GREAT ADAPTATIONS: Star-Nosed Moles, Electric Eels, and Other Tales of Evolution’s Mysteries Solved. By Kenneth Catania. Princeton University Press. 216 pages. $27.95.
By any measure, the semi-aquatic star-nosed mole is a remarkable creature, and not just for its Guinness book record as the fastest foraging and eating mammal in nature.
Discoveries about this humble but extraordinary animal are still being made, and not infrequently some findings are replicated in other semi-aquatic mammals.
Witness the uncommonly fast and efficient fish-hunting technique of the freshwater tentacled snakes, which exploits the fish’s own escape mechanism to capture it.
Star-nose moles, it seems, have an intriguing propensity for finding their way into the middle of fascinating historical theories and controversies in science, not least the schematic of the neocortical brain map and the relationship between development and evolution. All of which Kenneth Catania explores in fascinating detail in his book “Great Adaptations.”
Catania is a Vanderbilt University biologist and neuroscience researcher who wears the sobriquet “science geek” like an emblem of honor. He has a mania for unsolved biological mysteries and extreme adaptations. He knows that even animals that have been studied for centuries have secrets yet to be uncovered. But the author is as keen that we learn about the process of discovery as about animals themselves.
“It’s surprising how often we invent a technology that animals evolved millions of years ago,” he writes.
Catania also considers the not-so-humble water shrew, the tiger of small mammals; how the study of the electric eel contributed significantly to scientific discoveries in physiology and the development of batteries; why the jewel wasp is the nemesis of the cockroach and a leading figure in the study of neuroparasitology; and Darwin’s pivotal discovery of the earthworm’s vital functions in soil ecology, agriculture and sustenance for predators.
The realms he studies may be on the small scale, but the implications are enormous.
Reviewer Bill Thompson is a writer and editor based in Charleston.