Five Best Books on Animal Survival

To Know a Fly

By Vincent G. Dethier (1962)

Vincent Dethier spent a lifetime researching the senses, in particular those of insects. His “To Know a Fly” (not an easy task—there are more than 50,000 species) is an exuberant investigation of such matters as taste, hunger and satiation and their role in the survival of the humble housefly. He observes that a pregnant female fly will stop consuming sugar—an “adequate food for her, but useless for her eggs,” preferring instead protein that is good for the eggs but won’t nourish her. “In some quarters it would be hailed as maternal instinct,” he writes, “and by so naming it we would be no nearer an understanding of what it is.” Dethier’s learning from countless fly experiments is vast, but he is bracing in his acknowledgment of what remains unknown. “To espouse ultimate understanding of even so simple a brain,” he says, “reflects an optimism outside the natural order.” But he is entirely convincing when he says that a properly conducted experiment is “an adventure, an expedition, a conquest” and that to know a fly “is to share a bit in the sublimity of Knowledge.”

Nerve Cells and Insect Behavior

By Kenneth D. Roeder (1963)

This book presents Kenneth Roeder’s most famous discovery—that some moths are able to detect the calls of echo-locating bats and employ defensive measures to evade the predators. The revelation was made all the more remarkable by its timing: only a few years after Donald Griffin astonished the scientific community in 1958 with his revelation that bats “see” the world with their ears. Roeder examines the senses and behavior of insects at the level of neural mechanisms, and along the way we learn about not only the tactics of escape-artist moths but also about the evasive maneuvers of cockroaches and other insects. The study is the product of neuron monitoring via electrical eavesdropping, which means that there is a lot of technical writing in “Nerve Cells and Insect Behavior”—a fascinating work if you stay with it.

Desert Animals

By Knut Schmidt-Nielsen (1964)

Despite extremes of heat and lack of water, the desert is home to “a richer animal life than we can imagine,” Knut Schmidt-Nielsen says in this pioneering study. The animals that survive in such extreme conditions are aided by a variety of adaptations. For instance, the camel’s body temperature fluctuates wildly—camels start out “cold” in the morning so that they overheat less easily later in the day. The kangaroo rat’s kidney produces only small amounts of highly concentrated urine, enabling the animal to forgo water for long periods and live on air-dried food. After reading Schmidt-Nielsen’s evocation of a world where countless hardy animals thrive, you’ll never again look at a desert expanse and think it barren.

Honeybee Democracy

By Thomas D. Seeley (2010)

In ‘HONEYBEE DEMOCRACY,’ Thomas Seeley explains how a honeybee colony divides and reproduces: A contingent of 10,000 bees or more communicate among themselves and arrive unanimously at a decision about the best available new home. Building on a lifetime of observation and experimentation, Seeley relates the story with admirable clarity as we see his beloved honeybees—which have been in the consensus-building business for perhaps 200 million years—embark on the establishment of a new outpost. The process begins with a few scout bees and involves a vigorous debate before an agreement is reached. Then, on a signal, the group leaves en masse for the chosen place, likely a hollow tree some kilometers distant that the majority of the bees have never seen before. This spirit of cooperation, Seeley says, has much to tell us about solving complex human problems.

The Beak of the Finch

By Jonathan Weiner (1994)

Darwin made the Galápagos finches famous, but biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant and their graduate students deepened our understanding of how these small birds have survived and adapted across the centuries. Darwin supposed that the various kinds of finches, with their varying beaks and body sizes, came from diverse genetic backgrounds. But he later concluded that the finches were closely related and had thus likely evolved from a common stock. The Grants—working for three decades on the islands—bolstered Darwin’s insight that species are not immutable, as had been thought. One potential problem with Darwin’s theory had been that species appeared to be largely static, but the Grants succeeded in showing that evolution can be very rapid—beak shapes could change from year to year in response to, say, heightened mortality rates caused by food scarcity. Evidence of speedy adaptation has added meaning today as we witness insects becoming resistant to insecticides and bacteria surviving despite the most potent antibiotics.

Mr. Heinrich is the author of “The Nesting Season: Cuckoos, Cuckolds, and the Invention of Monogamy.”


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