Strange Survivors: How Organisms Attack and Defend in the Game of Life by Oné R. Pagán

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Published by Benbella Books

4 stars

Synopsis:

Life is beautiful, ruthless, and very, very strange.

In the evolutionary arms race that has raged on since life began, organisms have developed an endless variety of survival strategies. From sharp claws to brute strength, camouflage to venom–all these tools and abilities share one purpose: to keep their bearer alive long enough to reproduce, helping the species avoid extinction. Every living thing on this planet has developed a time-tested arsenal of weapons and defenses. Some of these weapons and defenses, however, are decidedly more unusual than others.

In Strange Survivors, biologist One R. Pagan takes us on a tour of the improbable, the ingenious, and the just plain bizarre ways that creatures fight for life.

Inside this funny, fascinating field guide to nature’s most colorful characters, you’ll meet killer snails, social bacteria, and an animal with toxic elbows. But Strange Survivors is more than a collection of curiosities–it is a love letter to science and an argument for the continuing relevance of this evolutionary battle as we face the threat of resistant bacteria and the need for novel medical therapies. Whether discussing blood-thinning bats and electric fish or pondering the power of cooperation, Pagan reveals the surprising lessons found in some of life’s natural oddities and how the tactics they employ to live might aid our own survival.


This book wasn’t quite what I was expecting, though I’m by no means disappointed. I was expecting a book chock full of anecdotes and examples of animals with weird and wonderful survival techniques but this book focused more on the bigger picture of evolution and animal survival tactics. A lot of these concepts are already familiar to me but the author manages to be so entertaining that it doesn’t feel too much like a repetition.

Pagan’s enthusiasm for all things biological is contagious – he gets giddy about the intricacies of evolution and throws in subtle puns wherever and whenever possible. I would classify this book as the perfect read for a high school biology student, it reinforces all the science I remember having to memorise for exams as well as putting the information into context and actually making it fun to read (if only this book had been around when I was still in sixth form!).

Apart from the broad strokes of evolution and the science of survival, there are some real life examples which was what I was hoping for when picking up this book – electric eels, mantis shrimp, toxic snails and… AND…. did anyone else know that slow lorises were venomous and have caused human fatalities?!

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I can’t imagine that this is a nugget of wisdom I would have forgotten if I’d learnt it before, but when I started raving about this fact on social media after I discovered it, it appears that people either already knew or unequivocally didn’t give a shit, which goes to show that humans are a deeply flawed species.

The generous use of citations and footnotes in this book are going to be an excellent introduction for science undergrads of the future! If you want to learn about the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of survival strategies, as well as the ‘what’, this is the perfect choice.

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