April 07, 2016
(++++) IT’S WEIRD OUT THERE
Flying Frogs and Walking Fish: Leaping Lemurs, Tumbling Toads, Jet-Propelled Jellyfish, and More Surprising Ways That Animals Move. By Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. Illustrated by Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot. By Sy Montgomery. Photographs by Nic Bishop. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.
There is no end to the surprises that the animal kingdom holds, not only in animals’ appearances, ecological niches, forms of defense, coloration, social behavior, mating rituals and other characteristics but also in the way animals get from one spot to another. The latest exploratory book by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page is as fascinating as their earlier ones in probing one aspect of animals’ lives, in this case how they get around. And there are some real surprises here. There is an old myth about the existence of a “hoop snake” that takes its tail in its mouth and rolls downhill, away from danger – and it is only a myth. But there is a different reptile, the armadillo lizard, that really does bite its own tail to form a circle and then, if the ground is sloped, rolls away. As the authors point out, “for most animals, turning end over end is not an efficient way to get around,” but there are special cases – there are always special cases in the animal kingdom – in which that is indeed a preferred form of locomotion. And rolling is not just a reptilian thing: the pangolin, an armored mammal shown in Jenkins’ lifelike illustration right next to the armadillo lizard, rolls itself into a ball for protection and, if the terrain slopes, also rolls away. The illustrations here do an excellent job of focusing on the book’s topic – locomotion – by juxtaposing animals that are very different in size and habitat in such a way as to show their similarity of movement. Thus, the armadillo lizard (3½ inches long) is shown the same size as the pangolin (39 inches long) and two other creatures that can and do roll: the hedgehog (eight inches long) and tiger beetle larva (one inch). By using carefully designed, physiologically accurate illustrations rather than photos, Flying Frogs and Walking Fish is able to accentuate the way animals get around. One illustration shows a common octopus walking along on two of its legs on the sea floor. One shows a black rat snake slithering up a tree in search of eggs and baby birds – the snake’s supple body uses the rough tree trunk to make its climb possible. Another picture shows a flying frog gliding by using its fully spread webbed fingers and toes. Still another shows how a kangaroo uses its tail as a fifth leg when it walks. The animals and insects in Flying Frogs and Walking Fish comes from many different environments in many different geographical locations – and have many different appearances, all of which are carefully rendered. The wonderful thing about this book, as about others from the same creative team, is that it shows ways in which, for all their variety, animals have come up with much the same set of methods of accomplishing what they need to do in order to live – whether that means walking, jumping, swimming, climbing, gliding, rolling or even using jet propulsion to move underwater by “forcing a stream of water from their body and sending themselves in the opposite direction.”
One excellent climber not mentioned in Flying Frogs and Walking Fish deserves an entire book of its own – and it gets one in Sy Montgomery’s Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot. Originally published in 2010 and now available in paperback, this entry in the always-excellent “Scientists in the Field” series deals with one of the most unusual animals on Earth. It is a nine-pound parrot – the heaviest parrot in the world – that cannot fly and makes its home underground, but likes to climb high into trees and then get down by jumping with wings outspread. A stranger parrot than this would be hard to imagine. The kakapo (pronounced KAR-ka-po) has a face like an owl’s, whiskers like a cat’s (which help it get around in the dark), exceptionally soft feathers (because they do not need to be stiff for flying), the smell of honey (caused by harmless bacteria that live in the feathers), and the ability to growl like a dog or boom like a bullfrog (although kakapo cannot talk). Living only in New Zealand and almost wiped out by human settlements that brought cats, pigs, deer, goats, sheep, rabbits and weasels to the island nation, the kakapo were thought extinct by the mid-20th century; but eventually, in the late 1970s, survivors were found and an intensive preservation project was begun. New Zealand was once a land ruled by birds – Montgomery’s description of the nation’s “splendid isolation” encapsulates its past neatly – and those birds had little to fear from the many enemies of birds elsewhere: they did not exist in this isolated environment. When enemies did come, brought by canoe from Polynesia or by ship from Europe, the birds had no defense – not against predatory animals and not against humans. The unique fauna, including the kakapo, went extinct, or nearly so. Kakapo Rescue, in clear and often vivid prose plus excellent Nic Bishop photographs, takes readers through the trials of a single hatching season for this large and strange parrot. Scientists are seen using high-tech equipment in isolated areas to locate nests, examine chicks, and – along the way – observe some other strange New Zealand creatures, such as a bat that spends much of its time hunting on the ground rather than in the air. There is as much drudgery to the work as excitement, and Montgomery reports that although many people volunteer to help save the kakapo and may wait years for an opportunity, few ever get to see a bird – the kakapo are that rare. Like most science, kakapo rescue is scarcely an unmitigated success: the death of a chick is described with deep sadness, which the reader will feel, and is juxtaposed with the story of a pioneering conservationist who tried to create a predator-free sanctuary for kakapo and the better-known kiwi, but failed. Young readers of Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot will here get a sense of real-world science, science that spends many years trying to accomplish things and facing as many setbacks as successes, science that is about as different from what is shown in movies and glossy TV shows as it can be. There is, to be sure, uplift here – Montgomery and Bishop make sure of that – but there is also a sense that the story of the kakapo, and by extension of the scientists trying to save them and many other endangered animals, is far from over, with success far from assured. This is one book that will surely have readers who become involved in the story eager to keep up with kakapo rescue events by visiting the program’s Web site, www.kakaporecovery.org.nz.