Book Review: Zombie Tits, Astronaut Fish, and Other Weird Animals, by Becky Crew

January 27, 2013

zombie tits cover

Back at the end of November I learned about the existence of Becky Crew’s new book. At the time it was not available stateside, but I wrote to Becky and asked for a review copy, and she kindly had her press guy send me one. I am finally getting my review posted, and none to soon–Andy Farke got his copy from Amazon last week. You can get the book here: Amazon, Amazon.co.uk (temporarily out of stock as of this writing), New South Books.

Full disclosure: I am friends with Becky, and an admirer of her previous work (details in this post). You can decide for yourself whether my review is thereby compromised.

The book lives up to its title. There is a lot of weird stuff in here–I mean really damn weird. Most of the entries practically beg to be read aloud to an astounded audience. I kept pestering Vicki with snippets from the book until she said, with a look of profound disgust, “I no longer approve of evolution. Animals are just too gross.” Some of it, like mind-controlling flukes and 42-cm duck penises, will be familiar to many web-savvy folks interested in animals. But most of it was new to me, and will probably be new to you as well. Five of the fifty essays in the book are recycled from blog posts, but the other 90% is new material.

Each essay is three to five pages long and centers around one animal and its weirdness (or, very occasionally, two animals who share some related weirdness). Some of the weirdness is anatomical, some of it is behavioral, some of it is so weird it defies easy categorization. Helpfully, below the title of each essay is a subtitle that gives both the popular and scientific names of the subject critters (except a handful of weirdoes, either extinct or newly discovered, that have no popular names). About a fourth of the entries have an illustration of the featured critter.

Now, the book is not just a freak show of “hey, look, monkeys pee on themselves to get dates, isn’t that weird?” In every case, Becky explains why the animals do these weird things, according to our best current understanding. So the weirdness of each animal becomes a window into some other realm of science, whether it’s the physiology of neurotoxins, the ecology of estuaries, the antimicrobial properties of bat saliva, or how the geomorphology of the Guiana Highlands has influenced the escape behavior of frogs.

In these explanations, Becky cites relevant peer-reviewed research, much of it recent but some of it old, for historical background. She quotes from a 1922 paper on anglerfish, and two of the chapters are devoted to marine worms that were only discovered in 2006 and 2009. I count 114 books and papers and 27 websites in the bibliography, which is helpfully broken down by section and has the publications and websites segregated within each section.

There’s a lot of meat on these bones: in addition to literature citations, almost every essay includes direct quotes from the scientists involved in the studies. I don’t know how many of the quotes came from press-releases–certainly not all, since the former outnumber the latter by a wide margin–and how many come from Becky getting in touch with the scientists directly. Based on both the informality of the quotes and Becky’s extensive chops as a science journalist, I suspect most of the quotes are the results of her own hard work of finding these people and getting them to talk.

And that’s one of the meta-impressions I got from the book: the sheer amount of work that went into writing it. Now, I pride myself on knowing a lot of weird stuff, on keeping up with at least the broad strokes of zoological research, and on citing a decent breadth of literature in my work. But Becky blows me away on all three axes. Put simply, I have no friggin’ idea how she finds all of this stuff. In the same way that I learn about a lot of weird stuff from Darren, I can’t help but wonder if there’s an even-better-informed, reclusive super-Becky who passes Actual Becky tips on altruistic behavior in chocaholic rats, the development of marine pigbutt worms, and so on.

Okay, so who’s in the book? Here’s my very approximate, non-phylogenetic breakdown. The total adds up to 50, because some of the pieces feature more than one critter. I think the coverage is pretty even for a popular zoology book–there’s certainly no hint that Becky skewed toward charismatic megafauna.

EXTANT
Insects: 7
Spiders: 5
Other invertebrates: 8
Fish (i.e., non-tetrapod vertebrates): 6
Herps: 6
Birds: 4
Mammals: 9

EXTINCT
Non-avian dinos: 5
Paleomammals: 2

Now, it’s not science all the time. As you might expect from the title, one of the hallmarks of Becky’s writing has always been her irreverent approach to her subjects. Like a sort of Miss Manners meets Dr. Ruth, Becky is prone to imagining the social lives of her animals–by which I mean, job interviews, failed dates, and awkward family get-togethers–and giving them advice. In what I’m calling the ‘informal segments’, the colossal squid is a peeping tom, Microraptor is a stripper, the naked mole rat is a Bond villain, and the male deep-sea anglerfish is a troubled teenager trying to find the whereabouts of his father. From anglerfish’s diary: “Learnt about the whole morphing-into-genitals thing in sex ed class today. Contemplating becoming a warlock whatever the male version of a nun is.” Becky’s animals text each other, suffer hangovers, blow off their friends to watch Downton Abbey, and complain about Selena Gomez. Some of the pop culture references may not age well, but I reckon by the time they’re out of date, Becky will have written another book.

The informal segments vary in length, with some critters just getting a couple of lines and others getting a page or two. They’re always clearly set off from the rest of the essay, so if they do nothing for you, they’re easy enough to skip over. Me, I think they’re hilarious, and I laughed a lot while reading the book. After digesting something technical on, say, neuroanatomy, it’s nice to laugh at the gulf pipefish getting hit on by bar skanks.

Other strong points:

- Becky is always alert to the uncertainty inherent in science, the potential for disagreements and for our current understanding to be revised in the light of new data. Reading the book, you definitely get the impression that zoology is a human enterprise, that “current knowledge” is the membrane of a human-generated bubble of understanding in an ocean of Unknown Weird. Inside the bubble, there is the curiosity, ingenuity, and sheer tenacity of zoologists, always pushing outward, building on the work of others, trying to find new things and make sense of what they find. On the other side, the uncaring universe, which pushes back in myriad ways. Animals live in environments that are fantastically inhospitable to humans, including the humans who are trying to learn about those animals. They exhibit inexplicable behaviors and their motivations and ways of life are often perversely opaque to human understanding. They are not here for us. But we can understand them anyway, if we’re clever, hard-working, and lucky.

- Becky is equally alert to the possibility inherent in science, that there are always more surprises waiting for us out there, more facts to discover and more explanations to figure out. The overall tone of the book is happy and optimistic. It’s clear that Becky loves learning about weird animals and loves telling others about them almost as much–which, of course, are among the primary joys of science.

Any cons? A few, none major. I caught a couple of typos, but only a couple, which IME is about par for a book of this length (260 pp). There were one or two bits of what I assume is Australian slang in the informal segments, but I figured them out from context and they didn’t interfere with my enjoyment at all. There are one or two points where phylogenetic terms are either misunderstood or at least oddly applied–for example, Ruminantia is not “an ancient family of ruminants”, but a huge clade encompassing many ‘families’ of extant ruminants and their fossil relatives. But again, there were only a couple such instances and neither counts for much.

There is some profanity in the book. I counted about half a dozen f-bombs, and a few other cuss words. At first I thought that was a poor decision, because it would keep me from recommending the book to, say, a precocious 12-year-old. But that’s because I was still in the first section, on predators. Once I got to the section on mating habits, I realized that I wouldn’t be recommending this book to kids anyway, what with all the forcible intercourse, extra-species sex, penis-drumming, and animals living in other animals’ buttholes. It’s all real stuff, and it’s all really interesting, and I don’t believe that this sort of material should be off-limits forever. But I also don’t think that preteens have any pressing need to learn about enthusiastic bat fellatio. Your parental control mileage may vary.

If you’re not sure if the book is for you, or you’d like a test drive, you can head over to Becky’s blog (current, classic) and check out her writing for free. It will give a pretty good sense of what you’re in for, although I got the impression that Becky was really swinging for the fences in the book–the writing’s a little tighter and the whole thing is just a bit more polished than her average blog entry.

Verdict: I loved it. Go get a copy for yourself or the (grown-up) animal lover in your life.

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8 Responses to “Book Review: Zombie Tits, Astronaut Fish, and Other Weird Animals, by Becky Crew”


  1. I am reading the book right now, and I am having a great time. It is awesome and I totally agree with you. I have not detected typos – perhaps you got galleys? And of course, as soon as it was possible, I just had to ask Bec to join the SciAmBlogs network!

  2. Matt Wedel Says:

    Hi Bora, glad you’re enjoying the book. I don’t think I have a galley–it looks like the real deal, from New South. But I mean, seriously, only 1 or 2 typos in the entire book. Somewhere there is a were that should have been a we’re, and I think–but would not swear–that there is one other someplace. But they are so few and so minor that I feel bad even bringing them up. Hell, I had more typos in the first version of this post, which is about 1% as long. I only mentioned it so some jerk can’t say later that I gave Becky a softball review just because we’re friends.


  3. Ha, LOL! Easy to miss a typo when one is engrossed in reading ;-)


  4. This sounds most intriguing! I’ll have to go have a look.

  5. Donata Says:

    I’m now curious and really want to read this book!


  6. hrmph! I want this book, but right now we’re cash strapped thanks to a Polish lorry driver….. aargh!


  7. [...] imaginary interlude was brought to you by Becky Crew’s habit of putting words in animals’ mouths, and by Mike’s proposed moratorium on “place-saurus” names, and by the number [...]


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