June 15, 2017
(++++) FACTUAL FASCINATION
Apex Predators: The World’s Deadliest Hunters, Past and Present. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
Amazon Adventure: How Tiny Fish Are Saving the World’s Largest Rainforest. By Sy Montgomery. Photographs by Keith Ellenbogen. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
One of Steve Jenkins’ most intriguing books, Apex Predators is fascinating not only because of the information but also because of the presentation, in which brief discussions of modern-day predators are juxtaposed with ones about predators of the distant past – with every creature discussed being shown in Jenkins’ clear, anatomically accurate drawings, and with a scale comparing it with the size of an adult human. One thing this does is make it clear that when it comes to hunting, size does not always matter: African wild dogs are only about three feet long, but because they hunt in packs and have the endurance to pursue their prey over long distances and for lengthy periods of time, they are successful in 90% of their hunts – an extraordinary statistic. On the other hand, size can matter, as it does for the world’s largest lizard, the Komodo dragon, which can grow to a length of 10 feet. For each animal, tab-like boxes at tops of the pages indicate whether a particular predator is modern-day or extinct; in the latter case, the boxes say how long ago it lived. This lets Jenkins show the heads of a Siberian tiger and Tyrannosaurus rex facing each other, the former on a left-hand page facing right and the latter on the opposite, right-hand page facing left, with both heads appearing to be the same size – but the scale at the bottoms of the pages shows just how much bigger the dinosaur was than the tiger. Many predators here will be familiar to young readers, but not all, by any means. For example, the Teratorn, believed to be the largest bird able to fly, had an amazing 23-foot wingspan and went extinct six million years ago, while the 20-foot-long predatory amphibian called Mastodonsaurus dates to 250 million years in the past. As readers go through the book, they are inevitably going to wonder how today’s apex predators stack up against those of much earlier times – so Jenkins concludes with a few imaginary matchups between predators of roughly equal size: Siberian tiger and Utahraptor, and great white shark and Dunkleosteus (an armored fish from 400 million years ago). The “who would win” question is of course speculative, and Jenkins takes it an interesting step further by showing two matchups in which the same modern predators would not stand even the slightest chance: Spinosaurus, the largest land predator known, could probably swallow the tiger in a bite or two, while the marine reptile Tylosaurus, whose jaws were 10 feet long, would make short work of a great white shark. The final note in the book is the most thought-provoking of all: the deadliest apex predator of all time is Homo sapiens, since humans, although individually much weaker than the animals shown in Apex Predator, have created weapons that could kill any of them, and in fact have driven many of these hyper-powerful creatures to extinction.
Humans nowadays do not mean to cause extinctions, but human activity endangers many animals and even whole ecosystems, such as the Amazon rainforest. Then humans try to preserve what they have endangered, which is the point of Sy Montgomery’s Amazon Adventure. In fact, one apex predator mentioned by Jenkins, the electric eel, appears in Montgomery’s book as well, but from an entirely different perspective: Jenkins says the eel “lurks” in rivers and streams and “zaps” its prey, but Montgomery notes that the eels generally “emit a low-level charge, less than ten volts, which doesn’t hurt,” while hunting, and deliver painful shocks only if bothered. And this is scarcely the only unexpected element in Amazon Adventure. The whole book starts with a misconception to which scientist Scott Dowd readily admits: there is an annual harvest of 40 million tiny tropical fish, caught by natives for shipment to public and home aquarium tanks worldwide, and Dowd initially thought removing them from their natural habitat was a terrible thing. Readers will likely think so, too, until Montgomery – aided by many as-wonderful-as-usual photographs by Keith Ellenbogen – shows that this harvest may be crucial to the long-term survival of the Amazon and its environs. “Nearly ninety percent of the small fish here are stranded, doomed in drying puddles” in the dry season every year, Montgomery explains, unless they are caught and shipped out. When that happens, they live two to three times as long in aquariums as they would in the wild, and the commerce in the fish – which, remember, would otherwise almost certainly die – is the major means of support for 40,000 people. Those people are so respectful of the river that gives them the fish that they very carefully release other species caught by accident – and protect the river and nearby areas so the fish harvest remains abundant year after year. This is more than an unusual story, more than a typical tale from the “Scientists in the Field” series, of which this book is a part. It is the flip side of the ugly, thoughtless anti-human campaigns of organizations such as PETA, which want animals left alone and believe that somehow a lack of contact between people and other species on Earth will make people more appreciative and supportive of those other species. Exactly the opposite is the case: remove animals completely from contact with humans and humans will soon lose interest in them, which means that when the animals are threatened, it will be that much harder to enlist human help (financial and otherwise) to preserve them. This already happens: less-known endangered animals, including many deemed ugly by human standards, garner far less monetary and scientific support than “marquee” animals such as koalas and polar bears. The piabeiros, the fishers whose life is discussed and shown in Amazon Adventure, have a far better relationship with the natural world than this: they live and interact with the fish and other denizens of the river constantly, and in so doing gain respect for the place within the rainforest of human and nonhuman beings alike. The perspective that young readers will get from Amazon Adventure is quite different from that in headlines about pressure groups’ “successes” in destroying the connection between human beings and other animals. This is a thoughtful book as well as an interesting one, and its exploration of a lifestyle that readers are unlikely ever to experience firsthand may help them gain meaningful appreciation of the nuances of human-animal interaction and the positive environmental effects that can result when people are thoughtful rather than political and virulently dogmatic about our relationships with other species.