Monday, September 30, 2013

W39: Earth’s Bug-Eyed Monsters

After a run of dense scientific works, the Biblio-Mat sent a (most probably temporary) reprieve with an interesting biology piece that stared at me from the machine as much as I stared at it.

Either sepia tone or sun fading.
Earth’s Bug-Eyed Monsters by Alice L. Hopf was 129 pages on animals that were seen as freaks of nature, even by nature’s standards. A solid hardcover with a sepia toned dustjacket, it appeared at first glance to be a 60’s/70’s book, which was the right assumption as it was published in 1968. Interestingly enough, although the pages were printed on high quality thick stock, all the photos were in black and white, which was a shame as the subject matter would lend itself well to colour.

The cover of the book was interesting as it presented a variety of different animals as these bug-eyed monsters. While half of them, like praying mantises and chameleons, could be classified as such, I think people are familiar enough with octopi and ostriches to consider them too mundane for the designation. Bug-eyed was also not completely suitable to describe crabs as their ocular organs are merely on a stalk. With this in mind, I was skeptical of the potential false advertising of the title.

Monster or misunderstood?
The introduction to Earth’s Bug-Eyed Monsters explained why the subject held fascination with so many people as it merges the familiar with the unknown. In what would become a running theme in the book, Hopf states that sci-fi writers take their inspirations for otherworldly beings from exaggerated perceptions of the creatures of our own planet, which makes a lot of sense when you think of Cthulhu as a giant squid and the aliens from Alien as large bugs.

The first chapter covered the octopus and was actually quite amazing in the sheer amount of information given on the cephalopod in the span of a few pages. Diet, predators, prey, mating habits, history, and psychology of the animal were all covered, along with an exploration of a few of the different subspecies. Although some of the information may have been a bit outdated, ex: there’s about 300 species that we know of today while the book puts the number at 150, the details were presented in such a way that they still held fascination even in today’s world. The chapter ended on an anecdote of people tying octopi to ropes and lowering them down into the water to salvage porcelain bowls from a shipwreck off the coast of Japan which is both absurd and brilliant.

I'm imagining this, with a live octopus as a claw.
The following chapters were less entertaining, mainly as they were much shorter, clocking in at four to five pages versus the fourteen on the octopus. The chapter on the Portuguese man-of-war was a bit of stretch as though it could potentially fit a loose definition of ‘monster’, it can’t be bug-eyed for the simple fact that it has no eyes. It did present a relatively useless but interesting fact, though, on how the treatments for jellyfish stings in the 60’s were simple doses of morphine and not the solution proposed by Friends.

Innocence lost.
The section on the crab reaffirmed my suspicion of the sensational false advertising of the book title as the chapter was called ‘The Stalk-Eyed Monster’ – clearly not bug-eyed. While volumes could be written on the subject of crabs, the book decided to narrow its focus to the land crabs of Miami, which was specific enough to cover in depth but eschewed cooking methods.

Following this were two more eyeless creatures – the sea anemone and pitcher plant, which were low for shock value as neither really looks menacing since static creatures make poor monsters. The book then turned its supposed bug eye on actual bugs, covering leaf hoppers, tarantulas, and praying mantises in disturbingly fascinated ways, going as far as recommending keeping praying mantises as pets. The sections on wasps and dragonflies that came after, though, were quite mundane as Hopf doesn’t go into much detail beyond what anyone who has seen one would already know – they fly and they bite.

Adorable as far as creatures of hell are concerned.
Chameleon and Moloch lizards came next, which I would say were the closest animals in the book that I would classify as bug-eyed monsters as neither looks cute nor cuddly and would most likely cause me to burn my house down should I find one inside. The chapters on Komodo dragons and Gila monsters seem to pale in comparison as they look like actual lizards instead of the stuff of nightmares.

Step on it... oh wait.
The later chapters seemed unfair in grouping in ostriches, road runners, and giraffes in with the previous animals as by comparison, they were pretty far removed from the grotesque and danger of the things that prey on fear. The book even describes giraffes as gentle animals that tolerate other beasts, which makes one wonder what they’re even doing in this book. The bats and tarsiers that close up the text, though, will probably keep me up for a while.

Ladies...
While Earth’s Bug-Eyed Monsters was enjoyable, the title was ridiculously misleading as more than half the creatures covered don’t fit into the category. Most disappointingly, though, was that each chapter only had one photo of the animal it was covering and in the case of the six headlining creatures, it was the same photo used on the cover.


Book rating: 7.5/10 (Could use more visual aids)

Random quote: “But all egg cases harden into tough shelters that will protect the eggs in the coldest winter until spring comes and once more a swarm of little mantises burst forth to fill the insect world with some of the most extraordinary creatures that nature has evolved.” (Yep, definitely chestburster material)

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