Sexy Orchids Make Lousy Lovers and Other Unusual Relationships

November 12, 2009

"Gross," starts the preface to this curious collection on the strangeness of nature. Beetles that commit siblicide, toxic frogs, kleptoparasitism in birds, hallucinogenic plants, poisonous dragons, monkeys that wipe millipedes on their fur as an insect repellent, glass sponges and much more. The author states that these are an eclectic assortment, and they follow the format of her 2007 book, Headless Males Make Great Lovers. Nature is remarkable in its diversity, and evolution extraordinary in its capacity for innovation. We will never know the whole of it, although what we do increasingly comprehend is the intricate interconnectivity of natural systems. The author concludes with a call for better understanding of the diversity of life and its intrinsic and utilitarian values. All very well. The problem, for me, lies in the parts between the beginning and end.

It is not an uninteresting read. There is nothing particularly inaccurate or plain wrong. It is, however, the kind of book into which you will want to do no more than randomly dip. The author's research is exemplary and draws from ecosystems worldwide. And yet this is done with a degree of enthusiastic anthropomorphism that constantly detracts from the important content. These animals and plants and their relationships must be awe-inspiring to be included, but also bizarre, befuddling, unusual, dangerous, entertaining and even handsome.

The first section of the book investigates interactions between individuals of the same species - male macaques paying females for sex, vampire bats sharing meals of blood, sand sharks killing siblings. The second focuses on interactions between different animal species - fish that hunt together, mites that hitchhike in hummingbird nostrils, mosquitoes that steal from ants. Plants and animals comprise the third section, which explains why jumping beans jump, and how orchids interact with insects, as promised in the title. A large section here is on hallucinogenic plants, apparently "prized by people the world over ... for their magic properties for thousands of years". Yet in this book, these people are only members of indigenous tribes or native groups; nothing at all about how people in all societies make widespread use of drugs. Only the weird (not like us) do weird things with plants. The last section addresses interactions between the "lowly" organisms, bacteria and fungi, and plants and animals.

Oh, for a book on boring nature. On the detail, on the spectacle, on the unique; that explains mechanisms and principles; perhaps one that makes us feel humble rather than superior. But, please, no more awesome nature.

Sexy Orchids Make Lousy Lovers and Other Unusual Relationships

By Marty Crump
University of Chicago Press
224pp, £17.50
ISBN 9780226121857
Published October 2009

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