Book Review: Crossings: How Road Ecology Is Shaping the Future of Our Planet

***** An eye-opening and thought-provoking reportage

Crossings book covering showing yellow text on top of an image of a winding road snaking through an evergreen forest.The road to hell might be paved with good intentions, but the roads to pretty much everywhere else are paved with the corpses of animals. In Crossings, environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb explores the outsized yet underappreciated impacts of the ~65 million kilometres of roads that hold the planet in a paved stranglehold. These extend beyond roadkill to numerous other insidious biological effects. The relatively young discipline of road ecology tries to gauge and mitigate them and sees biologists join forces with engineers and roadbuilders. This is a wide-ranging and eye-opening survey of the situation in the USA and various other countries.

As Goldfarb points out, roadkill is as old as the road but the phenomenon went into overdrive with the invention of the combustion engine and a new-found need for speed that menaced humans and animals alike. With the morbid curiosity typical of biologists, Dayton and Lilian Stoner published the first tally of motorcar casualties in 1925, in the process diagnosing “a malady with no name” (p. 16), as the word roadkill would not be coined for another two decades. The word road ecology was only coined in 1993 by Richard Forman, though it was translated from the German Straßenökologie that was coined in 1981 by Heinz Ellenberg.

As a discipline, road ecology both studies the impact of roads and formulates solutions. Particularly common, and featured extensively in this book, are wildlife crossings. Underpasses serve many animals but others have different needs such as overpasses or canopy rope bridges. Amphibians and reptiles are given a helping hand with toad tunnels and bucket brigades. Fish migration is being restored by retrofitting culverts that are better navigable.

An empty long, winding road running through trees going down a hill.
The long and winding road by Mussi Katz, via flickr.

To us, roads are the unnoticed connective tissue that links places of extraction with industry and commerce, and shuttles commuters between home and work. For other animals, they are barriers: despite the good intentions, wildlife crossings cannot serve all animals equally and cannot be constructed everywhere. Millions of animals still die in collisions every day. Goldfarb addresses the very real concerns of extirpation, habitat fragmentation, interrupted migrations, and noise pollution. With roads come humans who bring deforestation, hunting, real estate development, urban sprawl, tourism, etc.

Amidst this litany of harms, Goldfarb features several topics that will be eye-opening even to ecologists. There is the little-known history of how the US Forest Service constructed one of the world’s largest road networks of now mostly abandoned forest tracks. Roads also feed a diverse community of scavengers that includes humans; a necrobiome that “airbrushes our roadsides, camouflaging a crisis by devouring it” (p. 181). In Syracuse, Goldfarb faces the racist legacy of interstate highways that were bulldozed straight through Black and Latino neighbourhoods. Plans are now afoot to reverse this wrong, move the highway, and create a community where people can again walk to their destinations. In a brilliant flourish, Goldfarb connects this back to the book’s main topic: “Road ecologists and urban advocates are engaged in the same epic project: creating a world that’s amenable to feet” (p. 287).

Badbury Rings Avenue in Dorset showing a long downhill slope with large oak trees either side.
Badbury Rings Avenue – No HDR by JackPeasePhotography, via flickr.

So far, so good. Goldfarb’s writing shines and certain turns of phrase are memorable. I was initially concerned how US-centric this book would be. Though weighted towards US examples, Goldfarb also visits Wales, Costa Rica, Tasmania, and Brazil, and discusses several European initiatives.

Despite the gloomy picture, there are some encouraging signs. The US Forest Service has started decommissioning parts of its road network. Brazil, meanwhile, shows what government regulation can achieve. Here, highway operators are held legally responsible for dealing with the harm and costs resulting from collisions. Contrast this with the USA, Goldfarb observes sharply, where individual drivers are blamed for collisions. This “deflects culpability from the car companies building ever more massive SUVs and the engineers designing unsafe streets” (p. 295). As with addressing climate change, individual action only gets us so far; making roads safer demands systemic change, “a public works project, one of history’s most colossal” (p. 296).

And yet, something nagged at me. The focus on mitigation smacks of a palliative solution and Goldfarb concedes the limitations of road ecology. Crossings and fences will not stop the many other impacts of roads and risk becoming “a form of greenwashing […] a fig leaf that conceals and rationalizes destruction” (p. 265). As with other environmental problems, should we not first focus on abandoning or reducing certain behaviours, instead of turning to techno-fixes? Can we imagine something more radical? Can Goldfarb?


Tarmac country road running between two oil seed rape fields.
Country road and yellow field by Susanne Nilsson, via flickr.

To his credit, he admits wrestling with this problem. “The most straightforward solution to the road’s ills would be a collective rejection of automobility […] In the course of writing this book, I’ve felt, at times, like a defeatist—as though, by extolling wildlife passages, I foreclose the possibility of a more radical, carless future” (p. 295). I would have loved to see him explore this further in a dedicated chapter. Instead, Goldfarb comes down on the side of pragmatism. Bicycles and public transport are great for making urban areas more liveable, but most roadkill happens elsewhere. Furthermore, personal mobility is only part of the story, with logistics making up a huge chunk of traffic. The eye-opening chapter on Brazil, and the outsized influence of China’s Belt and Road Initiative that sees it invest in infrastructure globally, is a forceful reminder that the developmental juggernaut is nigh impossible to slow down. One road ecologist points out that you cannot seriously enter the discussion around roads if you oppose social and economic development, while another chimes in that, whether we like it or not, more roads will be built. Although I do not think resistance is futile, Goldfarb leaves me sympathetic to the road ecologists who are desperately trying to nudge construction projects in directions “that, if not quite “right,” are at least less wrong” (p. 270).

Goldfarb acknowledges the input of some 250 people and even then stresses his book is far from the final word on the subject. He encourages readers to take it as a starting point and read deeper, providing 43 pages of notes to the many sources of information he has used. I would additionally recommend A Clouded Leopard in the Middle of the Road by Australian road ecologist Darryl Jones which was published last year but seems to have flown under the radar compared to Goldfarb’s book. Overall, Crossings is a wide-ranging, eye-opening, and thought-provoking reportage that deserves top marks.

Book Review: The Last Days of the Dinosaurs

*****A unique on the story of dinosaur extinction and its aftermath

The day an asteroid slammed into the Yucatán Peninsula some 66 million years ago is a strong contender for “the worst day in history”. The K–Pg extinction ended the long evolutionary success story of the dinosaurs and a host of other creatures, and has lodged itself firmly in our collective imagination. But what happened next? The fact that a primate is tapping away at a keyboard writing this review gives you part of the answer. The rise of mammals was not a given, though, and the details have been hard to get by. Here, science writer Riley Black examines and imagines the aftermath of the extinction at various times post-impact. The Last Days of the Dinosaurs ends up being a fine piece of narrative non-fiction with thoughtful observations on the role of evolution in ecosystem recovery.

Before delving in, a brief word on what is not in the book. Black does not discuss the history of the research that discovered evidence of an asteroid impact, such as the iridium spike and the crater. Nor does she go into the ongoing debate on the relative contributions of the asteroid and Deccan Trap volcanism. Instead, Black’s approach is to imagine a day in the life of the survivors at various time points post-impact: after an hour, a day, a month, a year, a century, all the way up to one million years. She focuses on the Hell Creek formation in western North America as it offers one of the clearest windows into the mass extinction and its aftermath. Most chapters have a short coda that looks at how life was faring elsewhere on the planet. Black’s style of choice is narrative non-fiction: she is resurrecting individual animals and imagining their lives. As she explains in her preface, to allow full immersion, she is not interrupting the flow of her story with notes and references, which are found at the back of the book. An extensive, 58-page(!) chapter-by-chapter appendix reveals her process and discusses what we know, what is hypothetical, and where she has speculated to smooth over the gaps in our knowledge.

Barringer Crater in Arizona.
Barringer Crater by Simon Morris, via flickr.

Now, when this book was announced, just the prospect of dipping into the story of the disaster and the ensuing recovery already had me excited. However, The Last Days of the Dinosaurs surpassed even these expectations for two main reasons.

First, there are plenty of exciting new ideas and scientific findings here. Black’s interpretation of the impact will no doubt ruffle some feathers as it is particularly catastrophic. Forget the often-depicted idea of an asteroid seen streaking across the sky, Black writes, this thing came in fast at some 45,000 miles per hour (~20 km/s). Forget, too, the often-depicted drawn-out hunger winter for the surviving dinosaurs. I had not come across this idea before, but Black writes how a global heat pulse that lasted several hours fried anyone that could not crawl underground or stay submerged underwater. This is based on estimates of the amount of material ejected by the impact that, upon re-entry, heated the atmosphere to several hundreds of degrees centigrade. It would have ignited global wildfires. Finally, the impact injected vast amounts of sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere as the impact site was rich in calcium sulfate. The ensuing acid rain “might have effectively erased some of the slowly forming fossil record” (p. 256), explaining why fossils are hard to find in the layers around the K–Pg boundary.

Fossil of dinosaur jaw full of sharp teeth.
Fossil of dinosaur jaw full of sharp teeth by Ivan Radic, via flickr.

Regarding the survivors, Black has plenty of interesting ideas too. As seen at other times and other places, there was a fern spike. A rapid initial proliferation of ferns is frequently seen in devastated ecosystems where plants have died. And why did birds survive? One novel idea is that the survival of beaked, but not toothed birds is part of the answer. “Maintaining a mouth of sharp teeth comes with a reliance on animal food. […] A consumer that feeds on other consumers has very little to survive on now. But beaked birds do not face the same constraints” (p. 117). With the extinction of toothed birds and pterosaurs, the beaked birds were poised for an evolutionary radiation. Something similar happened with the mammals. Black prominently mentions the idea that Elsa Panciroli promoted in Beasts Before Us, that “it was competition between mammals that limited the number of different forms and niches Mesozoic mammals evolved into” (p. 158). With the extinction of more archaic mammaliaformes, the placental and marsupial mammals would flourish.

The second reason the book surpassed my expectations is Black’s reflections on the process of evolution and its role in ecological recovery. This is where her prose sings in places. One thousand years post-impact “[…] there is no script for what’s about to unfold, no cast of characters that inevitably must be filled” (p. 142). One million years post-impact a reptilian resurgence seems unlikely, but “the rise of the mammals is anything but assured […] When a global disaster ends one evolutionary dance, shifting the tempo, another begins, with no certainty as to who will lead” (p. 182). She poignantly notes how the fossil record “is not in any way a complete record of life on Earth. It is a record of fortuitous burials” (p. 254). And on the process of evolution, she writes how variation and happenstance provide “the raw material for natural selection and other evolutionary forces to shunt down different pathways. Not that there is any intent to this. It’s a passive state, a constantly running routine that is merely part of existence itself” (p. 196). This is music to my ears and Black’s writing is one of the highlights of this book.

Fossil of a dinosaur hand in a museum in sand.
Fossil of a dinosaur hand in a museum by Ivan Radic, via flickr.

Writing about such an iconic event carries the risk of intense scrutiny. No doubt, some experts and other palaeo-nerds will disagree with some of the details presented here. I think her appendix is sufficiently explicit about where she speculates and where she has chosen not to hedge her bets on different explanations. I was willing to read the book in this spirit, as one possible interpretation of how things might have unfolded, though one that Black carefully backs up with scientific evidence. My quibbles are rather minor instead. One is that the book has no index, the other is that there are no notes to the appendix. Relegating the discussion of the underlying science to the appendix is a defensible choice. But not properly referencing the studies mentioned here is, to me, a minor blemish on an otherwise excellent book.

If you have any interest whatsoever in dinosaurs and their extinction, this book comes highly recommended. Her take on the topic, dipping into the extinction and recovery at various moments post-impact, is novel. I am not familiar with other books attempting this. As a bonus, I expect that many readers will come away with a better understanding of the process of evolution.

Last days of the Dinosaurs book cover showing a T-Rex skeleton.

The Last Days of the Dinosaurs is available from our online bookstore.

Book Review: Dinosaur Behaviour

**** Handsomely illustrated and accessible

Front cover of dinosaur behaviour showing a group of large dinosaurs.

 Reconstructing how dinosaurs behaved from just their fossilised bones might seem like science fiction but is very much science fact. In Dinosaur Behavior: An Illustrated Guide, veteran palaeontology professor Michael J. Benton joins forces with palaeoartist Bob Nicholls to do what it says on the tin: write a richly illustrated introductory book on dinosaur behaviour that is well-suited for novices.

In Dinosaur Behaviour, Benton takes the reader through five main topics: physiology (which sets the pace for everything else), locomotion, senses and intelligence, feeding, and social behaviour (which includes courtship, reproduction, parental care, and communication). One or several ‘forensics’ boxes in each chapter introduce the basic gist of certain methods.

Reading through this book, it becomes abundantly clear that our understanding of dinosaur behaviour relies on two approaches. Though Benton does not mention it as explicitly as in his previous book The Dinosaurs Rediscovered, the first of these is new high-tech toys and tools. Examples include computed tomography (CT) scanners, normally used in hospitals, to make detailed X-ray scans of fossilised brains (so-called endocasts) and so determine brain anatomy. Or finite element analysis normally used in engineering to model forces and stresses on jaws and teeth and so determine e.g. bite force. The second approach is ‘old-fashioned’ comparative anatomy and ethology: it pays to have a good knowledge of natural history when you are a palaeontologist. One example is the histological study of fossil dinosaur bones. Cutting thin bone sections and examining these under a microscope shows that some dinosaurs closely resemble mammals and birds, supporting the idea that smaller species were endotherms (‘warm-blooded’, i.e. generating their own body heat). Or take the microscopic study of melanosomes (pigment-containing organelles) in fossil feathers to determine colour in life. A final example is the comparison of footprints made by modern running birds with fossil tracks to determine things such as gait and running speed. 

If you are well-versed in (popular) palaeontology, much of what is presented here will be familiar. Even so, I picked up interesting titbits. One example is a recent study of Psittacosaurus that describes a cloaca, the multipurpose orifice also seen in birds where the digestive, urinary, and reproductive tracts all open to the outside world. This suggests that dinosaur sex, for at least some species, was a matter of the appropriately named cloacal kiss rather than the brandishing of reptilian genitals. Other insights fell into the embarrassing ‘I should have known this’ category. We tend to think of walking on two legs as something advanced because our mammalian ancestors walked on all fours, but for dinosaurs, it was the reverse; they started out bipedal and quadrupedality only evolved later in e.g. the large sauropods. Particularly interesting is the study by Kat Schroeder and colleagues who looked at fossil communities of theropods and noticed a so-called carnivore gap: there is a lack of medium-sized ones in the fossil record, even though there are medium-sized herbivores. One explanation could be that dinosaur eggs had an upper size limit, meaning that young carnivores hatched small and had an awful lot of growing to do. As they did, ‘they passed through a whole range of feeding modes, each step along the way acting like a different species’ (p. 137), effectively plugging the ecological niche of medium-sized carnivores.

Despite the broad range of topics, there are some curious omissions. The chapter on feeding e.g. discusses jaws, teeth, and the use of isotopes to determine diet, but not microwear analysis of teeth. What I found most surprising is that Benton does not introduce the concept of trace fossils or ichnology, their study. Yet, examples such as trackways (some possibly showing long-distance migrations), coprolites (fossil poop), and nests are all discussed here. Another surprising omission is that the two-page bibliography does not include most studies mentioned in the text, even though it references other technical articles.

Dinosaur Behavior is mostly very suitable for readers with little to no background in palaeontology. Benton explains even basic terminology (physiology, cannibalism) as he goes, though there is the occasional curveball. One example is the morphospace diagram showing a principal component analysis on page 131, which, I hope those with a background in statistics will agree, is a rather abstract way of visualizing data that requires a bit more explanation than is given here. Though the book is published by Princeton University Press, it has been produced by UniPress Books who can be considered the spiritual successor to popular science publisher Ivy Press. What this means is that information is accessibly presented in bite-sized sections on one or several page spreads, with long sections further divided using subheadings. The downside is that this restricts how thoroughly topics can be explored. Leafing through e.g. Naish & Barrett’s Dinosaurs: How They Lived and Evolved shows more nuance in its chapter on behaviour.

Finally, I have to mention the excellent colour and black-and-white artwork by Bob Nicholls that livens up the text. I loved the drawing of courtship in Confusiusornis on pages 168–169. Despite the overlap in topic, this is all-new artwork compared to Locked in Time. Other diagrams have all been carefully designed or redrawn, using colours where appropriate. The only design element that did not work for me was the choice of sans-serif font which made e.g. the letters a and o hard to tell apart. 

Serious palaeontology buffs might find the contents here somewhat superficial, but overall, this is a handsomely illustrated book that offers an accessible introduction suitable for novices and possibly even curious high-school pupils. It would also make for a great gift. 

Front cover of dinosaur behaviour showing a group of large dinosaurs.

Dinosaur Behaviour: An Illustrated Guide is available from our online bookstore.

Book Review: Blue Machine

***** An engrossing odyssey into oceanography

In a break from many other books about the deep sea that talk about animals, Blue Machine focuses on the ocean itself, revealing a fascinating planetary engine. Equal parts physical oceanography, marine biology, and science history, topped off with human-interest stories, Czerski has written a captivating book that oozes lyricism in places.

Czerski is an accidental oceanographer, stumbling into the discipline from a background in physics. She boasts a long list of science communication credentials as a TV presenter, podcast host, columnist, public speaker, and author. This is a big book with chunky chapters but Czerski keeps the flow going by alternating between scientific explanations, fascinating experiments, and remarkable historical episodes. I find the deep sea endlessly fascinating and have been drawn ever further into oceanography through my reviews, yet something was always missing. This book has finally scratched the oceanographic itch I have long been trying to satisfy. How so, you might ask?

Stormy sea and waves crashing against a stony beach.
Stormy Waters IMG_6958 by Ronnie Robertson, via flickr.

Start with that introduction. If you zoom right out, what sets a planet’s temperature, and with it the potential for life, is the balance between energy input from the sun and energy loss to the universe in the form of heat. From this grand, cosmic perspective, what the ocean with its circulating currents does is intercept some of that incoming energy and prevent it from immediately escaping again, instead “diverting it on to a much slower path through the mechanisms of the Earth: ocean, atmosphere, ice, life and rocks” (p. 5). From an energy point of view, “the Earth is just a cascade of diversions, unable to stop the flood but tapping into it as it trickles past; and the ocean is an engine for converting sunlight into movement and life and complexity, before the universe reclaims the loan” (p. 6). To me, this was such an awe-inspiring, attention-grabbing perspective on life on Earth, expressed so eloquently, that I wondered: is Czerski the new Ed Yong of oceanography? Tell me more, please!

What helps to understand the above perspective is the fact that the ocean is a vast three-dimensional environment that is constantly in motion, creating and maintaining differences at different scales. Heat and salinity create different layers of water that do not readily mix, meaning the ocean is stratified. This results in gigantic underwater conveyor belts and waterfalls. What makes these processes interesting is the shape of the container holding all this water: i.e. the continents and underwater topography. The local gravitational pull of the underlying rocks deforms the water surface, creating domes and holes over very large surface areas, a shape known as the geoid. Many more fundamental features and principles are described though she admits that she cannot squeeze the full complexity of the ocean into one book, treating other topics only briefly or not at all.

Bright blue, large wave tubing with splashes all around it.
The tube by Misty, via flickr.

Admirably, Czerski is equally at home in the marine biology department and she features some wonderful critters here. True, these abound in all good popular science books about the deep sea, but her physics background allows her to show how the physical and biological worlds intertwine. A beautiful example of this is the mesoscale eddies that are spun off by oceanic gyres: large islands of rotating water that become temporary havens for all the plankton and fish that find themselves inside. The formation of these wandering buffets is such a regular phenomenon that large ocean predators such as tuna can make a living by roaming the seas in search of them.

Another captivating element is the many ingenious experiments, both historical and current, that she describes here. We almost developed a method to collect a long-term dataset on the global ocean’s temperature by bouncing sound waves through the seas, but the idea stalled after a successful pilot experiment in 1991. More successful is the Continuous Plankton Recorder Survey which has been running for the last 90 years, deploying mechanical recorders towed behind ships that use elegant internal clockwork to capture plankton on long strips of mesh and have gathered valuable long-term records.

The physical world also entwines with human history. One example is the narrow northern half of the Indian Ocean where gyres do not form but seasonal currents flow eastwards and westwards. The 14th-century Chinese Ming Dynasty used these to send expeditions of large ships laden with valuables up and down the coast of Asia and Arabia, trading goods for political influence and prestige. I was similarly captivated by the poorly known story of the 18th-century Scottish herring lassies: bands of female contractors who travelled south along the English coast each summer, following the southwards moving herring fleet. While the men worked the boats out at sea, the women were ready in ports and at beaches to gut, salt, and pack each day’s landing before the freshly-caught fish could spoil. Hard-working, skilled, and independent, they were decades ahead of most other women in Victorian England.

Wave Breaking on rocks at Asilomer State Beach.
Wave Breaking Asilomer State Beach by Charlie Day, via flickr.

All of this is backed up by an attitude that, coming from a scientist, is refreshingly clued in to social issues. This becomes explicit in the final chapter where she addresses the environmental issues she has so far avoided. Though a popular mantra in politics is that we need to follow the science, she opposes this “for the simple reason that science does not lead. Where leadership comes from is a clear statement of values” (p. 381). Science can inform these, yes, but we have to decide what we care about for ourselves and our communities. Going down this path involves hard questions without simple answers, and nuance rather than binary “I am right, you are wrong” categories. It also means breaking with our perception of “the ocean as the end of a one-way pipe” (p. 289). There is no “away” on this planet for our trash. And it means breaking with a culture of infinite growth on a finite planet. Her thinking here is influenced by her contact with Polynesian cultures that value cooperation, openness, and teamwork, in contrast to the Western mindset of ownership and power play.

If I need to sound a critical note it is the lack of illustrations. Though the UK version features nice endpapers and a stunning cover, there are only two maps and two illustrations in the rest of the book. Especially some of the physical oceanography principles would have benefited from explanatory diagrams.

Blue Machine is an engrossing odyssey into oceanography. Czerski brings her substantial experience in science communication to bear on this topic and has written a transformative book. She brings to life the watery fabric of the ocean itself in ways I have not encountered before.

Book Review: Of Cockroaches and Crickets

***** An amusing and light read

Of all the insects that have a PR problem, cockroaches must rank very high. That, however, did not stop German entomologist, journalist, and filmmaker Frank Nischk from spending a year-long internship studying them. In this book, he regales the reader with stories of his time in the lab and the field studying first cockroaches and later crickets. A light and breezy read despite the serious undercurrent of biodiversity decline, Of Cockroaches and Crickets turned out to be an entertaining read.

This book was originally published in German in 2020 as Die fabelhafte Welt der fiesen Tiere by Ludwig Buchverlag and has been translated into English by Jane Billinghurst who frequently works with Greystone Books. Carl Safina contributes a short foreword that cracked me up and immediately set the tone. The book is effectively a memoir of Nischk’s early years studying for his undergraduate and doctorate degrees in the mid-nineties, told in 18 short chapters in two parts. His subsequent career pivot to documentary filmmaking only receives passing mention.

Cockroach photographed in Australia.
Cockroach by Patrick Kavanagh, via flickr.

Given Nischk’s concern about biodiversity decline, and his desire to communicate to a broad audience why insects are fascinating and important, there is an irony to his undergraduate internship. He spent a year in the lab of Martin Dambach studying the aggregation behaviour of the German cockroach, Blattella germanica. By day, large groups of them bed down on their own excrement, likely attracted by pheromones released by the faeces. The irony? Nischk’s internship was funded by biotechnology giant Bayer which was hoping to isolate the chemicals responsible for putting the cockroaches in sleep mode to develop a pheromone-based cockroach trap: “the exterminator’s holy grail” (p. 25).

For his subsequent doctoral studies, Nischk got his conservation priorities in order. Staying with Dambach, he turned to crickets and spent time in Ecuador recording their songs. Next to discovering species new to science, this is his entry into the fascinating field of soundscape ecology or ecoacoustics. A small cadre of ecologists has been recording soundscapes of natural habitats. Bernie Krause (not mentioned here) is one particularly well-known example. By comparing recordings made years or decades apart they have shown how natural soundscapes are changing and often disappearing due to human encroachment. Others are hoping to train software to analyze recordings and identify species by their calls. If scaled up, the dream is to have passive acoustic monitoring stations in biodiversity hotspots around the globe.

This backbone of his research is livened up with personal anecdotes and interesting asides. A friend’s call about a wasp infestation in her kitchen drawer is an excuse to introduce the 18th-century French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre who was one of the first European naturalists to systematically collect and study butterflies, beetles, and wasps. Getting stung by a bullet ant in the rainforest of Ecuador leads to an aside about the late entomologist Justin O. Schmidt, the man who got stung for science (and wrote a fine book about it too). Tracking down a particularly loud cricket in Ecuador is the starting point for an unusual case where entomologists helped to defuse international political tensions between the USA and Cuba (this story has a surprising twist that I will not spoil here). A botched attempt to eradicate cockroaches that escape his experimental setup backfires most spectacularly, while fieldwork in the tropics is always fodder for amusing cultural misunderstandings and sober reflections. There is a nice mix here that never dwells on any one topic too long and makes for a book that is hard to put down.

Cricket on a leaf in a garden.
Cricket by Dean Morley, via flickr.

The third and final part is, perhaps surprisingly, comparatively the weakest of the book. In four chapters Nischk muses on the biodiversity crisis, particularly the still poorly understood decline of insects, and discusses examples of individuals and organisations who are creating and protecting wildlife habitat. Probably most interesting are the little-known grassroots initiatives in Ecuador that are undertaken by villagers and farmers turning to ecotourism. But is this really the answer? Or does it merely perpetuate the idea that nature can only be protected if it has monetary value? You will not find a critical or comprehensive analysis of wildlife conservation here. There is also an odd focus on projects in the USA, e.g. the High Line in New York, the Xerces Society, Joan Maloof’s Old-Growth Forest Network, and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. I wonder if this was added for the English translation. There is no mention of e.g. the European Natura 2000 network of protected areas or E.O. Wilson’s bold call to protect half the planet, and only passing mention of the German environmental organisation NABU or the practice of rewilding. Putting aside such nitpicking, none of this takes away from his genuine concern about the ongoing loss of biodiversity nor from his conclusion that the key to protecting species is protecting their habitat.

Overall, Of Cockroaches and Crickets is an amusing and light read that I devoured in a day. Nischk offers a nicely balanced blend of interesting natural history, amusing personal stories, and captivating scientific research. Whether it is flies, wasps, or rats, we need more books that celebrate those species we all too readily dismiss as pests.

Of Cockroaches and Crickets book cover.Of Cockroaches and Crickets is available from our online bookstore.

Book review: The Mind of a Bee

***** Fascinating and information dense
 Leon Vlieger, NHBS Catalogue Editor

It is tough being a social insect. When people are not trying to exterminate you, they might marvel at the collectives you form, but does anybody think much of you, the individual? Leave it to Lars Chittka, a professor in sensory and behavioural ecology, to change your views. The Mind of a Bee is a richly illustrated, information-dense book that explores a large body of scientific research, both old and new.

Chittka is very focused in his approach and The Mind of a Bee effectively summarises a large number of experimental studies in narrative form, with very few diversions. He cleverly avoids overheating your brain by having chapters flow logically into each other, but especially by dividing each chapter into short, headed sections. Each of these takes a particular question and discusses a few relevant studies in anywhere from one-half to three pages. Some of these are his own work but he ranges far and wide and includes both classic and recent research. The book is furthermore illustrated with numerous diagrams and photos that helpfully clarify experimental protocols and results. Honey bees are unsurprisingly the most intensively studied but Chittka discusses informative studies across a range of bee species and sometimes other insects as well. The book roughly covers three biological disciplines: sensory and neurobiology, ethology, and psychology.

Justifiably, the book opens with sensory biology. Before we understand what is in the mind of any organism, Chittka argues, we first need to understand the gateways, the sense organs, through which information from the outside world is filtered. These are shaped by both evolutionary history and daily life (i.e. what information matters on a day-to-day basis and what can be safely ignored). Chapter 2 deals with the historical research that showed that bees do have colour vision and furthermore can perceive ultraviolet (UV) light. Chapter 3 bundles together research on numerous other senses, including ones familiar (smell, taste, and hearing) and unfamiliar to us (perception of polarised light, Earth’s magnetic field, and electric fields). The antennae of bees, in particular, are marvels; Chittka likens them to a biological Swiss army knife, packing numerous different sense organs into two small appendages. Tightly connected to sensory biology is how this incoming information is processed in the brain, though Chittka postpones discussing neurobiology to chapter 9. He describes the discovery and function of different brain areas and highlights the work of Frederick Kenyon who would inspire the better-remembered Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Thanks to them, we now understand that brains consist of numerous specialised nerve cells. Though the bee brain is small, Chittka argues that size is a poor predictor of cognitive skills; it is the wiring of neurons that matters. Rather than be surprised that small-brained insects such as bees can do so many clever things, Chittka instead tickles the reader with the opposite question: “Why does any animal need as large a brain as a bee’s?” (p. 153).

What clever things do bees do, you ask? That is the subject of the preceding five chapters where Chittka surveys a large body of behavioural research. Honey bees are famous for their waggle dance by which they communicate the location of flowers but also, this was news to me, the location of potential nest sites when the swarm relocates. But Chittka discusses more, much more: how bees navigate space using landmarks, show a rudimentary form of counting, solve the travelling salesman problem, learn to extract nectar from complex flowers, learn when to exploit certain flowers (and when to ignore them), and learn new tricks by observing other bees. But what about instinct, something most behaviours were traditionally ascribed to? He has some insightful comments on this: “even the most elemental behavior routines need to be refined by learning: instinct provides little more than a rough template” (p. 50). What really made me fall off my chair is that bees have long been outsmarting researchers in choice experiments. Many behavioural experiments take the form of choice tests, where bees need to pick between two locations or objects that differ in e.g. colour or shape with one option containing a sugary solution as a reward. Bumblebees would simply be lazy and check out both options in random order. Until, that is, protocols were modified by adding a bitter-tasting solution to the wrong choice as a penalty.

The final two chapters explore bee psychology. One chapter shows how, in a hive full of bees, the members are not anonymous and interchangeable. Rather, they show individual differences in e.g. their preferred order in which to visit flowers during foraging or how fast they learn to solve problems. The final chapter makes the case that bees have a form of consciousness, though Chittka clarifies he is not arguing it is as rich and detailed as that of humans. That said, they show a slew of behaviours that scientists will label as evidence for consciousness when exhibited by bigger-brained vertebrates. Chittka is happy to play devil’s advocate: sure, theoretically, all the behaviours described in this book could be replicated by an unconscious algorithm. However, the required list of specific instructions is growing long and, increasingly, the more likely answer seems to be that bees possess “a consciousness-based general intelligence system” (p. 208).

As mentioned above, this book is focused. If you enjoy reading about the facts and the study system with minimal (autobiographical) diversions, Chittka has got you covered. The only digression he allows himself is to include biographical details of older generations of scientists. This includes inspiring tales such as Karl von Frisch who described the honey bee waggle dance and later barely escaped being dismissed from his post by the Nazis. And look out for repeat appearances of Charles Turner, a now largely forgotten African American scientist who published pioneering work despite having been denied a professorship based on his ethnicity. But there are also tragic stories such as Kenyon’s, who snapped under pressure of not securing a permanent job and was incarcerated in a lunatic asylum where he died more than 40 years later, alone and forgotten. Chittka includes occasional quotations from historical literature to show that “many seemingly contemporary ideas about the minds of bees had already been expressed, in some form, over a century ago” (p. 15).

The Mind of a Bee makes for fascinating reading, convincingly showing that bees are anything but little automatons. The tight structure and numerous illustrations make it accessible, though be prepared for an information-dense book.

In The Field: Browning Strike Force Pro X 1080

At NHBS, we offer trail cameras from a range of different manufacturers. Among these is Browning, who offer high quality at a reasonable price. The Browning Strike Force HD Pro X was one of our most popular cameras, and we regularly recommended it to customers. It offered ease of use, affordability, and excellent daytime and night-time photography. Browning regularly update their range of trail cameras, and given that the Strike Force has been on the market for several years, it has likewise been upgraded to a newer model, the Browning Strike Force Pro X 1080.

Trail camera with camouflage facing the camera with white background.
The Browning Strike Force Pro X 1080.

We wanted to test out the new Browning Strike Force trail camera to ensure it lives up to the standards of its predecessor. Here we will detail how we tested this camera and what we found.

Set up

To test the Strike Force, we headed to an estate in Devon that is managed to improve the condition of wildlife.

The set-up was relatively simple; we found a clearing between two areas of scrub where we suspected that animals would pass through, and secured the camera to a small tree at around waist height using a Python Lock.

The Strike Force comes with a camera strap included which works excellently, but we would recommend purchasing extra security options like a Python Lock if you are placing your camera in a public place. The strap and Python Lock can fit around a tree or a fence post and be tightened to hold the trail camera in position.

I set the camera to default settings and then changed it to photo mode and set the multi-shot option to three photos. I wanted to leave the camera out for a significant length of time, and I knew that videos would drain the battery and fill up the memory card rapidly. The multi-shot mode would hopefully allow me to get a few pictures of an animal moving through the frame.


After three months in the field, the results yielded surpassed our expectations. We knew from talking with the conservation manager at the estate that we might get some decent pictures, but the range of species was unexpected.

The trail camera captured pictures of a range of bird species including one of a buzzard in flight.

Buzzard in flying past bushes.
A buzzard in flight.

We were lucky enough to get an amazing shot of a deer reaching for a leaf from the swaying branch of a willow tree as well as an excellent night time photo of a deer.

Deer reaching for a willow leaf.
A deer reaching for a willow branch.
Deer in a field at night. IR image.
A night-time image of a deer using IR photography.

A herd of Belted Galloway cattle were spotted passing through the clearing.

Cows with white stripe walking through a field with bushes around.
A herd of Belted Galloway cattle pass by the camera.
A herd of striped cows pass by the camera with calves in tow.
A Belted Galloway calf.

This herd of cows were curious and ended up nudging the camera with their noses, causing the camera to face towards a bush. We then caught a glimpse of a fox with the infrared camera mode. The image is a bit overexposed due to the vegetation in the foreground.

IR image of vegetation in the foreground and the faint image of a fox in the background.
A fox passes through the clearing.

Despite the overexposure, many of the IR pictures were excellent.

IR picture of vegetation in the foreground with two deer in the background passing through a clearing in the vegetation.
Deer at night.

We even managed to get a picture of what looks to be a Barn Owl on the ground at night. While not very clear due to the overexposure, it certainly confirms its presence in the area.

Vegetation with a barn owl on the ground in the background in IR photo mode.
A sighting of a Barn Owl on the ground.

The cows came back and pushed the trail camera even further to the right so that it was pointing into a bush. Fortuitously, we managed to get pictures of a mouse, a Robin and a Wren.

An IR photo of a mouse climbing a stick in foreground to the right of the image and vegetation in the background.
A night-time photo of what looks to be a Field Mouse.
Robin sitting on a branch surrounded by vegetation.
A Robin sitting in scrub.
A wren sitting on a branch in scrub.
A Wren sitting in the same spot as the Robin.

In addition to the species featured above, we also captured pictures of butterflies, squirrels, pheasants, Wood Pigeons, a thrush and a Great Tit.


When sorting through the 5,500 photographs captured, I found that the vast majority didn’t show any animals. I suspect that this could be remedied by better camera placement, although this may be unavoidable if there is a lot of vegetation around the area you wish to monitor. The major downside of taking so many photographs is that it takes a long time to sort through, and could potentially fill up your storage too quickly if you set your camera to video mode.

The image quality was impressive, with high-quality images and limited motion blur. The most notable issue was the level of exposure in the images, mainly at night. This was largely an issue because a herd of curious cows nudged the camera so it was facing the edge of a bush. This is unlikely to be a problem in the majority of cases and, prior to this, the night pictures were excellent.


We placed the camera in the field in mid-July and collected it in mid-October. As such we were able to get around three months of footage. Image quality was set to 24MP with 1.5–2.5MB of storage used per image and around 5,500 images in total. This meant that we only used around 11GB out of a total of 32GB of storage available on the SD card. Remarkably, when the camera was collected it registered 94% battery, demonstrating the longevity of the Strike Force in the field, especially when set to photo mode. I suspect that this camera could have been left for another three months in the field without running out of storage or battery power.


Overall, our experience demonstrates that the Strike Force Pro X 1080 is an impressive trail camera with high-quality day and night footage and impressive longevity. While it perhaps doesn’t quite reach the heights of the Browning Recon Force Elite HP5 or the Bushnell Core DS-4K in terms of picture quality, a more affordable price and impressive performance make this camera highly recommendable for both professionals and hobbyists.

No-glow alternative camera – Browning Dark Ops Pro X 1080

The Browning Strike Force Pro X 1080 is a low-glow camera meaning that the glow from the IR bulbs can be seen by both humans and animals. A no-glow camera may be the best option if you are looking for extra security or photographing an easily alarmed species. The Browning Dark Ops Pro X 1080 is an ideal no-glow alternative to the Browning Strike Force Pro X 1080. While a little more expensive, it is stealthier, and humans are less likely to notice it due to its no-glow flash. The only disadvantage is the shorter 24m flash range of the no-glow bulbs compared to the 36.58m flash of the Strike Force.

Trail camera facing towards the camera with camouflage coating with a white background.
The Browning Dark Ops Pro X 1080.

The Python Lock is an ideal accessory for your trail camera. It won’t stop your camera from being damaged but it will prevent theft and keep your camera securely fastened to a tree or post. The lock is anti-picking, weatherproof and vinyl-coated. We used a Python Lock, and it held the camera in place until a herd of cows decided to turn it.

Image of a coiled up python lock.
Python Lock.

Spare memory cards and batteries are also highly recommended, especially if you are planning to use your trail camera on video mode. These additions will help you keep your camera operational for longer. Lithium batteries are highly recommended as, even when they have low charge levels, they supply sufficient power to the trail camera. Users of alkaline batteries may find that their trail camera isn’t performing well at night; this is because the batteries are not supplying sufficient power for the IR bulbs to function correctly.


Get your Browning Strike Force Pro X 1080 from our online shop.

Hawke Digi-Scope Smart Phone Adapter

Hawke DIGI-SCOPE SMART PHONE ADAPTER with a binocular lens attached being used to take a photograph of a black and white bird in the grass.

Getting into nature photography can be a daunting prospect. What camera do you buy? Which lenses do you choose, and what size should they be? How much should you spend? These are all questions that require a good bit of thought, and rightly so. However, what if you wanted to dip your toe in at the shallow end and use equipment that you may already have lying around to take decent photos at a fraction of the price? That’s precisely where the Hawke Digi-Scope Smart Phone Adapter comes in. I decided to put it to the test by taking images of local wildlife at a variety of ranges with two of Hawke’s spotting scopes and a pair of Kite binoculars. To do this, I used the Hawke Nature-Trek 20–60 × 80 and the Nature-Trek 13–39 × 56 scopes, and a pair of Kite Ursus 8 × 32 binoculars. 

Hawke have established a name for themselves as producing reliable and rugged optics for the entry to mid-level markets and this optical adapter fits nicely into that niche, giving anyone with an optical device the option to transform their optics into a camera lens, when combined with a smartphone camera. 

Out of the box – first impressions 

The adapter comes packaged with a small instruction manual and some small foam sticky pads to place around the aperture clamp and prevent damage to the ocular lens of the optics you are using. Made from lightweight ABS plastic, the adapter feels light in the hand but not fragile. Stated compatibility on the box is for eyepieces 23–50mm in diameter, so make sure that the optics you plan to use meet these specifications. There is also a minimum and maximum size for compatible phones (width 66–95mm), but most currently produced models should fit fine.

Front and back of the black scope phone attachment.

Ease of use  

The adapter is a simple piece of kit that is designed to fit around the ocular lens of a spotting scope, microscope, telescope or, most commonly, a pair of binoculars. The spring-loaded clamp then allows you to place your phones rear camera to the eyepiece and align them, in essence creating an inexpensive camera and physical lens arrangement. This will then allow your smartphone to take photos at ranges that the vast majority of devices on the market wouldn’t be capable of. Getting this alignment right can be quite fiddly but once found, the adapter holds fast, and the point of focus doesn’t drift. It’s important to try to remember to reduce/disable the auto focussing on the device as this can be at odds with the manual focus of the scope itself. Likewise, make sure to zoom the phone camera slightly to avoid giving a ‘scoped’ view to your photos, with a circular black border (see below).

Photograph taken through the scope attached to a phone of some ducks in a garden with a black ring around it in the shape of the lens. Photograph taken through the scope attached to a phone of some ducks in a garden without a black ring the shape of the lens around it, focused nicely and closely on the ducks.

In the field 

Testing the adapter involved setting it up on the window ledge of a bird hide and using it while combing along the River Dart, allowing tests over variable distances to look and capture at different focus points and ranges. I often found that target acquisition with the scopes was a bit of a lesson in trial and error as any hand movement through high magnification lenses will be exacerbated massively through the screen. However, this will be greatly reduced by using a lesser magnification or a stabilising structure such as a tripod (or a handy fence post). The use of a phone in this case proved crucial as the post- processing from the device helped to mute the amount of disturbance to the final image from this unavoidable shaking. While there was some aberration introduced to the final photos, it didn’t mar the result too much or overly distract from the images (see below). 

Photo of a mallard duck swimming on the river by some reeds taken through the Hawke smartphone adapter. Photo of a duck flapping its wings and splashing on the river by some reeds with a vignette image border taken through the Hawke smartphone adapter.

Using the adapter with a pair of binoculars was where the Hawke Digi-Scope really shone. Quick to acquire and quick to capture, the photos produced were, in my opinion, superb, making this an ideal tool for an enthusiast beginning their journey into nature photography. (see images below) 

Zoomed in photograph of a squirrel on a grey and red roof. Photograph of a crow on some grass which is scattered in autumn leaves.

While the adapter itself is a lightweight bit of kit, whatever you mount within it will add weight to the back of your optics and upset any built-in centre of balance – much as I found out when, after attaching the phone, the scope made a determined attempt at see-sawing off the bird-hide window ledge. When not attached to the optics, however, the adapter is small and portable, fitting easily into a pocket without any discernible bulk or weight. 

Taking pictures with the adapter was as simple as hitting the camera button on the phone and snapping away, making sure to adjust the focus using the scope/binoculars as needed (this took a bit of practice to get used to). I didn’t manage to get any images of animals moving at great speed (something a dedicated nature photography camera would have no issues doing) while using the scopes, as acquiring and holding onto the target while also focusing using the scope lent itself to more stationary birds (see image 9). The binoculars, on the other hand, were great for reactive type photography, albeit at much reduced ranges (e.g. image 10). 

Photograph of a brown duck standing on one leg scratching the underside of its wing with its beak stood on a log taken through a lens.
Image 9
Motion photograph of a crow taking off in flight from a patch of grass scattered in autumn leaves.
Image 10








While using the Hawke Digi-Scope, it is important to remember that the phone you use, the post processing that it does, and the settings you enable will all modulate the end result in some way, and this is an unavoidable part of using your phone to take images with a non-attached magnification device. Unlike an expensive camera with light meters and other tools, this setup will never quite produce a true to life image with no introduced imperfections.  

In terms of optics, the scopes performed well and were great in their own right; however, both the models I used were technically 1–2mm over the maximum specified eyepiece diameter. This was surprising as the mount seemed to fit fine (a little snug if anything), but also surprising as it begs the question as to why this adapter doesn’t fit the full range of Hawke products. This was not an issue with the binoculars as they have a much smaller ocular aperture. 

It is just as important to stress this wasn’t a test of the optics used but rather the adapter itself and, in that role, it performed very well. It held the phone securely and the rubberised touch points prevented slippage, keeping both the scope and phone lenses aligned. But, as stated before, this was a bit of a fiddly procedure.  

I do think that this adapter helps to bridge the gap between the more professional nature photography market and the more casual enthusiast who wishes to go and get some decent photos of what’s living in the area around them, and it will help to extend the reach of the average person’s smartphone camera by quite a distance. The speed of setup and lack of any frills really helps to make this adapter a portable, reliable workhorse or a spur of the moment image capturing tool. If you’re looking for an inexpensive bit of kit to add to your usual birding/hiking/survey gear alongside your pick of optics, this is the adapter for you.  

The Hawke Digi-Scope Smart Phone Adapter is available at

Book review: The Rise and Reign of the Mammals

***** Epic in scope and majestic in execution
Leon Vlieger, NHBS Catalogue Editor

Imagine being a successful dinosaur palaeontologist and landing a professorship before you are 40, authoring a leading dinosaur textbook and a New York Times bestseller on dinosaurs. Imagine achieving all that and then saying: “You know what really floats my boat? Mammals.” After the runaway success of his 2018 book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, palaeontologist Stephen Brusatte shifted his attention and now presents you with the follow-up, The Rise and Reign of the Mammals. Taking in the full sweep of mammal evolution from the late Carboniferous to today, this book is as epic in scope as it is majestic in execution.

Mammals shared our planet with the dinosaurs throughout their long reign, from the initial split of our amniote common ancestor into synapsids (us) and diapsids (them), to their extinction at the end of the Cretaceous. Over the course of some 100 million years, a parade of lineages evolved—archaic mammals all—piecemeal developing the traits we recognise as mammalian today: pelycosaurs, therapsids, cynodonts, mammaliaformes, docodonts and gliding haramiyidans, multituberculates, and therians who gave rise to today’s placentals, marsupials, and monotremes. However, the above must not be mistaken for a linear march of progress. “[M]ammals were a still unrealised concept, which evolution had yet to assemble” (p. 20). Simultaneously, it does not behove us to call these now-extinct groups evolutionary dead ends. “In their time and place, these mammals were anything but obsolete” (p. 88).

With the extinction of the dinosaurs, the rise of mammals turned into a reign. Isolated on various land masses after the supercontinent Pangaea had fragmented, they were poised for a slow-motion taxonomic starburst that would play out over the next 66 million years. In the northern hemisphere, placental mammals replaced multituberculates and metatherians and rapidly evolved into primates and the odd- and even-toed ungulates. The latter two evolved giants: brontotheres, chalicotheres, and cetaceans.

Brusatte’s strength is to bring to life the above flurry of names. What kind of creatures were they? And how can we deduce this from fossil evidence? Somewhere between chapters 6 and 7, I became awestruck by his narrative as the enormity of the mammalian evolutionary trajectory started to come into full view: bats, elephants, South American native ungulates (origins: uncertain), metatherians migrating to Australia and spawning a spectacular marsupial radiation, grazers diversified as grasses went global, and somewhere at the end, hominins evolving and repeatedly spilling out of Africa, contributing significantly to recent megafauna extinction. What a wild ride!

The macroevolutionary story is fascinating in itself, yet Brusatte makes it even better with some interesting observations of his own. We usually think of the dinosaurs as dominating the mammals, but, he suggests, this went two ways: “While it is true that dinosaurs kept mammals from getting big, mammals did the opposite, which was equally impressive: they kept dinosaurs from becoming small” (p. 95). Furthermore, DNA studies suggest that many modern mammal lineages originated back in the Cretaceous. But where are the fossils? Could some of the poorly understood archaic placentals such as condylarchs, taeniodonts, and pantodonts be the missing fossils that we have not yet been able to link to modern groups because of the lack of signature anatomical features? Excitingly, Brusatte is part of a research consortium that is building a master family tree based on both anatomy and DNA.

As in his last book, Brusatte excels at explaining complex research methods and scientific concepts. One example is Tom Kemp’s concept of correlated progression. Several times during early mammal evolution, a whole suite of anatomical, behavioural, and functional traits were changing together, making it hard to unravel what was driving what. For instance when cynodonts shrunk in size and changed their growth, metabolism, diet, and feeding styles. Then there is the revision of the mammal family tree based on DNA sequencing. The classic tree, championed by zoologist George Gaylord Simpson in 1945, was based on anatomical features. By the early 2000s, DNA-based genealogies suggested that many supposed relationships were actually cases of convergent evolution, resulting in a new classification that reflected geographical patterns rather than anatomy. The new groupings came with some tongue-twisting names: Afrotheria, Xenarthra, Laurasiatheria, and Eurarchontoglires. A final example is tooth morphology, an important diagnostic trait in this story.

What helps with these explanations are some excellent illustrations. B/w photos show amazing fossils, Todd Marshall contributes both decorative chapter headings and explanatory artwork, and Brusatte’s former student Sarah Shelley adds b/w diagrams, illustrating for instance the remarkable changes in jaw bones and how some of these were repurposed to become our inner ear bones! Woven throughout are stories of the people behind the research. Brusatte introduces both young scientists and many past scientists that are not widely known.

In what is surely a hallmark of his love and enthusiasm for the field, Brusatte’s bibliography has again been written as a narrative. It is like a chatty literature review in which he recommends books and papers, indicates where literature has become outdated, adds more technical details or clarifications, discusses where there is active debate and disagreement, and shortly touches on topics that he had to omit from the main narrative. Yes, this takes up more space than a regular reference section, and I am sure it is more time-consuming to write, but it is ever so useful. You could not wish for a better starting point if you wanted to read deeper into the technical literature.

Finally, you might be left wondering how this book compares to Elsa Panciroli’s Beasts Before Us which covered early mammal evolution up to the K–Pg extinction. There is overlap here in more than one way; Brusatte co-supervised her PhD project describing the docodont Borealestes from a Scottish fossil. I was therefore mildly surprised that he does not mention her book. There is some inevitable overlap as both books walk through the same groups, though Brusatte provides a fuller picture by covering mammal evolution up to today. Panciroli’s book stands out for its fantastic writing, though, so you cannot go wrong by reading them both.

The Rise and Reign of the Mammals is a more-than-worthy successor to The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs. Brusatte convincingly shows that the evolutionary story of mammals is just as fascinating—if not more so—as that of the dinosaurs.

Book review: What an Owl Knows

***** A hoot of a book
Leon Vlieger, NHBS Catalogue Editor

Owls are one of the most enigmatic groups of raptors, in part because there is so much we still do not understand about them compared to other birds. Nature writer Jennifer Ackerman previously wrote the critically acclaimed The Genius of Birds. In What an Owl Knows, she reveals the creature that hides under that puffy exterior, peeling back the feathers layer by layer to show our current scientific understanding of owls. She has interviewed scores of scientists and owl aficionados as part of her background research, making this as much a book about owls as about the people who study and love them. A captivating and in places touching science narrative, this book is a hoot from beginning to end.

Owls are everywhere in the human imagination and, Ackerman argues, have always been: “We evolved in their presence; lived for tens of thousands of years elbow to wing in the same woods, open lands, caves, and rock shelters; came into our own self-awareness surrounded by them; and wove them into our stories and art” (p. 235). For all that, their nocturnal lifestyle makes them hard to study and they have long been—and in many places still are—wrapped in superstition. Ackerman dedicates a chapter to such beliefs and the harms that frequently flow from them. Fortunately, the tide is turning. Thanks to the tireless efforts of a dedicated cadre of scientists, conservationists, and numerous volunteers, a far more fascinating creature emerges from the contradictory tangle of ideas that humans have held about owls.

A red thread that has been subtly woven through this book is the importance of understanding animals on their terms. Ed Yong’s An Immense World is one recent example of this welcome trend amongst science writers and Ackerman appropriately starts with a chapter on owl sensory biology. What is it like to be an owl? Though this question can never be fully answered, that should not stop us from trying our hardest. Vision and hearing are obviously important to owls but the book has plenty of surprises up its sleeve once you start digging into the details: from the magnificent facial disk that acts somewhat like a parabolic reflector to gather sound, a hearing system that does not seem to age, to the fact that owls can see ultraviolet light. At night. With rod rather than cone cells (like pretty much every other bird).

The same question motivates research on owl vocalisations as “a hoot is not just a hoot” (p. 81). Owls utter a profusion of yaps, squawks and warbles and Ackerman paints a lively portrait in words. Barn owls have “a raspy hiss that sounds like a fan belt going out on your car” (p. 82), while the tiny Flammulated Owl breaks the link between body size and vocal pitch, sounding like “a big bird trapped in a small body” (p. 82, quoting ornithologist Brian Linkhart). These sounds can reveal an awful lot about the individual owl and its relationship with other owls in the landscape. Ackerman criticises some of the research on owl intelligence. They cannot pass the string-pulling test, a common test in ethological research in which an animal has to pull on a rope to reel in food that is out of reach. The idea is that it tests an animal’s understanding of cause and effect. But is this a fair test or does it “point to the limitations of our definitions and measures of intelligence” (p. 261)?

The most intimate insights have come from rescued owls that can no longer be returned to the wild. Many researchers have ended up caring for an individual and becoming intimately familiar with them. Gail Buhl, a leading authority on training rehabilitated captive owls, here explains five important things that she has learned. One particularly poignant observation is that owls might appear calm and stoic around humans, but having paid close attention to their body language, Buhl concludes that “they’re experiencing the same stress as other raptors, but they’re internalising it” (p. 228). This has major consequences for how even well-intended trainers and rehabbers ought to behave around owls. “We need to treat them not as mini-humans in feathers, but as their own entity” (p. 231), Ackerman writes, before throwing in a beautiful quote from naturalist Henry Beston. In his words, wild animals “are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time” (pp. 231–232).

Following on directly from her last book on bird behaviour, there are fascinating chapters here on the behaviour of owls: their courtship and breeding, their parental behaviour, their roosting, and their migration. Yes, many owls are migratory and some species can cover surprising distances. Ackerman makes a fantastic case for the value of long-term monitoring programmes to establish reliable population estimates. This is vital data for conservation efforts and is often missing. And sometimes what we think we know is wrong, as in the case of the Snowy Owl. Where initial estimates put the global population at some 200,000 birds, satellite tracking has revealed that they are actually a single population moving around the whole Arctic Circle, resulting in duplicate counts. Revised estimates now put the figure at a mere 30,000 birds.

Ackerman relies on the input of numerous scientists and volunteers. As such, this is as much a book about the people who study owls. I was delighted to hear more from Jonathan Slaght (his book Owls of the Eastern Ice is magnificent). Other stories tug on the heartstrings and none more so than that of Marjon Savelsberg. A Dutch musician trained in baroque music, her dreams came crashing down when she was diagnosed with a heart condition that consigned her to a mobility scooter. When she stumbled on the website of the Dutch Little Owl Working Group, she quickly became one of their most active volunteers, revealing a skilled ear for analysing owl calls. Suddenly, she had a new career and a new group of appreciative ecologist colleagues: “[I] realised I was still a musician. All the skills that I learned, all the talent I have, I can still use, just in a different way” (p. 105). It is a powerful story of redemption-by-owl.

Ackerman carefully balances these two facets: the scientific insights that she has carefully distilled from research papers and interviews, and the personal stories of those who study and love owls. As a result, What an Owl Knows is compulsively readable and readily accessible for those who lack a scientific background in ornithology.

You might also be interested in reading our Q&A with Jennifer Ackerman in which we discuss owls’ reputation for wisdom, the incredible research that is shedding more light on their lives, and the mysteries that still remain.