‘Nice Variations’ unravels mysteries of fantastic animal talents

Nice AdaptationsKenneth CataniaPrinceton Univ., $27.95

Neurobiologist Kenneth Catania’s ardour for scrutinizing odd animal variations all began with a creature with a 22-point star on its face.

Catania first noticed a star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata) in a youngsters’s e-book. Later as a 10-year-old, he discovered a lifeless one close to a stream near his house in Columbia, Md. From then on, he stored his eyes peeled for extra. He needed to wait till he was in faculty, when he landed a analysis place that required him to lure star-nosed moles in Pennsylvania’s wetlands. On the time, nobody knew what that distinctive nostril was good for, and he needed to determine it out.

In Nice Variations, Catania describes his pursuit of the thriller behind the mole’s wiggly star-shaped appendage (it helps the subterranean animal sense prey with out utilizing sight) in addition to a slew of different animal methods. The account of his adventures as a organic sleuth gives an in depth have a look at curiosities reminiscent of how “hangry” water shrews execute the quickest documented predatory assault by a mammal and the way cockroaches resist changing into zombies throughout parasitoid wasp assaults (SN: 10/31/18).

“It’s a part of human nature to be intrigued by mysteries, however the thriller solely will get us to the door,” he writes. “You by no means know what you may discover on the opposite aspect.”

Searching for solutions, Catania has arrange some odd, however amusing, experiments. To movie wasps attacking cockroaches, he constructed a set match for a horror flick, by filling a tiny kitchen with warning indicators and a plastic human cranium for the wasp to retailer its zombified sufferer in. Protecting with the horror theme, he additionally stripped the paint off ornamental severed zombie arms and provided the plastic limbs to electrical eels (Electrophorus electricus) to indicate that the animals leap out of the water as an assault technique (SN: 6/9/16).

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Every chapter follows a logical circulation as Catania describes his discoveries, from what first piqued his curiosity in an animal to his final findings. Science, nonetheless, isn’t as simple as he makes it appear. Catania’s scientific detective work didn’t at all times go off and not using a hitch, however, he notes, together with all of the failures would have meant a for much longer e-book. Even so, the e-book alludes to some concepts that didn’t pan out. “The animals are at all times capable of do one thing sudden and extra fascinating than I’d imagined,” he writes.

For example, the notion {that a} tentacled snake (Erpeton tentaculatum) may use the quick appendages near itsmouth to lure in close by fish, similar to snapping turtles dowith their tongues, turned out to be fallacious. As a substitute, the tentacleshelp a snake sense a fish’s place within the water andknow when to assault. What’s extra, the snakes have hackedtheir prey’s pure escape reflexes. In a deadly mistake, fishflee within the fallacious route — straight towards a snake’smouth — when duped by a twitch of the snake’s neck rightbefore the predator strikes.

Catania’s lighthearted but informative narrative presents science in a manner that’s straightforward for anybody with a primary data of biology to grasp. However even probably the most seasoned knowledgeable will doubtless be taught new particulars, the kind that by no means make it right into a scientific paper. For a very daring experiment, through which Catania provided his personal arm for an electrical eel’s shock to measure the shock’s electrical energy, Catania admits that he definitely couldn’t topic one other animal or a scholar volunteer to the disagreeable jolt (SN: 9/14/17). His personal arm was the “apparent resolution.”

In web page after web page, Catania’s enthusiasm and awe for the animals shine by means of. When he found tentacled snakes are born understanding how one can strike at prey somewhat than studying by means of failure, Catania recollects that he couldn’t “discover sufficient superlatives to sum up these outcomes.” He additionally describes a battle between a parasitoid wasp and a cockroach as an “insect rodeo.” The wasp assaults a cockroach’s head in an try to put an egg, however in protection the roach “bucks, jumps, and flails with all its may.”

A few of that enthusiasm will doubtless rub off on readers and spark a way of surprise. Nice Variations packs in loads of astounding particulars about some exceptional creatures. As Catania places it: “I’ve stopped assuming I do know the bounds of animal talents.”

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