December 15, 2016


Beastly Brains: Exploring How Animals Think, Talk, and Feel. By Nancy F. Castaldo. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.

What if You Had an Animal Nose!? By Sandra Markle. Illustrated by Howard McWilliam. Scholastic. $4.99.

     Anyone who still believes that humans are not animals will have a hard time with Nancy F. Castaldo’s Beastly Brains, because this eye-opener of a book shows so many animals with so many characteristics that we think of as “human” that the uniqueness of our species becomes harder and harder to define. Humans are unique, make no mistake – but so, in their own way, are many, many other animals; in fact, ecological-niche studies would argue that every single species is and must be unique, since two identical species competing for the exact same niche would inevitably come into ongoing conflict until one disappeared. Such as, say, Neanderthals. There are no lofty anthropological analyses in Castaldo’s book, although there is a smattering of philosophical thinking that invites readers to consider, at even more length, just what the differences are between people and other species inhabiting Earth. The sophistication of animal perception is truly astounding. Take Castaldo’s chapter called “Fairness.” Here she recounts amazing experiments that demonstrate quite clearly that dogs and monkeys feel jealousy. For example, one dog that willingly gave a researcher its paw when asked stopped doing so when the researcher asked another dog for its paw and gave it a treat each time – not offering one to the first dog, which soon began to whimper when asked for its paw and then looked away and stopped giving the paw altogether. How far does this sort of canine thinking go? As Castaldo says, “Jealousy and justice are very close,” and dogs will quickly notice a human who shows favoritism to some over others. The same chapter’s discussion of monkeys goes even further: a study found that when different monkeys were given unequal treats for the same action of handing stones to researchers, “some monkeys receiving the [better treats] would stop giving the stones in protest of the monkey who wasn’t being treated fairly.” That implies empathy – the ability to feel what another is feeling – or, at the very least, a finely honed sense of “right” and “wrong” and even of ethics. This is heady material for a short (152-page) book intended for younger readers – and there is even more in Beastly Brains. Emotions, communication, problem solving – all are here, and all may seem somewhat apparent to readers. But what about animal self-awareness? Most animals ignore mirrors or, if they notice them, think the mirror image is another of their own kind. But dolphins and apes recognize themselves in mirrors, and enact many of the same behaviors that we humans do in showing awareness that the mirror images are in fact images, not other people. It turns out that elephants are self-aware, too: an intriguing experiment showed that, because an elephant with a painted mark on her forehead that she could only see in a mirror touched her own forehead to rub the mark when she saw it – she did not touch the reflection. Other animals also seem to have the ability to recognize themselves in mirrors: magpies have big brains for their body size, and at least some of these birds appear to have self-recognition. Beastly Brains raises as many questions as it answers, including some at the end about human obligations toward animals that, we now know, share many human cognitive abilities. This is a book to make young readers think, as well as one to explain the thinking abilities of many other animals.

     Whatever their thinking skills may be, nonhuman animals have some characteristics that give them abilities far beyond those of people. Sandra Markle and Howard McWilliam are exploring some such abilities in a series of amusing – but factually accurate – books, in each of which Markle discusses how humans would react to having a certain animal characteristic, and McWilliam amusingly shows what the hybrid creatures would look like and what they could do. The latest of these books, all of which come complete with exclamatory-and-questioning punctuation in their titles, is What if You Had an Animal Nose!? An elephant’s trunk obviously belongs here, and duly appears, with the intriguing note that the trunk can pull in as much as two gallons of water at a time and has a tip so sensitive that it can pick up a single peanut. Even more interesting are some of the less-noted noses of the animal kingdom. A tapir’s proboscis, for instance, is joined with its upper lip and can bend and move in all directions – a child with one of those could use it to, for instance, “catch a home-run ball, even with your hands full,” as McWilliam’s amusing illustration of the stands at a ballpark shows. And a grizzly bear’s nose has smell-sensing areas 100 times bigger than a human’s, so a child with one of them “could sniff out all [his or her] favorite goodies and only trick-or-treat at the best houses!” As in earlier entries in this series, the end pages of this book are the most overtly informative and thus, unfortunately, the least interesting: they show how human noses work and explain how to keep them healthy. This more-direct, more-focused educational portion of What if You Had an Animal Nose!? is certainly useful, but because it is so straightforward, kids may just skip it. Even then, though, they will have learned something about the special characteristics of some animals’ noses – and perhaps their curiosity about their own will kick in at a later time, encouraged and guided by information and illustrations that show why human noses fit humans just as well as other animals’ noses fit them.

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