Tim Flannery’s new book, Atmosphere of Hope: ­Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis, will be published in October. (October 2015)

The Amazing Inner Lives of Animals

Elephant herds crossing a lake bed in the sun, Amboseli, Kenya, 2008; photograph by Nick Brandt
The discovery of nonhuman societies composed of highly intelligent, social, empathetic individuals possessing sophisticated communication systems will force us to reformulate many questions. We have long asked whether we are alone in the universe. But clearly we are not alone on earth. The evolution of intelligence, of empathy and complex societies, is surely more likely than we have hitherto considered. And what is it, exactly, that sets our species apart?

How You Consist of Trillions of Tiny Machines

A colorized image, made with a scanning electron microscope, of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. According to a recent National Geographic feature on microbes, Staphylococcus aureus ‘lives harmlessly in the noses of about a third of us. But it can turn rogue, causing skin infections—or worse.’
Today, driven by ongoing technological innovations, the exploration of the “nanoverse,” as the realm of the minuscule is often termed, continues to gather pace. Paul Falkowski’s new book Life’s Engines: How Microbes Made Earth Habitable focuses on one of the most astonishing discoveries of the twentieth century—that our cells are comprised of a series of highly sophisticated “little engines” or nanomachines that carry out life’s vital functions.

Lilliput Under the Sea

Pacific Giant Octopus, Enteroctopus dofleini, 0.6 inches long without arms, 2014

Susan Middleton’s Spineless reveals a world where hermit crabs resemble wizards carrying their own magic mountains on their backs, and where worms are transformed into exquisite, pearly necklaces. Marine invertebrates—from octopuses to hermit crabs and creatures like the bizarre holothurians—are the focus of this photography book.

A Natural Wonder in Peril

A blue sea star resting on coral in the Great Barrier Reef, along the northeast coast of ­Australia. ‘Fully half of the Great Barrier Reef has already been killed,’ Tim ­Flannery writes. ‘Not all the damage has been inflicted by acid and heat, yet as the years go by these emerge as the overwhelming threats.’
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef stretches for around 1,430 miles along the continent’s northeast coast, encompassing an area roughly half the size of Texas. Those who have dived into its pristine reaches know firsthand that it is one of Earth’s natural wonders—a coral world of exceptional beauty and diversity. Yet as Iain McCalman’s “passionate history” of the reef makes clear, it is also a stage on which dreams, ambitions, and great human tragedies have been played out. He tells his story by chronicling lives that, either inadvertently or intentionally, have shaped our perception of the coralline labyrinth.

They’re Taking Over!

A moon jellyfish and cross jellyfish floating in a remote channel near Vancouver Island, British Columbia; photograph by David Hall from Beneath Cold Seas: The Underwater Wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, which collects his images of marine life in that region. It is published by University of Washington Press.
From the Arctic to the equator and on to the Antarctic, jellyfish plagues (or blooms, as they’re technically known) are on the increase. Even sober scientists are now talking of the jellification of the oceans. Off southern Africa, jellyfish have become so abundant that they have formed a sort of curtain of death, “a stingy-slimy killing field” that covers over 30,000 square miles. The curtain is formed of jelly extruded by the creatures, and it includes stinging cells. The region once supported a fabulously rich fishery. In 2006 the total fish biomass was estimated at just 3.9 million tons, while the jellyfish biomass was 13 million tons.

A Heroine in Defense of Nature

Rachel Carson, Southport, Maine, 1962
Late in the summer of 1962 President John F. Kennedy held a press conference that Rachel Carson’s most recent biographer, William Souder, claims brought “something new” into the world. Amid weighty discussions of Supreme Court justices, Soviet intentions at the UN, and news of increased Soviet shipping to Cuba, the …

On the Minds of the Whales

Humpback whales off the coast of Bermuda; from Andrew Stevenson’s Whale Song: Journeys into the Secret Lives of the North Atlantic Humpbacks, just published by Lyons Press
The tropical sea was as smooth as oil and a pod of dolphins moved around two huge, serrated shapes lying in the water—the backs of two sperm whales. They remained motionless as we drifted to within a few meters of them. Then, almost imperceptibly, they began to shift. Their heads slipped below the water as they arched their backs until their huge flukes rose into the air above us, before they silently moved into the depths.

Tigers, Humans, and Snails

Liuty, a male tiger whose name, according to John Vaillant in The Tiger, is ‘an efficient word combining vicious, ferocious, cold-blooded, and bold,’ at a Siberian wildlife rehabilitation center run by the tiger catcher Vladimir Kruglov
Whether birdsong at dawn or just a weed in a sidewalk, nature is all around us. Yet all too frequently we only appreciate it when it’s out of reach. For Elizabeth Tova Bailey, it was a mysterious disease that separated her from the natural world. But then a friend brought some violets in a flowerpot, into which she had placed a snail, and with that small gift came a deep reconnection with life, and a slow healing.

Save a Penguin If You Can

Rescued penguins being released back into the sea after they were soaked in an oil spill off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, August 24, 2000
When oil gushes into the ocean, the consequences can be indelible. Individuals, ecosystems, even entire communities can be devastated, never to return to what they were before. Yet there are people who rush into the danger zone, for no other reason than to assist the wild creatures caught up in the slick. Dyan deNapoli’s book The Great Penguin Rescue tells the story of the largest wildlife rescue ever mounted.

Getting to Know Them

The matriarch of an elephant family stepping forward to protect her relatives from threat in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, one of the few places on earth where they are still safe and in abundance; photograph by Beverly Joubert from Eye of the Leopard, written with Dereck Joubert and published by Rizzoli
The last common ancestor of elephants and humans lived over 100 million years ago. Yet undeniably we share much in common, perhaps because some of our ancestors were shaped at the same evolutionary forge—the productive, crowded, and intensely competitive world of the African Savannah. It’s this world, in part, that endowed both humans and elephants with exceptional intelligence, and a dependence on complex societies for their well-being.

Copenhagen, and After

On April 5, 2009, Denmark got a new Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen. He was the third Danish Prime Minister in a row to bear that surname, replacing Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who had been named the new Secretary-General of NATO. A capable local politician in his forties, Lars Rasmussen had, in contrast to his predecessor, almost no experience in international politics. His appointment received little media coverage outside Denmark. But just eight months later, with Denmark the host of the Copenhagen climate summit (officially the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP-15), Lars Rasmussen’s—and Denmark’s—lack of experience in international politics would have a global impact.

A Great Jump to Disaster?

An albatross chick on Midway Atoll, raised on plastic that its parents mistook for food from the polluted Pacific Ocean, September 2009; photograph by Chris Jordan
The idea that Earth is a living thing goes back at least as far as Plato, who according to Francis Bacon believed that the planet “was one entire, perfect, living creature.” But it was James Lovelock and his colleague Lynn Margulis who, in the early 1970s, developed a testable scientific …

Copenhagen Crisis: Why the US Needs Cap and Trade

It is often argued that cap and trade legislation requires too many compromises with—and give-aways to—polluting corporations to pass the House and Senate, and that consequently it is ineffective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While environmentalists are failing to support cap and trade, those opposing action on climate change are fiercely attacking it. Yet such a system is essential when it comes to getting global action on climate change—not least at the increasingly imperilled climate summit in Copenhagen in December—for it delivers a transparent benchmark by which nations can judge each other’s commitment.

The Superior Civilization

Two Atta sexdens leafcutter ants cooperating to cut a live twig of a plant; photographs from Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson’s The Superorganism
Ants are so much a part of our everyday lives that unless we discover them in our sugar bowl we rarely give them a second thought. Yet those minuscule bodies voyaging across the kitchen counter merit a closer look, for as entomologists Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson tell us …

The Spider Man and Other Stories

The Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London, is one of Britain’s most popular public institutions, attracting nearly four million visitors per year. Despite the fact that some natural history museums have made efforts to publicize their research and collections,[^1] most people have no idea at all what goes on …

Queens of the Web

For some readers, the books under review may be a cause of anxiety and alarm. Arachnophobia, Paul Hillyard tells us in The Private Life of Spiders, “is the most prevalent of all animal phobias.” Such intense fear of spiders can afflict almost anybody, and can become so extreme that one …

Where Wonders Await Us

Only the uppermost part of the oceans—the top two hundred meters—bears any resemblance to the sunlit waters we are familiar with, yet below that zone lies the largest habitat on Earth. Ninety percent of all the ocean’s water lies below two hundred meters, and its volume is eleven times greater than that of all of the land above the sea.

We’re Living on Corn!

Michael Pollan believes that America has a national eating disorder, and in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, he shows that it goes back a long way—at least to the early 1900s, when Dr. John Harvey Kellogg attracted crowds to his sanitarium at Battle Creek, Michigan. There …

What Is a Tree?

Animal, mineral, or vegetable? Whenever our parents bundled us into the car for a long journey my sisters and I kept ourselves occupied with that guessing game. At its heart is the puzzle of how things should be classified, the more ambiguous the better. My inventive youngest sister came up …

When a Scorpion Meets a Scorpion

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 …

The Ominous New Pact

When the Kyoto Protocol went into effect in February 2005, every nation in the world except the US, Australia, Monaco, and Liechtenstein had ratified the treaty. Developing countries, including China and India, are not required to reduce emissions during the first phase of the treaty (2005–2011), and the supposedly unfair …

Endgame

Robert Orban, the satirist and former presidential speech writer, once said that “there’s so much pollution in the air now that if it weren’t for our lungs there’d be no place to put it all.” The statement becomes an epigraph to a chapter of America’s Environmental Report Card, by Harvey …

The Heart of the Country

During the late 1820s, colleagues, publishers, and potential customers alike would mutter warnings to John James Audubon that his plan to publish The Birds of America could never succeed, for the proposed book was utterly impractical—too large, too expensive. But when Audubon opened his great portfolio of drawings, a silence …

Flaming Creatures

One evening in 1966 near Lake Placid, Florida, one of North America’s most beautiful moths flew into the web of a great orb-weaving spider. Trapped moths usually struggle desperately to escape, but this magenta-hued beauty, its wings boldly spotted with black-in-white bull’s eyes, lay unperturbed as the spider crept ever …