Nov 5, 2018

Frontiers of Life

Animals of Mountains and Poles

It's cold weather, so I liked reading a book about cold places. Found this at a thrift shop, it's two books published in one volume. The foreword by David Attenborough features his picture- let me tell you, it's quite something to see a photo of him as a younger man.

Polar Life
by Joseph Lucas and Susan Hayes

The first half of the book was pretty interesting to me. It describes in detail the opposite regions of the poles, and I learned a lot about how life hangs on in such cold, arid climates. While the northern Arctic is rich in wildlife and plant species, the Antarctic is all the more remarkable that anything lives and thrives there. Not just penguins- fishes, whales, a few lichens, seabirds. The book describes the habitat in detail, the oceanic currents, how the weather affects everything, where living things are distributed, and a bit of how they survive such rigorous habitat. I didn't realize before (perhaps silly of me) that icebergs are shaped very differently on either end of the earth- flat thick sheets of ice or chunks- and why. Particularities about the land formation kept coming up - how the Arctic is frozen ocean surrounded by land masses, while the Antarctic is one land mass surrounded by oceans- separating it widely from any species that would try to colonize it. Would I had read this book before Rockbound- it's got a brief description of 'Mother Carey's chickens' or the storm petrel- complete with a photograph. Sadly, I couldn't help thinking through much of this, how drastically the Arctic and Antarctic regions are changing today- descriptions of polar ice sheets and impervious nature of permafrost- no longer so. It also really dates itself by mentioning here and there how much was unknown at the time of printing: what certain animals ate, how exactly whales and seals evolved from land mammals, etc. Even so, it was a more engaging read than the second half:

Mountain Life
by Bernard Stonehouse

This part of the book is, of course, about mountain ranges across the planet, how they are formed and what lives on them. I was expecting some interesting facts about how wildlife (and plants) are adapted to life in cold, high-altitude regions, but the details were rather lacking. There is a lot about rock formations and how the land masses collided during the past to form the various mountains. Maps show the features discussed in the book- where the ranges cross continents. Comparisons between the places, especially showing how animals in some ranges are related to those in others, proving their divergence from what used to be one land mass. I feel like it was the writing style that made me feel disengaged, here- it seemed more to be a listing of plant and animal species for each area and habitat range, without much description on how they live. I did find some details interesting: all those stunted, twisted-looking trees you see bent under winds are not small and weak but surprisingly long-lived and strong, very tenacious.

Overall, the reading started out interesting and I ended up skimming a lot just to finish. Noted a lot of species names to look up online- animals and plants I'd never heard of before. The photographs are fairly grainy and often poor in focus. Kinda worth skipping.

Rating: 2/5               288 pages, 1976

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