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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Here Be Dragons: How the Study of Animal and Plant Distributions Revolutionized Our Views of Life and Earth

Here Be Dragons: How the Study of Animal and Plant Distributions Revolutionized Our Views of Life and Earth

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Dennis McCarthy

  "McCarthy writes engagingly and generally with an admirable clarity.Here Be Dragonsoffers an entertaining airplane read. It provides a quick but enthusiastic summary of the fascinating field of biogeography, and it leaves us wanting more. … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: Dennis McCarthy
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
1 review about Here Be Dragons: How the Study of Animal...

How the changing planet shapes life

  • Jan 11, 2010
Rating:
+5
First-time author McCarthy infuses his account of life on earth with a sense of wonder and excitement. In succinct, colorful prose he invites the reader to marvel at the intricacy, implacability and exquisite beauty of biogeography.

I know - it doesn't sound like a riveting word. But the world's biogeography is rife with catastrophe and opportunity. Continents split and drift, volcanoes erupt, and whole species triumph or perish in consequence. The science of biogeography studies the intersection of evolution and geography or, more specifically, how geography drives evolution.

An admirer of the work of Jared Diamond, particularly Guns, Germs and Steel, McCarthy, a scientific researcher with the Buffalo Museum of Science, takes a similar big picture/small picture perspective, using the physical peculiarities of ocean vent worms, for instance, to illustrate island type isolation on the sea floor or the loud vocalizations of Howler monkeys and parrots to illustrate adaptation to the isolating density of rain forests.

It was biogeography - the unique island-bound species of the Galapagos - that spurred Darwin to shape his theory of evolution. McCarthy opens the book with Darwin's "Galapagan Epiphany," his realization that these creatures, which did not exist on the mainland, could only have originated on the mainland.

Remote oceanic island habitats, like Hawaii or Easter Island, most obviously illustrate how geographical pressures shape species. To begin with, "none of the natives have four legs." That leaves out a lot of predators. And the food available is limited. Tough seeds, for instance, favor birds with tough beaks. Eventually all those seedeaters have tough beaks.

Studying species can also illuminate geological history. DNA studies of Galapagos iguanas showed that the species, which exist only in the Galapagos, are older than the Galapagos, an impossible fact. For this to be so, there had to be older islands, now gone. "Traces of their now-sunken island homes are implicated in the iguana DNA." The Galapagos, like other "hot spot" volcanic archipelagos (Including Hawaii) are continually on the move, older ones sinking as new islands emerge. Only those species that can escape their drowning islands survive.

Most fascinating is McCarthy's portrayal of continental break-up in the southern hemisphere: "The Volcanic Ring that Changed the World."

"If I had to point to a single geological feature of the Earth that had the greatest biogeographical consequences on the post-dinosaur world, that is, on our entire global ecosystem as encountered today, I would choose the chain of seafloor spreading ridges that presently encircles Antarctica."

These are cracks in the earth that mark divergent boundaries between tectonic plates. Hot magma bubbles up and pushes the plates away from each other.

Approximately 40 million years ago Antarctica "was a thriving, temperate forested ecosystem - even though it was pretty much in the same place where it is now." It abounded with birds, hoofed mammals, sloths and marsupials. Year-round ice was rare anywhere on earth. But the volcanic seafloor was breaking up the mega-continent and pushing Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar and South America away from Antarctica.

This separation explains how such distant lands have so many related species, (with such interesting evolutionary divergences), and it also goes some way to explaining the extreme climate change these lands - particularly Antarctica, endured.

When the last big piece - Australia - separated, a new ocean current system came into being, decreasing the flow of warm water around Antarctica.

"And that was when the glaciers started to come."

McCarthy follows specific species, telescoping their development and divergence. Antarctica became a land of death; penguins the (almost) sole adaptors.

Some creatures found island niches where, protected from predators, they thrived. South America was one such happy habitat, until the Isthmus of Panama erupted from beneath the waves, allowing an invasion from the north. Since there had been continual land contact between the Eurasian and North American continents, evolution had been spurred by ferocious competition - a lot of predators.

McCarthy also delves into the oceans, showing how currents and depth, light and temperature, present barriers to sea dwellers, much like mountains, rivers or oceans do to land dwellers.

He concludes with a chapter on homo sapiens - the reasons for our evolution as one species, the advantages we possess that allow us to adapt to every corner of the earth, the geographical features that have given rise to differences in skin color, language and culture.

The book abounds with fascinating creatures, their characteristics traced through the inevitable, astonishing precision of evolution. He imbues his subject with an infectious sense of drama, tragedy and beauty - an approach that arises naturally from an author whose next book centers on Shakespeare.

This is a fascinating, accessible work which offers a new, more complete perspective on the world we live in. McCarthy packs a tremendous amount in 200 pages but his writing skill is such that the reader never feels overwhelmed and turns each page with as much entertainment as enlightenment.

Chapter notes are especially helpful to those inspired to read further. Fans of Jared Diamond or Richard Dawkins will be fans of the eloquent Dennis McCarthy.

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