go back and re-read a few bits to refresh my memory before picking it back up.  I mention this because the fact that it took me over 100 days to read this book isn’t a reflection on the book itself.

An Immense World is a very readable exploration of how non-human animals perceive the world, with Yong trying very hard to connect the reader to perceptions that he’s the first to admit are almost impossible for us to imagine.  Starting with the 5 senses we ourselves use, and how they differ wildly, and sometime dramatically, from animal to animal (peacock shrimp have 16 different visual receptors – we have 4) and why that’s not always the good or bad we imagine it to be, Yong than expands into the senses we can only imagine, like the use of electric  and magnetic fields.

He’s right, of course, that it’s impossible to experience the world as another animal does, but occasionally Yong comes close to bringing the reader at least a hint of what that other perception might be like.  He does this with a modicum of charts and as little rock-hard science as he can get away with, allowing any reader to expand their thinking without intimidating them.  On the other hand, as someone who enjoys rock-hard science, I wasn’t disappointed or left wanting either.  I think he found a decent balance between both audiences, and I really appreciated the color photo inserts in my hardcover edition, especially for those animals discussed that I’d never heard of before (knifefish, for example, which generate their own electricity).

There’s a lot to take in here, but I found it all interesting.  Enough so that I might re-read this via audiobook in the new year, in hopes that a bit more of what I read will sink in.

Lost Among the Birds: Accidentally Finding Myself in One Very Big Year

Lost Among the Birds: Accidentally Finding Myself in One Very Big YearLost Among the Birds: Accidentally Finding Myself in One Very Big Year
by Neil Hayward
Rating: ★★★½
Publication Date: July 26, 2016
Pages: 416
Genre: Memoir, Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: Audible for Bloomsbury

Early in 2013 Neil Hayward was at a crossroads. He didn't want to open a bakery or whatever else executives do when they quit a lucrative but unfulfilling job. He didn't want to think about his failed relationship with "the one" or his potential for ruining a new relationship with "the next one." And he almost certainly didn't want to think about turning forty. And so instead he went birding.

Birding was a lifelong passion. It was only among the birds that Neil found a calm that had eluded him in the confusing world of humans. But this time he also found competition. His growing list of species reluctantly catapulted him into a Big Year--a race to find the most birds in one year. His peregrinations across twenty-eight states and six provinces in search of exotic species took him to a hoarfrost-covered forest in Massachusetts to find a Fieldfare; to Lake Havasu, Arizona, to see a rare Nutting's Flycatcher; and to Vancouver for the Red-flanked Bluetail. Neil's Big Year was as unplanned as it was accidental: It was the perfect distraction to life.

Neil shocked the birding world by finding 749 species of bird and breaking the long-standing Big Year record. He also surprised himself: During his time among the hummingbirds, tanagers, and boobies, he found a renewed sense of confidence and hope about the world and his place in it.

Now that I’ve been emancipated from crutches and taxis, and I can drive again, I’m back to being able to enjoy audiobooks, and after a small audio spree, I have quite a backlog to choose from.  I started with this one; even if I’m not quite up to bush walking while looking through a camera lens yet, I’m definitely ready to hear about someone else’s adventures.

Unfortunately, this was only a little more than half of what I’d hoped it would be.  Neil Hayward’s ‘accidental’ big year was a lot of fun to listen to/read about, and his last minute travel itineraries boggled the mind.  I loved every birding minute of this book.  But this book is also as much about the angst he suffered in his personal life, at least some of which was due to clinical depression, and not a little also due to an extraordinary pessimism he blamed on his British upbringing.  I avoid gross generalisations about people on a nation-wide basis, but Hayward did resemble an old boyfriend of mine, who lived in England, more than a little bit.  Regardless, I was in a mood to read about wild and uncommon adventures in birding, not girlfriend/career/mental illness angst, so I found these parts of the narrative tedious.  A few times at the start I considered DNF’ing because there was so. much. angst.  But once he embraced the goal to see as many birds as possible in one year (limited to US/Canada -Hawaii), the book held my interest more often than not, and ultimately left me satisfied.

The narrator did a very creditable job.

Bitch: on the female of the species

Bitch: On the Female of the SpeciesBitch: On the Female of the Species
by Lucy Cooke
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781541674899
Publication Date: July 14, 2022
Pages: 369
Genre: Science
Publisher: Basic Books

Studying zoology made Lucy Cooke feel like a sad freak. Not because she loved spiders or would root around in animal feces: all her friends shared the same curious kinks. The problem was her sex. Being female meant she was, by nature, a loser.

Since Charles Darwin, evolutionary biologists have been convinced that the males of the animal kingdom are the interesting ones—dominating and promiscuous, while females are dull, passive, and devoted.

In Bitch, Cooke tells a new story. Whether investigating same-sex female albatross couples that raise chicks, murderous mother meerkats, or the titanic battle of the sexes waged by ducks, Cooke shows us new evolutionary biology, one where females can be as dynamic as any male. This isn‘t your grandfather’s evolutionary biology. It’s more inclusive, truer to life, and, simply, more fun.

Now this is what I was looking for when I read the page rage inducing Invisible Women, albeit a much more narrowly focused version.  Lucy Cooke looks at the theory of evolution from the perspective of the female of the species.  She had the anecdotes, she had the data, and she had the sources.  She writes with humor but without the bitterness.  I was both fascinated and frankly, often appalled, at what nature has done to the anatomy of some species’ females (I’m looking at, and cringing hard, at you laughing hyena).  Lots of this got read out to MT, because I wasn’t going to suffer those visuals alone.

The book isn’t perfect; there were at least two instances of Post hoc ergo propter hoc early on in the book, and an overall logical fallacy in the premise, which is that because there are many examples throughout the natural world of non-binary (in terms of sex not gender) species, then therefore sexually binary systems do not exist.  This is false.  Mammals are sexually binary (NOT GENDER): one sex can give birth, and the other cannot.  Mammals cannot naturally change their sex, as many non-vertebrates, fish, birds, and reptiles can.  Mammals cannot naturally procreate via parthenogenesis (Bible aside), like some non-vertebrates, birds and reptiles (and amphibians) can.  So arguing that we need to see the whole of nature as non-binary is misleading at best and scientifically inaccurate at worst.  Moreover, the larger overall fallacy of the book is that arguing that we need to remove binary bias from biological research, is itself a binary argument (ie, the world is either binary or it’s not).  Some species are sexually binary, and some aren’t.  One size does not fit all.

My other complaint was more of a niggle:  throughout the text, Cooke and the scientists she speaks with often emphasise that the practice of sex for non-reproductive purposes has been widely documented, which is factual as far as it goes, but of all the reasons hypothesised for this non-reproductive sex, every one of them were transactional, which to me isn’t any different than sex for reproduction purposes.  It was disappointing that no one cited thought that perhaps it was just done for the fun of it.

My final niggle is that Evolution, or Darwinism, is a theory, not a law, and it feels like scientists conflate the two in their writing.  A theory is meant to evolve as new discoveries are made and is therefore fluid – but this is, more often than not, my constant complaint whenever it comes to natural science writing.

It doesn’t sound like it, but I really did enjoy reading this book and I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in both science and the sexual bias in it.

*Note bene: at no point in my review did I intentionally touch on non-binary gender because gender issues are irrelevant to the nature of this book.  For the record, a person should let their flag fly whatever that flag looks like but it’s none of my damn business and I don’t want anyone to try to make it my business.

My run-in with an Orangefin Anenomefish female, telling me to buzz off.

Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms

Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet WormsHorseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms
by Richard Fortey
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780307275530
Publication Date: December 11, 2012
Pages: 332
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Vintage Books

Evolution, it seems, has not completely obliterated its tracks as more advanced organisms have evolved; the history of life on earth is far older—and odder—than many of us realize.

Scattered across the globe, these remarkable plants and animals continue to mark seminal events in geological time. From a moonlit beach in Delaware, where the hardy horseshoe crab shuffles its way to a frenzy of mass mating just as it did 450 million years ago, to the dense rainforests of New Zealand, where the elusive, unprepossessing velvet worm has burrowed deep into rotting timber since before the breakup of the ancient supercontinent, to a stretch of Australian coastline with stromatolite formations that bear witness to the Precambrian dawn, the existence of these survivors offers us a tantalizing glimpse of pivotal points in evolutionary history. These are not “living fossils” but rather a handful of tenacious creatures of days long gone.

Written in buoyant, sparkling prose, Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms is a marvelously captivating exploration of the world’s old-timers combining the very best of science writing with an explorer’s sense of adventure and wonder.

This ended up with 4 stars because I struggle with timelines that stretch over billions of years.  I find the science riveting, but when the text starts throwing around Ages and Periods like Cretaceous and Mesozoic and Mesoproterozoic like we’d talk about events that happened to us last week, my eyes glaze over and my comprehension rate plummets through the floor.

Still Fortey deserves better; he’s an excellent writer, one who mixes personal anecdotes with hard science very well.  He only slipped up once and made evolution sound like a sentient decision making process on the part of the specimen in question, but perhaps he was only making a point.

In this book he visits a list of life (flora, fauna, and microscopic) whose branch on the tree of life has survived the ages, evolving through catastrophic events only to wind up in the here and now, where humans will likely figure out a way to kill them off.  Except, sadly, for the cockroaches, and, happily, the sea monkeys.  He ties these fascinating species of today to their ancestors of the past and discusses where current thinking places them on the tree of life: are they closer to the trunk (truly amongst the first) or are they closer to the tips of the branches (the newcomers, or – in our case – the party crashers).

This is one of those books that, because of their built-in uniqueness in flora and fauna, the antipodean part of the world becomes the star.  There are a lot of critters featured here that are found in New Zealand and Australia.  Not taking anything away from my home country, these were my favourites.  I need to be on the lookout for the velvet worm, and I have a new appreciation for the extreme mothering practices of the Echidna.  I think seeing a lungfish might be kinda cool.

Fortey does get one thing wrong: he says no mammal is venomous.  I don’t know if this is because the book was written before the slow loris was found to have venom glands, or if that discovery just stayed under his radar.  It’s a small thing in the overall body of knowledge in the book and has no consequence in the context of the subject matter under discussion.

Not an easy reading book, but one that’s worth the time and effort.

NB: Some quick research into the venomous mammal bit, and the slow loris is the only venomous primate; of course there are a handful of other venomous mammals, including my beloved (male) platypus.  I tried to find the reference in the text again, but I can’t remember which chapter it was in, and the index yields nothing for venom, so now I’m thinking he might have been referring to primates, not mammals, and the slow loris discovery was post-publication.

The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World

The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the WorldThe Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World
by Abigail Tucker
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781476738239
Publication Date: December 1, 2016
Pages: 241
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

House cats rule back alleys, deserted Antarctic islands, and our bedrooms. Clearly, they own the Internet, where a viral cat video can easily be viewed upwards of ten million times. But how did cats accomplish global domination? Unlike dogs, they offer humans no practical benefit. The truth is they are sadly incompetent rat-catchers and pose a threat to many ecosystems. Yet, we love them still.

To better understand these furry strangers in our midst, Abby Tucker travels to meet the breeders, activists, and scientists who’ve dedicated their lives to cats. She visits the labs where people sort through feline bones unearthed from the first human settlements, treks through the Floridian wilderness in search of house cats on the loose, and hangs out with Lil Bub, one of the world’s biggest feline celebrities.

Witty, intelligent, and always curious, Tucker shows how these tiny creatures have used their relationship with humans to become one of the most powerful animals on the planet. The appropriate reaction to a cuddly kitten, it seems, might not be aww but awe.

This should have been a better book; Tucker is a self professed, life long lover of cats, and I understand her need to be objective about the subject matter – I applaud it, even.  But just about all of this book felt like an apology, or an over-correction of bias.  Or both.

The Introduction professes the text to be an overview of the history of cats as domesticated animals and their intersection with culture and pop culture.  It mostly succeeds, but really, just barely.  I think her motivation underneath it all is to point out that cats are cats and cats do what cats do, but humans are, at the end of the day, at the heart of the destruction that cats get blamed for.  After all, without human interference and transportation, house cats would still be a wild animal confined to the region around Turkey.  Unfortunately, if that’s the message she intended, she was a little too subtle about it.

There were highlights; I loved that she pointed out that cats are the only domesticated animal that chooses to be domesticated and the only domesticated animal that can successfully return to the wild.  When people say cats are independent, I don’t perhaps think they realise just how independent they truly are.  I admire them for that.

Otherwise, I mostly just argued with the text as I read it, and all in all I found The Inner Life of Cats: The Science and Secrets of Our Mysterious Feline Companions  by Thomas McNamee to be a superior text all the way around.  I learned a lot from that book, and it left me with a lot to think about.  This one, I was just mostly happy to have finished.

DNF: The Botany of Desire

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-eye View of the WorldThe Botany of Desire: A Plant's-eye View of the World
by Michael Pollan
Publication Date: January 1, 2001
Pages: 273
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Random House

In 1637, one Dutchman paid as much for a single tulip bulb as the going price of a town house in Amsterdam. Three and a half centuries later, Amsterdam is once again the mecca for people who care passionately about one particular plant -- though this time the obsessions revolves around the intoxicating effects of marijuana rather than the visual beauty of the tulip. How could flowers, of all things, become such objects of desire that they can drive men to financial ruin?
In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan argues that the answer lies at the heart of the intimately reciprocal relationship between people and plants. In telling the stories of four familiar plant species that are deeply woven into the fabric of our lives, Pollan illustrates how they evolved to satisfy humankinds's most basic yearnings -- and by doing so made themselves indispensable. For, just as we've benefited from these plants, the plants, in the grand co-evolutionary scheme that Pollan evokes so brilliantly, have done well by us. The sweetness of apples, for example, induced the early Americans to spread the species, giving the tree a whole new continent in which to blossom. So who is really domesticating whom?

Weaving fascinating anecdotes and accessible science into gorgeous prose, Pollan takes us on an absorbing journey that will change the way we think about our place in nature.

Nopity nope, nope, nope.  Couldn’t do it.  Way too much meandering about and I was just bored.  Plus, I have problems with authors trying to explain evolution as though it were a sentient process, and while I agree with the premise that plants have likely evolved to appeal to humans, thus ensuring their own survival, I draw the line at the conceit, through bad use of language, that the plants made a rational choice to do so.  It makes me imagine a room full of plants, sitting around a table, plotting out the structure of their own DNA in order to better market themselves to humans.

No, no, no, no, no.

Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry

by Christie Wilcox
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780374283377
Publication Date: September 13, 2016
Pages: 236
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Scientific American

In Venomous, the molecular biologist Christie Wilcox investigates venoms and the animals that use them, revealing how they work, what they do to the human body, and how they can revolutionise biochemistry and medicine today.

Wilcox takes us from the coast of Indonesia to the rainforests of Peru in search of the secrets of these mysterious animals. We encounter jellyfish that release microscopic venom-packed darts known to kill humans in just two minutes, a two-inch caterpillar with toxic bristles that trigger haemorrhaging throughout the body, and a stunning blue-ringed octopus with saliva capable of inducing total paralysis. How could an animal as simple as a jellyfish evolve such an intricate, deadly poison? And how can a snake possess enzymes that tear through tissue yet leave its own body unscathed? Wilcox meets the fearless scientists who often risk their lives studying these lethal beasts to find out, and puts her own life on the line to examine these species up close. Drawing on her own research on venom chemistry and evolution, she also shows how venom is helping us untangle the complex mechanisms of some of our most devastating diseases.

Venomous and I did not get off to a great start.  You’d think it would be a sure bet, since Chapter 1 kicks things off with the platypus, possibly my most favourite non-domesticated animal, and one she visited with – as she notes on page 1 – at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary “in Melbourne Australia”.  I’ve been to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary and I have a picture of myself and the koala that peed on me to prove it (fun fact: koala pee smells sooooo bad).  The thing is, Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is in Brisbane, not Melbourne.  Not a small error, either; one is at the bottom of the continent and the other at the top.  Plus, Wilcox was there, so you’d like to think she knew she was in Brisbane and not Melbourne.  Unless the koala pee stench got to her.

Anyhoo … I was understandably feeling a bit cynical after that illustrious beginning, and the first few chapters were not enough to sway me either way, but I began to find myself invested – as measured by how much I started reading out to MT (I am a trial to this poor man, I know) – by chapter 6: “All the better to eat you with”.  This is the chapter about necrotising venoms, proving that I’m really no better than a 12 year old boy sometimes.  But chapter 8 was even better: Mind Control.  OMG.

Chapter 9 is about the pharmacological miracles that have been wrought by venom research, and reading it made me want to rush out to the world and scream nobody touch anything! simply because at the rate humanity is going, we’ll exterminate the cure for cancer, et al long before we ever knew it existed.

Venomous is a popular science book and as such is filled with anecdotes that make it easier for the average arm chair science nerd to connect with the material being discussed; it also has a not insignificant amount of the harder science in the form of detailed descriptions of neural chemical pathways, etc. but I wouldn’t call it inaccessible.  In comparison, my recent read, Venom, is a far more hard-core scientific discussion and breakdown of the study of venom.  (And it had much better pictures).

In an interesting six-degrees-of-separation chain of my TBR reads, Venom cited this book, Venomous, in the text, and Wilcox has cited The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, so I guess I know what my next non-fiction book is going to be.

Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants: Darwin’s Botany Today

Darwin's Most Wonderful Plants: Darwin's Botany TodayDarwin's Most Wonderful Plants: Darwin's Botany Today
by Ken Thompson
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781788160285
Publication Date: July 4, 2018
Pages: 255
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Profile Books

A rediscovery of Darwin the botanist and his theories on insectivorous and climbing plants

Most of us think of Darwin at work on The Beagle, taking inspiration for his theory of evolution from his travels in the Galapagos. But Darwin published his Origin of Species nearly thirty years after his voyages and most of his labours in that time were focused on experimenting with and observing plants at his house in Kent. He was particularly interested in carnivorous and climbing plants, and in pollination and the evolution of flowers.

Ken Thompson sees Darwin as a brilliant and revolutionary botanist, whose observations and theories were far ahead of his time - and are often only now being confirmed and extended by high-tech modern research. Like Darwin, he is fascinated and amazed by the powers of plants - particularly their Triffid-like aspects of movement, hunting and 'plant intelligence'.

A well written homage to Darwin’s other ground-breaking works, each chapter covers one of Darwin’s papers or books concerning plants.  As the author points out, if Origin of Species never came out of the drawer, Darwin would still be a genius game-changer just in the subject of botany.

The book is easy enough to read with a basic background in botany and/or a tolerance for the technical names for the parts of a plant.  As usual after reading a book about plants, I have a new list of plants I want in my garden – all of them carnivorous.


by Eivind Undheim, Ronald Jenner
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781486308378
Publication Date: October 1, 2017
Pages: 208
Genre: Natural Science, Science
Publisher: CSIRO Publishing

A fully illustrated guide to venom, its evolution in different animal groups, its effects and its treatments.
When we enter the world of venom, we enter the realm of one of the most diverse, versatile, sophisticated and deadly biological adaptations ever to have evolved on Earth.

Since it first appeared in ancient jellyfish and sea anemones, venom has proved so effective that it has since evolved independently in dozens of different animal groups. The authors reveal the many unique methods by which venomous animals deliver their cocktail of toxins and how these disrupt the physiology of the victims.

Jenner and Undheim also consider how humans have learnt to neutralise venom’s devastating effects, as well as exploit the power of venom in innovative ways to create new drugs to treat a variety of serious conditions. Fully illustrated throughout, this illuminating guide will appeal to all those with an interest in the wondrous world of venom.

This was not quite the book I was expecting, proving you can’t always judge a book by its cover and full colour photos.  I originally thought it would be a fast-ish read. I should have known better though because it’s published by CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, an Australian Government agency responsible for scientific research.

33 days and two nightmares later, (seriously – first time EVER a book has given me nightmares) and I can say I’d happily recommend that @elentarri check this book out if she can find it.  For anyone else out there that finds science, and especially natural sciences, fun and fascinating, and is happy to tackle a densely written narrative that falls closer to academic research paper than it does to popular science in writing style, you too should see if you can find this book.

Only 7 chapters and less than 200 pages long and filled with full colour illustrations, photos (warning: some of them are graphic) and charts, but don’t let this fool you: there’s a lot of hard science here.  As I was reading it, I got the impression that it’s mean to be a primer or introduction for science students and hard-core amateurs.  Chapter 1 discusses the definitive differences between a poison and a venom, luring the reader into a sense that this is definitely aimed at armchair scientists.  By the time Chapter 5 rolls around, though, the writers are saying things like:

Not all enzymes conserve their ancestral activity while evolving into molecular killers, however.  Some snake venom PLAenzymes, for example, have lot their enzymatic activity but they can still exert their toxic roles.

(Quote take at random from chapter 5 “Evolving Venoms”).  By chapter 3 I had learned a lot but the authors were making me work for it.  While I can say, how that I’m done, that I now have a good overall understanding of the concepts presented, it’s only a very thin veneer of all that this book offers.  This is a book I’d have to re-read several times, slowly, before I could say I had an immersive understanding of the text.

While chapter 5 is, I’d say, the densest chapter, the authors do wrap the book up with two lighter chapters that were akin to a nice after-dinner sorbet.  Chapter 6 discusses how venoms are used for traditional healing, cosmetics, recreational drug use (I can’t imagine ever thinking that smoking dried scorpions sounded like a viable option), rites of passage, spiritual vision quests, and modern medicines.  I found this chapter fascinating from an anthropological perspective.  Chapter 7 is a summary chapter that uses the honeybee as a microcosm example of all the concepts of venom relevant across the microcosm.

I have never been afraid of snakes and have always been one of the first to volunteer to interact with one, and while I’ve never been stupid about venomous ones, giving them a wide berth at all times, I’ve got to say reading this, especially Chapter 4 “Dissecting the power of venom”, planted a tiny seed of fear in me about ever running across them in any context.  What few anecdotes the authors offer are chilling and I’ve been wondering if, when I can walk again, I could feasibly bush walk in thigh-high thick rubber waders.  Maybe with some good insoles…

There are, of course, a lot of other animals covered in this book – as the authors point out, 25% of all phyla are venomous (mosquitoes are considered venomous).  I have a whole new respect for the male platypus during breeding season (must look up when that is), and the slow loris?, well all I can say is if it puts its arms up to hug you, run away – fast.  But the snakes are what leave the most indelible impression, making even the spiders look like the lesser evil.

All in all, a good book for those genuinely interested.