Thursday, November 12, 2015

Review: Zombie Birds, Astronaut Fish and Other Weird Animals

I am always up for a bit of pop science. Well-written, accessible books conveying interesting scientific topics to the layperson are right up there with gripping historical non-fiction in my list of good books to curl up with, and when I saw 'Zombie Birds, Astronaut Fish and Other Weird Animals' by Becky Crew, I thought it had some potential along those lines. It's a series of essays on various animals with strange habits or odd biology, from the naked mole rat to the killifish (the titular "astronaut fish") to the great tit (the titular "zombie bird").

The problem is that Crew sells the book as a sort of humorous-yet-informative collection of essays, but the line of demarcation between "humorous" and "informative" is a lot thicker than it perhaps needed to be. Instead of trying to find interesting and funny ways to describe the unusual animals, she includes either a preface or a postscript that imagines the animal's behavior in human civilization. To be honest, these generally come off as somewhat strained ("Imagine if this frog jumped off of tall a job interview!") and repetitive, but the bigger problem is that the essays they bracket tend to be dry recitations of fact.

The facts are extremely solid, though. The book is drier than what I was expecting, but it's an extremely well-researched collection of facts about obscure animals and the way that new techniques have illuminated more and more details about the animal kingdom. From details about the way that a fossil's eye sockets can tell us what time of day a dinosaur hunted to descriptions of animals only found miles below the ocean surface, Crew does a magnificent job of showing the way that we are peeling back the mysteries of the natural world.

So although I could wish for a bit more of the book that was described on the back cover, I do have to say that in all fairness it's a sound science book. Just a bit less "pop science" than I was hoping for.

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