Worldwide wayfaring, the human cost of the big thaw, and marine die-offs: Books in brief

Barbara Kiser reviews five of the week’s best science picks.

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Cover of Incredible Journeys

Incredible Journeys

David Barrie Hodder and Stoughton (2019)

How does the blind Mexican cave fish (Astyanax mexicanus) navigate convoluted pools, or the tiny blackpoll warbler (Setophaga striata) fly non-stop for 2,770 kilometres over open ocean? In this exhilarating popular study, David Barrie reveals the roots of navigational prowess — such as the adapted eye and biological clock of the desert ant Cataglyphis, which function as a compass oriented to the Sun, or the myriad species that use olfaction, Earth’s magnetism, sonar or cognitive mapping to find their way. The navigational nous of humans from astronauts to Indigenous peoples gets a look-in, too.

Cover of Vanishing Ice

Vanishing Ice

Vivien Gornitz Columbia University Press (2019)

Whether it’s shrinking ice shelves in Antarctica or Greenland’s destabilizing ice sheet, the cryosphere is in flux, and this solid scientific primer by geologist Vivien Gornitz examines the human costs. In the context of deep time, she explores dwindling glaciers, thawing permafrost and other shifts that are leading to buckled land, diminished water supplies, serious sea-level rise and other impacts that, together with fiercer hurricanes, pose an existential threat that must be fought with decarbonization and innovative adaptation. A cogent analysis of this systemic, human-driven catastrophe.

Cover of Ocean Outbreak

Ocean Outbreak

Drew Harvell University of California Press (2019)

Abalone, corals, salmon and starfish: populations of these four marine animals are under siege from disease. The culprit, notes ecologist Drew Harvell in her succinct summation of two decades of research, is us — specifically, a confluence of ocean warming and acidification, dredging, oil extraction, overfishing and pollution. Harvell vividly recounts her work at the front line, studying die-offs such as the past decade’s catastrophic starfish crash. Yet she is hopeful, noting that policy change, with techniques such as plant biofiltration and phage therapy, could still turn this malign tide.

Cover of Dinosaurs Rediscovered

Dinosaurs Rediscovered

Michael J. Benton Thames & Hudson (2019)

Palaeobiology is a field on fire with discoveries, such as China’s panoply of feathered dinosaurs and the titanic sauropod fossils recently excavated in Patagonia. With advances in technology, that upheaval has transformed the discipline from natural history to testable science. In this illustrated update of dinosaur behaviour, cognition and locomotion, palaeontologist Michael Benton shows how technologies such as scanning electron microscopy reveal feather colour; 3D computer models indicate bone properties; and computation helps to build (and fell) evolutionary ‘trees’.

Cover of Eating the Sun

Eating the Sun

Ella Frances Sanders Penguin (2019)

With this pairing of witty illustrations and an open-weave narrative — strong on science but just this side of poetry — Ella Frances Sanders has penned a pocket-sized book vast in ambition. She distils phenomena, laws and principles, from heat, light and Earth’s gravitational pull on the Moon to Eigengrau, the greyness seen in perfect darkness. You find yourself constantly reframed (say, as stardust, the “remnants of burning giants”), and see the Universe unpeeled to reveal the dance steps of electrons, the three hearts of a squid or the joys of noctilucent clouds.

Nature 568, 167 (2019)

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