'Ocean' awash with thrilling facts, photos
WHEN I got home from Australia this week, I used jet lag as an excuse to spend some couch time with my Christmas gift book, "Ocean," by international publisher DK.
The American Museum of Natural History gathered an impressive list of contributors to write, illustrate and shoot photos for this big, gorgeous book, making it far more than a pretty face.
Although it is beautiful to behold, what I love about this book is that it's a reference for those of us who want reliable facts but don't want to read a Ph.D. thesis on the topic. Plus, it's got unusual sidebars that add to the fun of learning new things.
Take barnacles, one of my favorite marine invertebrates. Although I wish they didn't keep trying to set up housekeeping on the hull of my sailboat, I admire these little crustaceans. They aren't, however, all so little. Acorn barnacles are about a half-inch wide, but on South America's west coast, another species grows 9 inches tall and 3 inches wide. I use one of these shells as a vase in my kitchen.
Barnacles start out life as free-swimming larvae with a super-sense that can locate other barnacle communities. If the baby barnacle makes no contacts, it finds a suitable place to start its own colony. There, the creature's antennae produce an exceptionally strong cement that glues the barnacle forever to that spot.
Once stuck, the young barnacle grows into the shape of a volcano with moveable plates at the top of the cone. With the plates open, the barnacle can stick out its feathery legs and wave them around to collect passing food. It can also stick out its penis and wave it around to find a nearby female.
This might seem a dodgy way of reproducing when barnacles are anchored securely in one place. But it works because barnacles evolved with both male and female reproductive organs. That way, to breed, any neighbor will do.
When the tide goes out and exposes the barnacle to air, the top plates close tight to keep the barnacle's internal organs from drying out.
Most of these scientific facts, and a few fine pictures of barnacles, I read in my new book. But something of social interest is also there in a sidebar about Charles Darwin (1809-1882).
Knowing the uproar his yet-unpublished theory of evolution would cause in science and religion, the young Darwin spent eight years studying barnacles. His four papers on barnacle biology earned him a Royal Medal from the Royal Society in 1853. This gave Darwin credibility as a biologist, and six years later, in 1859, he published "The Origin of Species."
Barnacles, therefore, put Darwin on the biological map, and in that way these humble crustaceans helped launch one of the greatest scientific revolutions in history.
That little piece of information made my day.
My lovely new book already has sticky notes poking from its pages, and will soon be as dogeared as its companion, "Animal," compiled by the Smithsonian Institution and also published by DK.
But that's OK. Good biology books are supposed to work hard.
Next time I decide to spend some sofa time with "Ocean," I'll need no excuse. Thank you, Craig, for this fine gift.