Strange Survivors: How Organisms Attack and Defend in the Game of Life by Oné R. Pagán
Oné R. Pagán is a university biology professor and a blogger, and both sides come out in this entertainingly informative look at the various ways life tries to, well, stay alive (i.e. not get eaten). As he says in the introduction to Strange Survivors: How Organisms Attack and Defend in the Game of Life (2018), he “wrote this book with the semi-mythical ‘interested layperson’ in mind … [so] I will not be excessively technical, but neither will I be patronizing … I’ve tried to write as if we were having a conversation over coffee.” Thus, like most writers of popular science, Pagán is aiming at that sweet spot where he doesn’t lose his reader to jargon or overly-abstruse concepts or talk to his readers as if they struggled to complete elementary school. And for the most part he hits it, though at times he’s a bit too folksy for me in some of his direct addresses, and I wouldn’t have minded a little more technical science here and there. There’s also a bit of a blog-ish feel to the organization, which can at times be a bit disjointed. But overall Strange Survivors is a concise and interesting book that holds one’s attention while revealing in enthusiastic fashion the wonder of the world around us.
The early parts of the book (chapters one and two) are the most difficult and dense in terms of hard science, though Pagán is a good, clear guide as he leads the reader through the basics of evolution, DNA, phenotypes and genotypes, gene expression, amino acids and proteins, ATP, metabolism, and programmed cell death.
Chapter Three offers up a brief introductory segment on how electricity works, then moves into its usage in the animal world via the electric catfish, electric rays, and of course, the electric eel (noting it is, in fact, a knifefish and not an eel). Pagán roves pretty widely in time interesting fashion, noting Egyptian art depicting electric creatures, Arabic and Roman texts explaining their medical uses, Alexander Von Humboldt’s 1800’s encounter with South Americans “fishing with horses” for electric eels, Darwin’s later confusion over the evolutionary benefits of weakly electric fish, and 20th century experiments into bioelectricity. All of this is woven into a concise but detailed explanation of how bioelectricity works, the organs that create the force, and the ways in which various creatures benefit from it, including one benefit wholly unfamiliar to me — regeneration. This leads into one of the more fascinating, if at times grisly, description of those lucky animals that can regrow limbs, eyes, “and in a pinch, even parts of the very hearts and brains.” And that’s not even getting into the sponges and hydrae, who can apparently have their cells “completely disassociated … then pass [ed] through a mesh” and still reform entirely new sponges and hydrae. Planarians (flatworms) aren’t quite that good, but despite having a brain (albeit a truly tiny one), that can be cut into a piece “smaller than a grain of salt” and still “regenerate into a whole organism.”
Chapter Four looks at the topic of venom across the animal kingdom and as far back as the time of the dinosaurs, looking into some still-controversial theories that at least some dinosaurs, based on somewhat-open-to-interpretation fossil evidence, may have been venomous. After a bit of a digression into the dinosaurs, Pagán distinguishes for the reader amongst poisons, toxins, and venoms and explaining some of the effects and mechanisms of delivery. He then goes into more detail regarding poisonous amphibians such as dart/arrow frogs and some newts. There’s bit of a diversion into the great toxic oxygen event of several billion years ago, then we return to more specific animal examples, first involving arthropods (including a great example of a scorpion that stings with a weaker “warning shot” venom first and then a deadly follow-up for the predator too stupid to back off). Leeches are a surprising inclusion, as most don’t think of them as “venomous,” though they do use it to hide what they’re doing by masking the pain or preventing a sudden noticeable inflammation as they feed. Here again we rove back in time, looking at leeches used for medical purposes (Pagán notes they’re still used today, one of two animals designated as “medical device” by the FDA). Birds are also a bit of a surprise entry. Other animals discussed include shrews, platypuses, bats, corals, and the loris with its oddly placed venom glans (near the elbows — they have to lick them to mix it into their saliva before biting).
Strange Survivors’ Chapter Five deals with speed, beginning with perhaps a somewhat unnecessary digression into planetary spin and other “movements,” before going into the ways jellyfish and similar organisms use fast-working nematocysts (or cnidocysts) to sting their prey, an action that takes on average only seven nanoseconds (roughly half a million firings per human eyeblink). Then we get to mantis shrimp whose punches are so incredibly fast they create a pulverizing shock wave that allows them to smash through the hard outer shells of their snails and crabs. In another one of those fascinating but slightly odd spins down another road, Pagán goes into a discussion here of color vision, the way rods and cones work, and then how mantis shrimp “have possibly the highest number of photoreceptor types of any organism even studied.” After this momentary sidetrack, we turn to a creature that Pagán says is “very close to my heart” — the cone snail, one species of which is so venomous it kills 70 percent of people who go untreated. Spiders and velvet worms round out the chapter, with excursions to the Cambrian Explosion, water bears, and a few other side topics.
The closing section deals with “the very best survival tactic of them all” — cooperation. Examples in the biological world include forms of symbiosis, such as cleaner fish (including some whose hosts — moray eels — apparently aren’t quite as trustworthy as is typical in such relationships), bacterial cooperation in the form of slimes, biofilms, and an explanation of the endosymbiont theory of how eukaryotes (multi-celled) organisms arose. Stepping up into larger, more complex creatures, we also get the “poster kids” of superorganisms: ants, termites, bees, and wasps. One example of cooperation offered here is how hundreds of Japanese bees will sacrifice themselves to save the hive by forming a “bee ball” around invading hornets (many times their size) to kill them via heat and carbon dioxide poisoning. Pagán closes with a brief discussion of human cooperation.
Anyone still interested in the topic shouldn’t skip the postscript or notes sections, where Pagán continues to offer up more interesting tidbits, as well as pointing readers to other sources of information.
As noted, sometimes the organization is a little choppy, and at times he’s more informal than I would have preferred, but Pagán’s enthusiasm and sense of wonder are evident throughout Strange Survivors and are highly contagious. Recommended.