The Modern Bestiary – Joanna Bagniewska

Illustrations – Jennifer N.R. Smith

Animals that breathe through their skin. Animals who live in the bums of other animals. Animals having sex. Lots of sex. Animal genitalia. Flying fish. Flying snakes. Animals making other animals into zombies. It’s all here.

Written by a zoologist, this book introduces you to 100 animals of the earth, water and air. With two pages allocated to each animal, this was a quick but interesting read. Some entries were funny while others were cringeworthy. I couldn’t help but think that we have a lot to learn from the way that some animals take care of one another. And we should avoid behaving like others at all costs.

I tend to collect fun facts wherever I go and this book is absolutely filled with them. Here are some of my new favourites.

When researchers from the University of Chicago tested brown rats’ empathy by giving them a choice of freeing one of their mates from a cage or opening a container that contained chocolate chips, they freed their mate. Then they both proceeded to share the chocolate chips.

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When they’re threatened, stick insects “can generate a chemical secretion from their mouthparts” that smells like toffee.

Goo-eaters is a legitimate technical term used by herpetologists for animals that “feed on all things slimy: snails, slugs, worms and occasionally amphibian eggs.”

Sacoglossan sea slugs can self-amputate their heads. And survive.

In the self-beheading process, the slug severs off around 80-85 per cent of its body weight, including the heart and other organs, along a neat ‘neckline’ – and the head wanders off on its own. The body is still alive for a few weeks, or even months, and the heart beats, more and more faintly, up to the point of decomposition. The head, however, starts a new, solo life, and proceeds to grow a fresh body, in an act of extreme regeneration. The new bod is ready in under three weeks, complete with heart and all.

If a female moorland hawker dragonfly isn’t keen on a male suitor, she’ll fake her own death, crashing to the ground and remaining motionless until he leaves.

After making the incision, vampire bats lap up the trickling blood using their specialised grooved tongues; clotting is prevented by anticoagulants in their saliva. The name of that anticoagulant? Draculin. Yes, scientists are geeks.

Jennifer N.R. Smith’s illustrations are incredible!

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At the time of writing, there are over 1.4 million described animal species indexed in the Catalogue of Life, an online database sourcing information from peer-reviewed, scientifically sound sources. This number, though impressive in absolute terms, is still rather modest compared to what we don’t know: estimates for the total number of species on Earth range from 8 million to 163 million. Out of the catalogued species, the vast majority are arthropods (1.1 million species) and, within those, insects (over 950,000). The vertebrates comprise barely 5 per cent of all described animals, and the most charismatic taxa – birds and mammals – a measly 0.7 and 0.4 per cent, respectively.

This book covers one hundred species so there are a potential 14,000 sequels on the way. I’m hoping for at least one.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

From the familiar to the improbable, the gross to the endearing, The Modern Bestiary is a compendium of curious creatures. It includes both animals that have made headlines and those you’ve probably never heard of, such as skin-eating caecilians, harp sponges, or zombie worms – also known as bone-eating snot flowers.

Arranged by elements (Earth, Water, Air), The Modern Bestiary contains well-known species told from new, unexpected angles (rats that drive cars; fish that communicate by passing wind), as well as stranger and lesser-known creatures, including carnivorous mice that howl at the moon, cross-dressing cuttlefish, and antechinuses – small marsupials that literally mate themselves to death. Finally, there are the ‘aliens on Earth’ – the incredible, the surreal, the magical – such as tardigrades, tongue-eating lice and immortal jellyfish, creatures so astonishing that they make unicorns look rather commonplace.

Written by a zoologist with a flair for storytelling, this is a fascinating celebration of the animal kingdom.

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