Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Life in Cold Blood

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When asked why there are so few books about amphibians and reptiles — collectively referred to as “herps” — published for the general public, David Attenborough responds by pointing out that “reptiles and amphibians are sometimes thought of as slow, dim-witted and primitive. In fact they can be lethally fast, spectacularly beautiful, surprisingly affectionate and extremely sophisticated.” Even though this is true for many herps, it takes a lot of dedication and skill to show those less-known qualities to a general audience, most of whom are afraid of these ecologically important species. To help shed some light on these widely misunderstood animals, a new book has just been published, Life in Cold Blood, by David Attenborough (New Jersey: Princeton University Press; 2008). This book is the companion volume for the television series (and DVD) with the same name.


The 288-page book is printed on heavy paper and is divided into six chapters. The first chapter begins with a photograph of and introduction to the spectacular Tiktaalik fossil, which might have been the first vertebrate to crawl out of water approximately 375 million years ago. This chapter then briefly mentions the lungfishes before moving on to the amphibians; frogs, salamanders, and newts. The next chapter focuses on the turtles, terrapins and tortoises, which first appeared in the Triassic, roughly 245 million years ago. Another ancient group, the crocodiles, alligators and gharials are the subject of the next chapter, followed by a chapter about the lizards, the so-called “Dragons of the Dry.” Interestingly, convergent evolution resulted in plenty of lizard-like fossils, but the first true relatives of modern lizards, identified on the basis of skull morphology, did not appear on the scene until the late Permian, some 250 million years ago. Perhaps the most interesting lizards covered in this chapter are the many different groups of legless lizards — animals that casually resemble either snakes or large worms — until you look carefully at them. This chapter serves as a convenient lead-in to the chapter about snakes, which explains the evolution of this group of reptiles and their relatives, which include a few lizard-like animals such as the gila monster. As you probably know, the herps are an artificial group; amphibians and reptiles are not closely related at all. But the last chapter in the book explores the one character that unites the herps; cold-bloodedness and how this affects the natural history and geographic range of these animals.

The book is filled with 279 photographs, mostly in color. Many of these images fill either a half or a whole page, although several had two pages devoted to them (with the book’s stitching running down the middle, ick). I particularly enjoyed the close-up pictures of a gecko foot that accompanied a brief description of how these animals can stick to surfaces (p. 173-174); I was particularly enchanted by the image of the recently-extinct female Australian gastric brooding frog with a small froglet peering out of her open mouth (p. 59), the photo of the air-borne Wallace’s frog, which glides from tree to tree on its enlarged webbed feet (p. 33) and the miniscule Madagascar pygmy chameleon sitting comfortably on a human fingertip (p. 166); and, of course, I was amazed by the stunning color photographs of the mating golden frogs of Panama which, sadly, went extinct in the wild during the filming of this program (p. 37), the beautiful but peculiar Australian moloch lizard (p. 151) and South African armadillo lizard that forms a spiny wheel by holding its tail in its mouth when threatened (p. 257), and the breathtakingly gorgeous African agama (p. 152).

But this book lacked some important images that would have added greatly to the information conveyed. For example, even though evolution is not a major theme in this book, it is a uniting thread that runs throughout the narrative, so I was surprised and disappointed that there were no diagrams describing the evolutionary history of the amphibians and reptiles. Instead, the author relied solely on written descriptions of how the herps arose, which is not very satisfactory and can lead to confusion, in my opinion.

I was also surprised by the errors in this book. For example, after correctly describing the differences between tortoises, terrapins and turtles (pp. 91-94), I was quite surprised to see a photograph of a sea turtle that was obviously underwater on a coral reef being groomed by butterfly fishes, erroneously referred to in its accompanying caption as a “giant tortoise” (p. 103). Another surprise was a picture of two male “American anoles” competing for dominance by displaying their colorful throat pouches to each other (p. 154). But these are not “American anoles” as stated in the caption; instead, they are Cuban brown anoles, Anolis sagrei (by definition, all anoles are American in origin, although the book never makes this point clear).

I love and respect David Attenborough’s work and BBC Productions, so I expected I would really like this book. I wanted to like this book. But I ended up disappointed because this book’s scientific accuracy is questionable. I attribute this serious lapse to poor fact-checking and editing. That said, I did like the pictures, so I think of this as a small coffee-table book that contains just enough written information to satisfy casual readers. For those who are seeking something more exhaustive or with greater scientific accuracy, I would advise you to look elsewhere, or better yet, write your own book about herps that is targeted to a general audience since there are so few on the market at this time.

David Attenborough is one of the best-loved naturalists of our time. He studied zoology at Cambridge, and then served in the Royal Navy in the late 1940s. He then joined the BBC in 1952. Between 1954 and 1964, he made annual trips to film and study wildlife and human cultures in distant parts of the world. He is the author of Life in the Undergrowth, The Life of Mammals, Life on Air: Memoirs of a Broadcaster, The Life of Birds, and The Private Life of Plants (all Princeton). He has hosted many world-renowned and award-winning natural history documentaries. He was program director and on the board of management for the BBC from 1969 to 1972. Knighted in 1985, Sir David Attenborough was also made a Companion of Honour in 1996. Attenborough married Jane Oriel in 1950 and has a son and a daughter; he is the brother of the actor Richard Attenborough.

Comments

  1. #1 themadlolscientist
    April 14, 2008

    I watched the first two parts of the series last night on Animal Planet. Good stuff. I’m going to watch the local library for the book – from what you’ve written here, it doesn’t entirely follow the video (no tiktaalik in the video so far, for instance).

  2. #2 "GrrlScientist"
    April 14, 2008

    i am glad to learn that the program is first-class. i know i’d like to see it (i have most of Attenborough’s programs on DVD, and LOVE them).

    it makes me wonder if the book was rushed through production so it would appear on bookshelves about the same time that the TV series was first airing? if so, this is really a bummer because the book was quite an unexpected disappointment.

  3. #3 Sven DiMilo
    April 14, 2008

    I just picked this up over the weekend so haven’t read it yet. The photography is certainly beautiful.
    I think you’re a bit harsh in identifying “errors.” From the British perspective, all anoles are “American,” and I think that’s the sense in which the term is employed on p 154. There’s a sentence on p 153 that starts “Anoles (species of Anolis, American members of the iguanian clan…” You seem to think that in the photo caption they are erroneously referring to Anolis carolinensis (the only one that is native to the US), but the standard common name for them is the “green anole,” not “American.”
    As for p 103, that’s just ambiguous phrasing, not an “error.” It reads: “Turtles, like giant tortoises, find it hard to rid themselves of parasites…” They are using “turtle” in the British sense of “sea turtle” and pointing out that giant tortoises also have cleaning relationships (with birds for the tortoises). I would have edited it to read “Like giant tortoises, turtles…”
    So, although it wouldn’t surprise me to find minor errors in the text, I don’t think you have identified any here. Just separated by a common language…

  4. #4 "GrrlScientist"
    April 14, 2008

    thanks for your input, sven. i hope that the editors fix the ambiguities in wording in the second printing.

  5. #5 Elizabeth
    April 14, 2008

    I thought of buying the whole series of Attenborough’s Life series as a donation for a middle school library, but then I wondered, since the earlier works are almost 30 years old, would they be out of date, have errors, etc.? No sense in starting kids off with bad information. What do you think?

    One of the ways that I subvert the local southern fundie culture is to donate good science materials to the nearby school libraries and public libraries. Works better, I think, that trying to beat the adults over the head with, “Creationism is nuts!”, although sometimes I do lose patience and scream that, too.

  6. #6 "GrrlScientist"
    April 15, 2008

    elizabeth; i’ve worried about this review all day yesterday and even talked to some people i know about it last night. was i fair? or was i too harsh? honestly, i don’t know. it’s not a BAD book, it’s just not what i expected. to give you a better idea of what i mean, here’s a reference point for you, and everyone else: if i rated the book using Amazon’s five star system, i’d give it 3.5 stars (my typical book reviews are four or 4.5 stars, with several five star ratings per year. because my time is limited, and because i LIKE writing positive book reviews, i almost never review books on my blog that i would rate with less than three stars).

    as i stated in my review, i fully expected i would REALLY LIKE this book, and was surprised that i was “ho-hum” about it after i’d read it and looked over my notes. did i have unusually high expectations because my hero, David Attenborough wrote it? this is certainly possible, and i hope i wrote an in-depth enough review that my readers can make that judgment on their own.

    all that said, i think your idea is great. i have not read the entire set of these books (i’d like to), but these books would make a fine gift to public school libraries because they portray evolution in an interesting, accurate and subtle way (but not in depth). and the books are packed with plenty of wonderful pictures — how can you beat that? even if there are errors or ambiguous wordings in any (or all) of the volumes in this set, i think the overall presentation of the animal groups and the accurate description of evolution is better than no exposure to the ideas of evolution at all. which makes me wonder if the lack of a picture or diagram of our current knowledge of evolution was intentional so as to not draw too much attention (and ire) from religious fundamentalists?

    i hope i’ve been helpful. if you have any other questions or comments, feel free to let me know.

  7. #7 Bob O'H
    April 15, 2008

    …since the earlier works are almost 30 years old, would they be out of date, have errors, etc.?

    Life on Earth is amusing for this reason. When David Attenborough is discussing the Cambrian Explosion and it talking about all the strange forms of life. He’s holding a picture of Hallucegenia. because of the more recent work, I now feel obliged to shout “Turn it over!” at the screen whenever I see it.

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