Tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in the weird and wonderful?
My interest in the natural world started from a young age. As a child, I used to read books about unusual animals and watched a lot of nature documentaries (my favourites were those narrated by Sir David Attenborough). I started researching strange lesser-known animals after I finished school, and had the idea of creating a Twitter account to showcase these fascinating species. So I set up the @StrangeAnimaIs Twitter account in 2013, where I posted facts and pictures of these obscure creatures, pointing out any conservation issues associated with them. I started my biosciences degree the same year, at the University of Exeter, and specialised in animal biology in my final year. My modules included marine biology, ecology and animal psychology, and my dissertation title was based on the decline of pollinators and the government’s response to this ecological crisis. I was fascinated learning about these topics and it grew my passion for the subject.
Your book is full of very different animals – how do you come across such an eclectic group of animals?
I originally started the research for my book back in 2013, when I first created my Twitter account. Over the years, I have discovered many animal facts and pictures, which I post on @StrangeAnimaIs. When I started planning my book, I went through all my previous tweets and picked out what I thought were the weirdest animals. I wanted a range of species in the book, including an even mix of amphibians, fish, birds, reptiles, mammals and arthropods. After making a list of all the species I wanted to write about, I set about finding as much information as I could on each animal, trawling through websites, books and scientific papers. Using the reference material, I compiled notes on these animals and then typed them up in the format of my book.
What was the biggest challenge in writing the book?
My biggest challenge was staying focused whilst writing. About halfway through the book, I was struggling to carry on and lost my motivation. By this point, I had been writing in my free time for almost four months and it was getting too much, and I didn’t have much time to myself. I decided to take a break, and didn’t do any writing for a few months. That was what I needed and when I went back to it later, I was a lot more motivated, and managed to finish the rest of the book over the next couple of months.
Many of the oddities that depict a strange animal are useful adaptations, what is your most memorable of these adaptations?
There are quite a few animals in the book that have some really fascinating adaptations. My three favourites are probably the Suriname toad, aye-aye and the isopod Cymothoa exigua.
The Suriname Toad is a unique amphibian from South America, which has developed a rather interesting method for raising its young. After mating, the male implants the fertilised eggs into the female’s back, where they settle into pockets. Skin grows over the eggs, keeping them safe until they hatch weeks later as fully formed frogs.
The Aye-aye is an endangered primate from the island of Madagascar. They have an incredible adaptation for finding food, where they tap their elongated middle finger on branches and listen out for the vibrations. When they detect a grub, they will bite a hole in the bark with their rodent-like teeth, and insert their finger to skewer the grub. This foraging method is called percussive foraging and it’s extremely rare in mammals.
The parasitic isopod Cymothoa exigua has a horrifying lifecycle, where they enter the gills of fish as males. Here, one of them will develop into a female, and travel through the fish into its mouth. Then the isopod causes the fish’s tongue to atrophy and fall off, and then attaches itself to the newly formed stump. From now on, the isopod acts as the fish’s tongue (it’s the only known parasite to completely replace a host’s organ), grinding up food for its host and feeding on scraps of food.
Your Twitter feed is full of great information, do you have any advice for anyone wanting to start up a successful twitter profile?
I would say the best way to grow an account on Twitter is to come up with a good theme for the account and then post regular content that fits in with that theme. Go for something that you are passionate about, because if you’re not interested in it, then others won’t be either. Interacting with followers and similar accounts is also a great way to increase engagement. Another piece of advice I would give is to stick with it, even if the audience growth is slow! My account had just 200 followers for a good part of a year, but I kept going and eventually this audience grew to over 40,000. Combined with my other accounts @NatureIsWeird and @Extinct_AnimaIs, I now have a combined reach of 200,000 people.
Do you have any future projects or aspirations?
I have actually just started writing my next book, which is going to be about lesser-known extinct animals. This is going to be based on my other Twitter account, called @Extinct_AnimaIs and will feature a range of obscure animals (not just dinosaurs) that once roamed the earth. There are so many bizarre creatures, it’s actually hard to believe that some of them actually existed. After doing some research into extinct species for my Twitter account, I have become fascinated by them and I would love to share this with people. I think this is a perfect time to get another book out there, after the success of A Book of Rather Strange Animals.
I am also looking at getting into a career in conservation, and hope to secure a role in this area soon.
After her incredibly successful book The Unfeathered Bird, Katrina van Grouw has recently finished Unnatural Selection, a beautiful combination of art, science and history. In this book, she celebrates the rapid changes breeders can bring about in domesticated animals. This was a topic of great interest to Charles Darwin, and it is no coincidence that Unnatural Selection is published on the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication.
In this post we talk with Katrina about her background, the work that goes into making a book and plans for the future
On your website, you write that you always had an interest in natural history, but that your talent in drawing made your teachers push you to pursue an art career, rather than studying biology. Did you ever consider a career as a scientific illustrator, something for which there must have been more of a market back then than there is now? If not, when and how did you decide to start combining your passion for biology with your talent as an artist?
No, I didn’t. There are several reasons for this; some a result of indoctrination, and others, decisions of my own.
There were two revelatory moments which brought art and science together for me and set the path for what was to come. Once when I’d rejected art and was sliding down a greasy pole into oblivion. And another, when I was an art student seeking direction. The first was at a zoo, and the second at a museum, and both were as vivid as a flash of light from the sky.
Even with art and natural history combined in my work, however, it was always in a fine art sense and never as an illustrator. I still don’t really identify with the term. Being an illustrator usually involves working to someone else’s brief and taking instructions from a non-illustrator about how the work should be done. I’m too self-obsessed for that! I lack imagination when it comes to commissioned work and can’t seem to generate much passion for other people’s projects, though I have the greatest respect for people who can do these things. I’m basically just no good at it!
You worked as curator of the bird skin collection of the London Natural History Museum. How did you end up there after an art degree?
How I ended up there is quite a long story. I do have a degree in art (two actually) but I also spent many years gaining valuable skills in practical ornithology that were precisely what the NHM needed; a combination of skills that was lacking in all the other applicants for the post.
I’d taught myself to prepare study skins and was good at it. I knew my way around the inside of a bird and had written a Masters’ thesis on bird anatomy (albeit aimed at artists). I was a qualified ringer who’d held an A class ringing permit for many years, which meant that I could age and sex birds accurately and knew how to take precise measurements consistent with other field workers. I’d taken part in ornithological expeditions in Africa and South America, so I had some first-hand experience of non-European birds. I’d worked in other museums. And I was a birder.
It’s a sad fact that one’s education often defines how a person is categorised for the remainder of their life, but self-taught skills, and hands-on experience can be worth far, far more. People often assume that artists can only ‘do art’ and nothing more, and that only people with a science degree are able to ‘do science’. A great many people are able to do both (though fewer questions are raised when it’s a qualified scientist who turns his/her hand to art!)
Your previous book, The Unfeathered Bird, took some 25 years from conception to publication, mostly as you found it very difficult to find a publisher. How did you manage to convince Princeton University Press to publish this book after so many rejections?
The quick answer is, because Princeton University Press is a publisher of vision and wisdom! (And no, they didn’t pay me to say that).
The full story is that the majority of publishers I approached had entrenched preconceptions about what an anatomy book should be and were unable to envisage anything that wasn’t a highly academic technical manual aimed at a niche audience. The book I had in mind was geared toward a much broader spectrum of bird lovers, including and especially bird artists. Additionally, I wanted it to be beautifully produced and aesthetically pleasing. So it wasn’t so much a problem of not being able to find a publisher, but not being able to find a publisher willing to think outside of the box. To answer the question: I didn’t actually need to convince Princeton –a fortuitous meeting lead to a great collaboration.
Your response to critics of breeding has been to counter their objection by saying “look at what nature has done to the sword-billed hummingbird!” which I thought was a sharp response. However, an animal welfare advocate might counter this argument by pointing out that natural selection can only push sword-billed hummingbirds so far. If this adaptation – the extension of the bill to retrieve nectar from ever deeper flower corollas – becomes maladaptive it will be selected against. Breeders, however, can select for traits that are maladaptive, because these animals grow up in an artificial environment where they are relieved of the pressures of natural selection. The shortened snouts and breathing problems of short-nosed dog breeds such as boxers come to mind. Obviously, if these traits become too extreme, the animals will not survive until reproductive age, but we can push them into a zone of discomfort and suffering through artificial breeding. What would your response to this be?
I’m an animal welfare advocate too. It’s difficult not to be when you keep animals and care for them every day. I too will freely admit that there are exhibition breeds in which artificial selection appears to have gone too far, resulting in health problems or discomfort. I can also appreciate that these problems might have their roots deeply embedded in history and culture and might be difficult to rectify without tearing down systems that would have devastating consequences to the entire fancy.
(Incidentally, the suffering of poultry selectively bred for the commercial meat industry is on a scale many thousands of times greater than the relatively low numbers of extreme pedigree breeds.)
The process of selecting out these physical defects will be a slow one and I think it’s important to support the work of breeders in this task. We can support them by trying to understand more about their world and by ceasing to attack them in gutter-press fashion with pseudo-scientific terms we don’t fully understand.
My book Unnatural Selection isn’t intended to voice personal opinions about animal welfare however. As the title suggests, it’s a book about evolution, based on and elaborating on the analogy that Darwin made between natural and artificial selection. For that reason I’ve discussed selective breeding solely within this evolutionary and historical context. It’s not that I was deliberately avoiding welfare issues; they simply weren’t relevant to the points I was discussing.
You write that the work on Unnatural Selection took six years of full-time work, around the clock. How long do you typically take to complete an illustration? And how do you manage to support yourself during this period, do you have freelance illustrations assignments on the side?
If I’m in-practice I can usually complete a full-page illustration in two or three days. There are 425 illustrations in Unnatural Selection, not forgetting the 84,000 words of text (somehow people always forget the text…). Not to mention thousands of hours’ research and background reading. Working like this is all-consuming, and definitely very unhealthy.
The fact is that non-fiction books taking so long to produce will never, ever, pay for themselves. Luckily Husband works full time, so we don’t actually starve, though I’d prefer to be able to contribute more financially to the household.
I would love to supplement my books with a part time job, but it certainly wouldn’t be illustrating! I dislike illustrating for other authors. I actually get far more pleasure from writing and I’m equally good at it, though this side of me is unfortunately often eclipsed by the artwork.
People talk in airy-fairy terms about the freedom and personal reward of being an artist transcending material gain, but it’s not like that at all. It’s not the actual poverty that’s damaging, but the feeling of inadequacy you get from working so hard, with such integrity, for so long, yet making no money.
The things that make it worthwhile are making those books exist at the end of it all, and having people tell me how grateful they are.
With two books now published by Princeton University Press, you seem to have started a very successful collaboration. How has the reception of this book been so far? Have you received nominations for prizes?
Boy, I’d love to win a prize! It’s still early days yet, so I’m ever-hopeful. To be honest though, I suspect I’m not the sort of person who wins prizes. Prizes seem to be dished out to academics and people whose career has been rather more conventional than mine. Like my books, I rather defy taxonomy and, even though we communicate science exceedingly well, few institutions would be brave enough to award a science writing prize to a self-taught scientist.
That’s not to say that we’re unpopular; quite the opposite. I’m proud to say that The Unfeathered Bird was embraced by a huge range of people: birders, naturalists, painters, sculptors, taxidermists, poets, mask makers, puppeteers, aviators, falconers, bibliophiles, palaeontologists, zookeepers, creature-designers and animatronics-people, academic biologists and vets! The pictures have been used in a trendy Berlin cocktail bar, on Diesel t-shirts, and tattooed onto several people’s bodies, and I get very genuine letters of thanks from all manner of people, from university professors and 12-year old boys and girls.
Unnatural Selection is a far better book than The Unfeathered Bird. It has better art and better science and, unlike The Unfeathered Bird in which the images take the lead, Unnatural Selection is very much led by good scientific and historical text, with the images serving solely to illuminate and enhance what’s being said. Everyone who’s seen it so far says it’s stunning, and the reviews have all been excellent. I hope the scientific community will take it seriously and not dismiss it as merely a quaint and witty book with good pictures. It’s so much more than that.
Will you continue to work on more books in the future? And are you already willing to reveal what you are working on next?
In answer to your first question: definitely—though if you’d asked me that toward the end of The Unfeathered Bird I would probably have said no. That book was supposed to have been a one-off, and I’d been looking forward to resuming work as an artist afterwards. However, when the time came I found that I’d moved on. Producing pictures for their own sake no longer ‘did it for me’. Books, on the other hand tick all the boxes: creatively, intellectually; at every level.
It’s important to understand that these are not ‘art books’—they’re not collections of artwork made into a book. The book itself is the work of art, not the individual illustrations. They’re science books nevertheless. For me the challenge is communicating science in the best possible way and finding just the right unique angle for each book. I’m especially proud of Unnatural Selection which I think is the finest and most original thing I’ve ever created.
Unfortunately, large illustrated books take many years to produce so I probably won’t have sufficient time left to bring more than two or maybe three more into existence. After all, I’m no spring chicken.
I’ve already signed a contract with Princeton and begun work on a greatly expanded second edition of The Unfeathered Bird. The new book will have 400 pages (that’s 96 more than the first edition) and will include a lot of new material on bird evolution from feathered dinosaurs (which of course will be unfeathered feathered dinosaurs, if you see what I mean). There’ll be lots of new and replacement illustrations and the text will be completely re-written. The science will be better, but the book will still accessible to anyone and devoid of jargon. However, this shouldn’t put people off buying the original version—the new edition will be virtually a different book.
I’m also intending to write an autobiography/memoir type book focusing on the relationship between art, science, and illustration, and will be looking for a publisher for that. This won’t be illustrated though, so it would be a comparatively quick one!
Unnatural Selection has been published in June 2018 and is currently on offer for £26.99 (RRP £34.99).
Jonathan B. Losos is an evolutionary biologist, currently at Harvard University. He is best known for his research on speciation in Caribbean anoles, a genus of iguanian lizards. Previously, he has authored Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree: Ecology and Adaptive Radiation of Anoles. His latest book, Improbable Destinies: How Predictable is Evolution? is an incredibly enjoyable romp through evolutionary biology, examining the phenomenon of convergent evolution (i.e. the process by which different organisms have evolved the same or similar traits independently over time), and asks the question: how repeatable is evolution really? After reading this book recently (see also the review I left for the book) I contacted Jonathan to talk some more convergent evolution with him.
1. As a biologist, I can understand your fascination with convergent evolution. But to introduce yourself to the readers, what drew you to study this one topic out of all the fascinating aspects of evolution? Was this interest there from the beginning, or did you chance on it as your research progressed?
I’ve been interested in convergence ever since I learned about evolution because convergence of species living in similar environments is such a great demonstration of the power of natural selection. However, when I conducted my doctoral work on Caribbean Anolis lizards, I truly became fascinated by the phenomenon.
2. In your preface, you write how your PhD project on lizard diversification in the Caribbean supported ideas on convergent evolution. Right after writing up your thesis, Gould published his book Wonderful Life, in which he stressed the importance of contingency, arguing that evolution is unpredictable. You write you were taken with his book. How did you go about reconciling Gould’s views with your own?
Evolutionary biology is unlike most sciences in that it is a historical science. We can’t just do a key experiment or derive an equation and solve the problem. Rather, like detectives, we have to build the best case to understand what happened in the past. In addition, as Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, life finds a way. In fact, evolution occurs in myriad different ways – almost any way of evolving you can imagine has occurred somewhere, some time. In this way, evolution is an inductive science – we can’t derive general rules for first principles; rather, we have to go out in nature and develop many case studies. Only in that way can we recognize the general patterns from the interesting exceptions.
It is in this light that I reconciled my one research on Anolis lizards, which indicated that evolution has travelled very much the same course four times on the different islands of the Greater Antilles (the large islands of the Caribbean), with Gould’s ideas that evolution, for the most part, is unpredictable and unrepeatable. I considered the Anolis situation to be one of the exceptions, fascinating, but out of the ordinary.
3. Part two of your book describes a plethora of field studies, including your own work on Anolis lizards, which by and large show that evolution is repeatable. Some people, botanists especially, have raised the objection that such findings could also come about by phenotypic plasticity. You have addressed this objection yourself experimentally and found that phenotypic plasticity only plays a limited role. Have others done the same, and is this something that is routinely considered and excluded as a possible explanation in this kind of research?
Phenotypic plasticity – the ability of genetically identical individuals to produce different phenotypes when exposed to different environmental conditions – has long been known. However, until recently, it was mostly considered to be noise in the system, non-adaptive phenomena that mostly served to prevent natural selection from producing evolutionary change (the reason being that natural selection might favor one variant, but if different variants in a species were genetically identical, then selection wouldn’t lead to any evolutionary change). However, in recent years we have realized that plasticity may be an important part of the evolutionary process. Although phenotypic variation (i.e., variation in traits such as anatomy, physiology) among individuals in a population may not be genetically based, the ability of a species to produce different phenotypes in different conditions is itself a genetically based trait that may evolve adaptively. Thus, species may evolve to exhibit great phenotypic variation as a response to living in many different environments. As a result, the amount of research on phenotypic plasticity has skyrocketed in the last two decades.
4. Towards the end of Part Two, you point out another weak point of most field experiments. They generally start off with genetically related populations and so are likely to be predisposed to generate parallel evolutionary responses. Furthermore, statistical analyses might filter out the exceptions to the rule. Has experimental work by now moved on to using genetically dissimilar starting populations to investigate if convergent evolution is powerful enough to funnel different populations towards the same evolutionary outcome?
I wouldn’t say that this is a weak point of field experiments. Rather, it is a consequence of the hypothesis that is being tested. If you want to understand why guppies evolve to be more colourful in the absence of predators, then the appropriate experiment is to create multiple replicate populations of guppies in different conditions and see what happens. But, as I wrote in the book, we would expect very similar, closely-related populations to evolve similar adaptive responses to the same questions. One approach would be to conduct parallel experiments on many different species of fish to see the extent to which they adapt in similar ways (or in differing ways). Right now, I’m unaware of anyone doing this. However, different researchers sometimes ask the same question with different species, and this is the most likely way we will be able to address this question.
5. Part Three of your book looks at long-term laboratory experiments with bacteria. It seems here too, results initially suggested convergent evolution is the rule. Until exceptions starting cropping up on the longer term. Does the answer to the question whether evolution is repeatable depend on the timescale over which you look? Are we too focused on the short-term if we conclude that convergent evolution is the rule, rather than the exception?
That’s a keen observation. In Rich Lenski’s Long-Term Evolution Experiment, the story after 14 years was that evolution is pretty repeatable. Then, 30,000+ generations into the experiment, one of 12 experimental lines evolved a very different adaptation, one that still hasn’t been matched in the other 11 lines after another 14 years. So, yes, the longer one conducts a study, the greater the chance that rare, unique adaptations will occur (and we must remember that 30,000 generations are a drop in the evolutionary bucket). On the other hand, as Rich Lenski himself says, if the LTEE is continued long enough – maybe for 300,000 generations – then perhaps the other 11 populations will discover the new adaptive solution as well. So, yes, definitely, these studies need to be continued much longer. Most studies today, LTEE’s fame and influence notwithstanding, are much shorter in length (note: Losos and Lenski edited the book How Evolution Shapes Our Lives. ed.).
6. You conclude your book by saying that in the short term evolution is predictable, but that the world of biological possibilities is a vast one, and that in the long term, chance events have had a large impact. Given the many books dedicated to the topic of convergent evolution, and the way it speaks to people’s imagination, do you think we have overestimated the importance of this mechanism? Are we too keen on seeing patterns where there are none?
Well, we need a bit of historical perspective on this question. Until recently, we thought of convergent evolution as relatively rare. Great examples of the power of natural selection, worthy of being in biology textbooks, but not at all common. Now, thanks to the work of SimonConwayMorris and others, we realize that convergence is much more pervasive than we used to believe. This has been a valid contribution to our understanding of evolution. Nonetheless, some workers have gone too far, in my estimation, in emphasizing the importance and prevalence of convergent evolution. It is a common and important aspect of evolution, but it is not the only story.
From the outset, however, there has also been an intense clash between evolutionary theory and religion, especially in America, both in general (see for example The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation (Fuller, 2017)), but especially with the fundamentalist Christian school of thought of Creationism. The Oxford dictionary defines this as ‘The belief that the universe and living organisms originate from specific acts of divine creation, as in the biblical account, rather than by natural processes such as evolution’. It was Darwin himself who, in an 1856 letter to Joseph Dalton Hooker, dubbed its proponents, who objected to the emerging science of evolution on religious grounds, Creationists.
Many hard-line scientists, Richard Dawkins included, argue that there is no debate to be had in the first place. There is no point arguing facts with a believer. Engaging these beliefs, and, as the Discovery Institute would have it, ‘teaching the controversy’, merely provides legitimacy to a non-existent controversy (though see Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation (Laats & Siegel, 2016) for a proposition on how to break the deadlock between science and religion). This touches on the age-old question of what dialogue there can be between science and religion. Dawkins, known for his militant atheism, is outspoken on the matter in his polemical The God Delusion (2006; 10th Anniversary Edition, 2016), while other authors have branded this as a futile effort (see for example Science and Religion: An Impossible Dialogue (Gingras, 2017) and Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible (Coyne, 2015)).
Amidst this fierce debate between two extremes, it is easy to overlook there are more moderate ideas. Many religious people do not support a literal reading of holy texts, and supporters of theistic evolution hold that religion and evolution need not contradict each other. The argument that geneticist Francis Collins puts forth in The Language of God (2006) boils down to “evolution is real, but it is the hand of God”. And he is not alone, Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons: Evolution and Christianity from Darwin to Intelligent Design (Bowler, 2007) traces the long history of how churches have sought to reconcile Christian beliefs and evolution, and see ‘reflections of the divine in scientific explanations for the origin of life’. Whether you agree with this or not (religious fundamentalists see it as a capitulation, while Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker has called it a superfluous attempt to ‘smuggle God in by the back door’), this rapidly leaves the realm of scientific enquiry and becomes one of personal beliefs.
The Sensory Ecology of Birds is a fascinating new work that explores the sensory world of birds from an evolutionary and ecological perspective. The author Professor Graham Martin gives us some insights into his inspiration, the incredible diversity of avian sensory adaptations, and how studying sensory ecology can help in developing practical conservation solutions.
How did you first become interested in bird senses?
Through owls. As a child I used to listen to tawny owls calling all through the night in a nearby wood and I wanted to know what they were doing and how they did it. My father took me round the woods at night and that experience led me to wanting to know more about the eyesight of owls.
What inspired you to write the book and what kind of readers do you think would find it useful?
I have been studying bird senses all of my working career. Nearly 50 years ago I started to get paid for looking into bird senses; it has been a strange and exciting way to spend my time. After such a long time of investigating the senses of so many different birds I wanted to bring it all together, to provide an overview that will help people understand birds from a new perspective. I think anyone interested in birds will enjoy the book and find it useful. No matter which group of species intrigues you most, this book will enable you to see them from a new perspective. Understanding bird senses really does challenge what we think birds are and how they go about their lives.
Sensory ecology is a relatively new field of research; could you explain a little about what it is and what makes it particularly relevant today?
Sensory Ecology is basically the study of the information that birds have at their disposal to guide their behaviour, to guide the key tasks that they perform every day to survive in different types of habitats. Different habitats present different challenges and to carry out tasks animals need different sorts of information. Birds have at their disposal a wide range of different sensory information, they are not just reliant upon vision. However, each species tends to be specialised for the gaining of certain types of information. Just as each species differs in its general ecology, each species also has a unique suite of information available to them. Sensory ecology is also a comparative science. It compares the information that different species use and tries to determine general principles that apply to the conduct of particular behaviours in different places. For example how different birds cope with activity at night or underwater.
Sensory Ecology also looks at why evolution has favoured particular solutions to particular problems. I think the major result of this kind of approach is that it certainly challenges our assumptions about what birds are and also what humans are. We do not readily realise that our view of the world is very much shaped by the information that our senses provide. We are rather peculiar and specialised in the information that we use to guide our everyday behaviours. My hope is that people will come to understand the world through birds’ senses, to get a real “bird’s eye view”. In doing so we can understand why birds fall victim to collisions with obvious structures such as powerlines, wind turbines, motor vehicles, glass panes, fences, etc. We can then work out what to do to mitigate these problems that humans have thrown in birds’ way.
An understanding of how a species perceives its environment can be very useful in designing practical conservation measures. Could you give us some examples?
Yes, I have been involved in trying to understand why flying birds apparently fail to detect wind turbines and power lines, or diving birds fail to detect gill nets. These investigations have led to a number of ideas about what is actually happening when birds interact with these structures and what we can do to increase the chances that birds will detect and avoid them.
How do you think that studying avian sensory ecology can enhance our understanding of our own sensory capabilities and interaction with the world?
It gives a fresh perspective on how specialised and limited our own view of the world is. We make so many assumptions that the world is really as we experience it, but we experience the world in a very specialised way. Sensory ecology provides lots of new information and facts about how other animals interact with the world, what governs their behaviour, but equally importantly sensory ecology questions very soundly our understanding of “reality”, what is the world really like as opposed to what we, as just one species, think it is like. This is quite challenging but also exhilarating. We really are prisoners of our own senses, and so are all other animals. Sensory ecology gives us the opportunity to understand the world as perceived by other animals, not just how we think the world is. That is really important since it injects a little humility into how we think about the way we exploit the world.
Could you give us some insight into how birds can use different senses in combination to refine their interpretation of the world around them?
Owls provide a good example. Their vision is highly sensitive but not sufficiently sensitive to cope with all light levels that occur in woodland at night, so owls also rely heavily upon information from hearing to detect and locate moving prey. The nocturnal behaviour of owls requires these two key sources of information but even these are not enough. To make sense of the information that they have available to them the woodland owls need to be highly familiar with the place in which they live, hence their high degree of allegiance to particular sites. Other birds, such as ducks, parrots and ibises rely heavily upon the sense of touch to find food items. The degree to which this information is used has a knock on effect on how much the birds can see about them. So a duck that can feed exclusively using touch, such as a mallard, can see all around them, while a duck that needs to use vision in its foraging cannot see all around. This in turn has implications for the amount of time birds can spend foraging as opposed to looking around them, vigilant for predators. In many birds the sense of smell is now seen as a key source of information which governs not just foraging, but also social interactions.
Are there interesting examples of species that are specialists in one particular sense?
Usually birds rely upon at least two main senses that have become highly specialised and which are used in a complementary manner. For example, in ibises it might be touch and vision, in kiwi it is smell and touch, in some of the waders it is touch and taste, but in other waders touch and hearing.
Probably the most obvious single sense specialisations are found among aerial predators such as eagles and falcons, they seem to be highly dependent upon vision to detect prey at a distance and then lock on to it during pursuit. However, we really don’t know anything about other aspects of their senses and there is a lot left to learn about them.
Can you tell us about any species that you have studied that you find particularly fascinating?
Oilbirds; they are really challenging to our assumptions about what birds are, how they live and what information they have available to them.
Oilbirds are the most nocturnal of all birds, roosting and breeding deep in caves where no light penetrates, emerging only after dusk and then flying over the tropical rain forest canopy to find fruit. But they are a form of nightjar! In the complete darkness of caves they use echolocation to orient themselves and calls to locate mates. When searching for food in the canopy they use their sense of smell to detect ripe fruits, they have long touch sensitive bristles around the mouth. And their eyes have sensitivity close to the theoretical limits possible in vertebrate eyes. They seem to rely upon partial information from each of these senses, and use them in combination or in complementary ways. They really are marvellous, but in truth the senses of any birds, and how they are used, are fascinating and intriguing, it is a matter of delving deep enough, and asking the right questions.
In what kind of direction do you think future sensory ecology research is headed?
We now have available a lot of techniques to find out about the senses of birds, from behavioural studies, to physiology and anatomy. Armed with these techniques, and also with ways of thinking and measuring the perceptual challenges of different tasks and different environments, there are so many questions to investigate. We have some fascinating findings but we have only just scratched the surface with regard to species and it does seems clear that senses can be very finely tuned to different tasks. I like to compare the diversity of the bills that we find in birds with the same diversity in the senses in those species.
Every bill tells a story about form and function, about evolution, ecology and behaviour. The senses of birds show the same degree of diversity and tuning. So to me sensory ecology is a wide open field with lot of questions to investigate. To appreciate the world from a bird’s perspective will, of course, give us a much better understanding of how to mitigate the problems that humans have posed to birds by shaping the world for our own convenience.
Could you please provide a brief evolutionary history of Douglas Erwin as a paleobiologist.
I expected to be a biologist when I was in high school (or a doctor). But when I arrived at Colgate University as an undergraduate I discovered that geology was much more fun than biology (no pre-med students, for one thing). My teacher and mentor, Bob Linsley, was a fantastic teacher – Steve Gould used to claim that he was the best undergraduate paleo teacher in the US. Bob got me hooked on paleo, on evolution, and on Paleozoic snails (my systematic speciality, and Bob’s). Then I was off to UC Santa Barbara to study with Jim Valentine for my Ph.D. Although my Ph.D was on Permian snails from the SW US and the Permo-Triassic mass extinction, I was quite interested then in the Cambrian explosion, and Jim and I wrote several papers on it. I have been at the National Museum of Natural History since 1990, working on aspects of Paleozoic gastropods, the causes and consequences of end-Permian mass extinction and on aspects of macroevolution, particularly the Cambrian. I have been fortunate to have been able to visit many of the critical Ediacaran and Cambrian localities, and to have had wonderful colleagues on associated projects, including a bunch of colleagues associated with NASA’s Astrobiology Institute at Harvard and MIT, and developmental biologist Eric Davidson on the evolution of gene regulatory networks, which features prominently in the later stages of The Cambrian Explosion.
What is the importance of the Cambrian explosion in evolutionary history?
It is one of the critical major evolutionary transitions in the history of life, an episode where virtually every aspect of life on the Earth changed, with impacts on everything from the chemistry of the oceans and atmosphere to the nature of sediments in the ocean. So understanding not just the new fossils but the larger context of the interactions between changes in the physical environment, ecology and evolution is key to understanding what happened. For evolutionary theory, the Cambrian explosion raises some really interesting challenges to how we understand these events. Jim and I argue that it is only by looking at changes in the physical environment, ecological opportunities, and developmental novelties, that we can begin to understand the mechanisms involved, and moreover, that some of the processes force us to extend some traditional approaches to evolution.
Could you briefly introduce one or two of the specific species that came into being so we have some context – I imagine we are not talking about life as we know it?
No, the world of the Ediacaran and Cambrian was a much different place from our world today, and indeed the Ediacaran and Cambrian periods were themselves much different from each other. Rangea is a representative of one of the oldest Ediacaran lineages, the Rangeamorphs. These are found in a variety of frond-like morphologies, and have a fractal structure, so that as you zoom in the frondlets have the same form as the overall frond, as do the petals that make up each frondlet. Opabinia, the beast that graces the cover, is one of my favourite of the Cambrian animals, and one that also illustrates the transformation of our understanding of these animals since Stephen Jay Gould wrote Wonderful Life. In 1989 Opabinia, with five stalked eyes and the long proboscis, was one of the ‘weird wonders’. Thanks to more study and phylogenetic methods of reconstructing evolutionary history we now understand that Opabinia is part of the panarthropod diversification, and is positioned on an evolutionary tree between the Cambrian lobopods and the true arthropods. But these two illustrate something else – whereas Rangea probably fed by adsorbing [not absorbing!] dissolved organic nutrients and lacks any discernible gut, eyes, etc., Opabinia was a mobile, predatory animal, with those great five eyes, appendages, and a gut. The contrast between these two illustrates something of the complexity of the ecological and developmental changes between the Ediacaran organisms and those of the Cambrian.
The book contains reconstructions by illustrator Quade Paul. Paleo art must be quite an intriguing process. What was the nature of your collaboration, and how do you come to settle on a ‘final’ representation of each creature?
Doing illustrations with an artist is always an interesting experience, particularly since I probably have not just zero artistic ability but actually negative artistic ability (sucking it out of those who do). But Quade was great to work with. He is the first artist I have worked closely with who used a lot of the new digital tools, and that was quite a learning experience for me. Jim and I selected the animals we wanted to illustrate, and sent Quade copies of illustrations from the scientific literature, or previous reconstructions, and in many cases copies of the original scientific papers. For a couple of the commonly reconstructed animals of the Burgess Shale we had to steer Quade away from some of the reconstructions found on the web. Then there was considerable back and forth between us getting the details of the critter right, refining the pose and the background details. Artists always want to know about colours, but of course fossils aren’t any help, so we had to infer these from studying modern marine animals. The quality of Quade’s work speaks for itself I think.
In what ways might the latest research about Earth’s evolutionary past affect current conceptions about biodiversity?
Many people often think of biodiversity in terms of the number of species, in part I think because species are easy to count. But there are many other components of biodiversity – ecological function, morphologic disparity, phylogenetic history, etc. One of the themes of this book is that to understand evolutionary history we often have to look as much at these other aspects of biodiversity. Similarly, as we confront the challenges of the current biodiversity crisis, I am among those biologists who feel that we have to consider conservation priorities in a broader context in order to maximize the amount of evolutionary history that we preserve for future generations.
Do you have any more books in the pipeline?
The Cambrian Explosion was the beginning of a new project on evolutionary innovation that I expect will extend over the next decade. Part of the project involves a book that will involve a much more comprehensive look at evolutionary innovations and major evolutionary transitions through the history of life, from the origin of life to aspects of innovation in humans. This will be a pretty big book, but much different from (and much less illustrated than) The Cambrian Explosion. And one always has other ideas…
Following the ethos of this series which looks in detail at the theoretical models behind the practical application of the biological sciences, this new volume looks at the phenomenon of convergent evolution through its manifestation in animal and plant biology, as well as in natural systems of all scales from the molecular world to large-scale ecosystems, and finally extending into the realm of mind where convergent characteristics are found in phenomena like tool use, and the evolution of various behaviours such as reproduction and herding.
This is a fascinating account of the state of current thinking on this subject, which brings into perspective the possibilities of life on our planet and Darwin’s vision of “endless forms most beautiful”.
George McGhee Jr is Professor of Paleobiology in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Rutgers University and a Member of the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Altenberg, Austria.
A summary of all the latest research on this poorly understood but significant area of ecological and evolutionary research.
The literature on the subject is wide-ranging and of interest to a diverse section of the scientific community, and here Schaefer and Ruxton provide a much-needed synthesis of the latest research in sensory ecology, plant physiology, evolution and the behavioural sciences as applicable to plant-animal communication.
Table of Contents
Communication and the Evolution of Plant-Animal Interactions
Animal Sensory Ecology and Plant Biochemistry
Animals as Seed Dispersers
Visual Communication in Fleshy Fruits
Evolutionary Ecology of Non-Visual Fruit Traits
Flower Signals and Pollination
The Potential for Leaf Colouration to Communicate to Animals
Plant Crypsis, Aposematism, and Mimicry
Chemical Communication by Plants about Herbivores Sensory Aspects of Carnivorous Plants
H. Martin Schaefer is Associate Professor in Evolutionary Biology and Ecology at the University of Freiburg. His main research interests are the sensory ecology of plant-animal interactions in the three fields covered in this book, seed dispersal, plant defence and carnivory.
Graeme D. Ruxton is Professor of Theoretical Ecology at the University of Glasgow. His main research interests are in sensory ecology and how one species can exploit the senses of another.
A tour of the past 500 million years, seeing the evolution of fishes from “Glorified Swimming Worms” to the diverse and complex groups we see today.
Fishes are the ancestors of all amphibians, leading to reptiles, birds and mammals – including ourselves – and they continue to dominate the world’s waters. This is a superbly illustrated guide to the process of their evolution and diversification. The images range from clearly photographed fossils and skeletal portions, through detailed anatomical diagrams, to colourful reconstructions of life in the ancient oceans and photographs of living species. The science is brought to life through stories from the author’s own experiences in the field. A brilliant exposition of a key drama in the evolution of life as we know it.
If Thomas Henry Huxley was famously ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, then Richard Dawkins is probably best described as ‘Darwin’s pit bull’. – Richard Fortey, The Guardian
Save 20% on the newest book by Richard Dawkins – now available at NHBS.
150 years ago the momentous findings in Charles Darwin’s masterpiece On the Origin of Species shook the scientific and religious world to its core. Perhaps more astonishing, the Creation-Evolution debate sparked by his seminal work of 1859 continues unabated in the 21st century. Now, Richard Dawkins, world renowned evolutionary biologist and famous atheist, takes on the Creationists with a brilliant and uncompromising look at the incontrovertible evidence for Darwin’s theory of evolution.