Life in the Undergrowth
by David Attenborough
Princeton University Press,288 pp., $29.95
The Smaller Majority: The Hidden World of the Animals That Dominate the Tropics
by Piotr Naskrecki
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press,278 pp., $35.00
Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect That Shaped the American Frontier
by Jeffrey A. Lockwood
Basic Books, 294 pp., $25.00; $14.95 (paper)
The invention of the microscope revealed wonders to the world, and permitted Jonathan Swift to quip:
So, naturalists observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey
And these have smaller still to bite ‘em
And so proceed ad infinitum.
By the late twentieth century fascination with the minuscule had begun to pall, and now it takes an exceptional book indeed to reawaken our interest. Thankfully, in David Attenborough’s Life in the Undergrowth, Piotr Naskrecki’s The Smaller Majority, and Jeffrey Lockwood’s Locust we find three works that do so.
Life in the Undergrowth is Attenborough’s tribute to the terrestrial invertebrates. They are, he says, a group of creatures that make life possible for us—whether as scavengers, aerators of soil, or agents of pollination, to name only three of their functions—but because they are small we largely ignore them. As he succinctly puts it, “We are greatly prejudiced by our size.” This is the latest in a series of projects combining television and print in a unique manner that has become Sir David’s métier. His investigations encompass disciplines as diverse as paleontology, botany, zoology, and ethnography; and each is similar in scope to a doctoral dissertation. While most of us think of Attenborough principally as a television presenter, he is also one of the greatest ecologists, synthesizers of evolutionary science, and teachers of our age.
In each of his investigations Attenborough takes multiple parts, including instigator, researcher, scriptwriter, presenter, and author of a book summing up his inquiries. Because of the highly sophisticated recording equipment and laboratories at his disposal, and because he and his team spend long months in the field, fundamental discoveries have been made during the course of this work. Life in the Undergrowth was no exception, with Attenborough’s sound recordist discovering that certain caterpillars create sounds that charm ants into caring for them.
The land-dwelling invertebrates (animals without backbones) are so diverse that they make up most of the species on Earth. This makes producing an overview of them particularly challenging. Attenborough adopts an evolutionary approach, and as he tells his tale he picks out species that take a particular adaptation or behavior to an extreme. This allows him to capture the general direction of the group’s evolution as well as its breadth of diversity, without drowning us in detail.
Life in the Undergrowth commences with the descendants of the first creatures to clamber out of the water and onto land—the scorpions and their relatives. They made the transition some 400 million years ago, long before plants or our ancestors left the oceans. If you have never thought of scorpions as remarkable, Attenborough advises that you try to pick one up, perhaps with a pair of very long forceps. Whichever method you use it will not be easy, for scorpions possess advance warning systems that sense where you are and what you are doing. Their six pairs of eyes are strategically positioned so as to leave …
The Scorpion Mystery October 5, 2006