Getting to know shrews...
August 24, 2013 11:18 AM   Subscribe

Gray wolves mate for life, honeybees know the world is round and ducks have corkscrew penises. Tell me more! I'm looking for thoughtful and fascinating introductions to the features, behaviors and "character" of particular species of animal.

I'm a storyteller who often works with folktales, myths and legends involving animals, and I can't help but notice that many older stories that feature animals or animal-like creatures as characters (such as selkie stories, for instance) demonstrate a much deeper understanding of and connection with animals than I, a modern city-dweller, possess. It's making me feel somewhat cut off from the natural world, and from the human cultures in which these stories originated, in which people lived and worked alongside animals and had much more of a chance to observe them.

I want to get to know species of animals the way we get to know a friend -- not in terms of height, weight, distinguishing features, habitat etc., but in terms of what makes them interesting and unlike any other animal. (I was surprised to read in Guns, Germs and Steel, for example, how profound an effect it had on human civilization that zebras aren't domesticable.) I'm looking for works/resources/activities that will make me feel I really know something vital about a particular species -- gray seals, for instance, or kestrels, or dragonflies. Back in the day, Never Cry Wolf did a really good job of this for the Arctic wolf -- any other suggestions?
posted by stuck on an island to Pets & Animals (17 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
The duck penis fact made me think you've already found zefrank on youtube. If not, then his 'true facts about the X' videos are what you are looking for.
posted by cgg at 11:23 AM on August 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation is hilarious. It's written as a bunch of sex advice columns to animals writing in with sex questions related to their biology.

I'm not sure it'll be as in depth as you're looking for but you could try watching Planet Earth. Certainly more interesting than reading an encylopedia entry.

Sharkwater is a documentary about sharks, partly about how cool sharks are and partly about the shark fin industry. I still think about it five years later.

This radiolab podcast, Animal Minds, about a whale possibly thanking its rescuers is also fascinating.

Here's a CBC Ideas podcast about bees, Dancing in the Dark, which was interesting when the scientists were talking but the journalist was pushing his bees are super intelligent theory a bit too hard.

I don't particularly go out of my way to learn about animals, but those are a few things that have stuck with me.
posted by carolr at 11:36 AM on August 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

Isabella Rossellini w/ the Sundance Channel's Green Porno may be you're looking for. There are many more such, erm "thoughtful and fascinating introductions" to animals on Youtube. My favorite may be the bee. Or perhaps the snail
posted by raztaj at 12:00 PM on August 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

You would be really interested in read The Ancestor's Tale.

The narrative is structured as a pilgrimage, with all modern animals following their own path through history to the origin of life. Humans meet their evolutionary cousins at rendezvous points along the way, the points at which the lineage diverged... This structure is inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 12:12 PM on August 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

The writings of Konrad Lorenz (e.g. King Solomon's Ring) and Gerald Durrell (e.g. A Zoo in my Luggage) contain many fascinating, loving, and often hilarious descriptions of the idiosyncratic habits of various species, observed at first hand.
posted by pont at 12:53 PM on August 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

I have been reading Hannah Holmes' The Well Dressed Ape and enjoying it thoroughly.
posted by theora55 at 1:16 PM on August 24, 2013

For distillations of the character of particular animals, I know of nothing that even approaches some of the nature poetry of Ted Hughes:

To get into life
Mosquito died many deaths.

The slow millstone of polar ice, turned by the galaxy,
Only polished her egg.

Sub-zero, bulging all its mountain-power,
Could not fracture her bubble.

The lake that squeezed her kneeled,
Tightened to granite -- splintering quartz teeth,
But only sharpened her needle.

Till the strain was too much, even for Earth.

The stars drew off, trembling.
The mountains sat back, sweating.


Flew up singing, over the broken waters-
A little haze of wings, a midget sun.
This one originally appeared in Under the North Star, which is devoted almost exclusively to portraits of animals.

To me, they are psalms for the Bible of a great, nature-worshiping religion which never came into being.
posted by jamjam at 1:44 PM on August 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

You might like Bernd Heinrich's books about ravens - Ravens in Winter and Mind of the Raven.
posted by Redstart at 1:48 PM on August 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Jane Goodall's books about chimpanzees and Dian Fossey's book about gorillas are excellent in this regard.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:48 PM on August 24, 2013

Elsewhere on MeFi, the documentary A Murder of Crows, (PBS online) was recommended. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and went on to read The Corvid blog (linked to the tail-pulling post).
posted by spamandkimchi at 2:01 PM on August 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Amen, corvids are amazing. I enjoyed the book "Gifts of the Crow."

Crows have friends, they recognize individual humans, and perhaps even mourn their dead and exchange gifts.
posted by whistle pig at 2:23 PM on August 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was coming in here to recommend Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation, but I see that carolr has already done so. So I will content myself with enthusiastically seconding it - I'm currently reading it for the third time and it's still great.

I also really enjoyed Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures.
posted by darchildre at 2:27 PM on August 24, 2013

Reaktion have an 'Animal' series of books. Each one is about a different creature or group of creatures: whales, rats, wolves, snails, camels and so on.

They're odd, concise little volumes that mix biology, ecology and how the animal in question has appeared in human culture, myth and literature. I've only read the whale book but I get the feeling they aim for breadth of interesting things rather than particularly great depth but they're good pop-science. They might well help you pick out some of the interesting aspects you're looking for.

Here's an amazon link to Owl.
posted by ocular shenanigans at 3:23 PM on August 24, 2013

Animal Lives is a series of short comics about the unique courtship/mating habits of various species.
posted by fermion at 7:23 PM on August 24, 2013

Becoming a Tiger. It's all about animal learning and how smart they are.
posted by lorimt at 9:25 PM on August 24, 2013

Try this book for a great overview on many interesting species of animal (lots of uncommon ones) it's got a lot of really interesting info in it. It's a little old, but not out of date....and so inexpensive used!
posted by PinkPoodle at 4:19 PM on August 25, 2013

I don't seem to be able to insert my link, so here it is on amazon! It's called "of kinkajous, horned beetles, capybaras and seladangs, by Jeanne Hanson:
posted by PinkPoodle at 4:24 PM on August 25, 2013

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