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Nifty little things 

The patterns of many shell species are never seen in the darkness where they reside. Some cover their elaborate designs with an extra layer of protein, making them look like mossy rocks. For a long time researchers suspected that shell patterns had lost any ties to natural selection. Recent findings suggest that genetic relationships do, in fact, correlate closely with shell patterns. But what is the point of them? My review of Helen Scales's clever Spirals in Time.


Anthropologists Behaving Badly

In the final days of 1932, three field-weary anthropologists meet and take stock of one another in colonial New Guinea, at a government station on the Sepik River. One of them, Nell Stone, is malarial, hobbling, covered in ulcers, and squinting – her glasses have been smashed by her husband, Schuyler Fenwick, and she has recently suffered a miscarriage, another result of his outbursts. At a party they encounter Andrew Bankson, a young Englishman who, after two years of living in a treehouse, has recently tried to drown himself, only to be rescued by bemused tribesmen.

Bankson persuades the couple to set up on the Sepik. He promises to find them a “decent” tribe to study, a day’s boat ride away from his own. They will be close enough to keep him from feeling desperately alone, far enough away that they won’t feel that their work is stepping on his toes. Bankson dresses Nell’s wounds with the kind sensitivity that spells romantic trouble. He escorts the couple to their new study site, and awaits the right day to reappear in their lives. 

My review of Lily King's Euphoria, a clever if gothic take on a reveletory sexual and intellectual episode in the life of Margaret Mead... 




Mind-melding with invertebrates, all the way to the bank

I found pretty much everything about this book, in which a woman swoons over some octopuses, rang false, down to its manupulative title and selective application of scientific findings ... And it is now long-listed for the National Book Award.

To create his confounding collage ‘Octopus’ (2007), Tim Hawkinson began with an image of his hand and superimposed cutout close-ups of his hands and lips. The image is one of dozens assembled by Arpad Kovacs in ‘Animals in Photographs’ (Getty, 112 pages, $24.95), published to coincide with the Getty Center’s current exhibition ‘In Focus: Animalia.’


A Particularly Elusive Toad

A male toad of an undescribed species hides in the limestone of the southwestern Dominican Republic.

Late last fall I visited Pedernales, in the Southwestern corner of the Dominican Republic, with two young field biologists to see about a toad entirely new to science, yet unnamed, and apparently about to become extinct in the only place it's ever been seen. It's a circumstance that's not as unusual as it sounds. Many species get discovered only to disappear; a cousin of this toad was seen once in the Dominican Republic, in 1971, and never again. In this short piece for The New Yorker I describe our trip to meet the mystery toad and the rather harrowing slashing and burning going on in the only forests where it's ever been seen. Photo courtesy of biologist Miguel Landestoy.   


The narcotic pleasures of trapping flies

Frederik Sjöberg's The Fly Trap, a memior and biography of the Swedish entomologist Rene Malaise (inventor of of the Malaise trap, something no serious fly collector would be without) may be the best book I've ever read on entomology -- except maybe for Hugh Raffles' Insectopedia.

In this essay for TLS, which thankfully is free, I talk about Sjöberg's weirdly candid admission that entomology serves him as a sort of anasthetic drug, and about his hero Malaise's dramatic descent into scientific crankery. At some point in the 1950s Malaise dropped his fly studies, which had brought him world renown, to concentrate on the fabled lost continent of Atlantis, which he was convinced was real. Malaise’s sense of a sunken world was based, in Sjöberg’s view, on his youthful experience of a 1923 earthquake in Japan, in which the ground quite literally dropped out from under him. He never forgot it. Who could?