Magazine article The Spectator

Animals without Backbones

Magazine article The Spectator

Animals without Backbones

Article excerpt


by Peter Marren and Richard Mabey

Chatto & Windus, £35, pp. 500,

ISBN 978070118102

What is a Bug? For this book, any animal that is not a Beast: the whole invertebrate realm, from the humble amoeba, through insects (more than half the book), to octopuses and seasquirts (the distant forbears of you and me, lords and ladies of creation). Its scope, as with Flora Britannica and Birds Britiannica, is the parts that Bugs play in the human story: what they do to humannity with stings and jaws and injected saliva, what humanity does to them in the field and kitchen, their names (especially Gaelic), their roles in folklore, literature, art, music, films and photography.

It is a book to enjoy at random, not to read from cover to cover.

There have been many books in this field.

Amateur scientitsts, from bishops to the young Darwin, to a lunatic pseudo-Countess, used to give their lives' leisure to finding and distinguishing hundreds of obscure Bugs. When I was little I loved C.M. Yonge's The Sea Shore, twelfth in the New Naturalist series, and Ralph Buchsbaum's Animals without Backbones. Like Marren and Mabey, these authors had a passion for the rare and bizarre, for horsehair-worms and chaetognaths and nemerteans and other phyla that Tthe ordinary naturalist sees once in a lifetime, if at all. They revealed to me that this planet is inhabited by organisms that have their own agenda in life and work in ways utterly unlike the human species.

This delightful book revives that tradition. Technology has changed: universal colour printing has put magnificent photographs on nearly every page of the book.

However, I miss Buchsbaum's beautiful black-and-white drawings: a rotifer is not just an oddly coloured lump of protoplasm but a real creature, that lives and moves and has its being in three-dimensional ways that no photograph can convey.

Like Flora and Birds, this book comes of a research project on folklore. It includes 'traditional' folklore, a prime course being Dr Thomas Muffet, Shakespeare's contemporary, spider-lover and possible step-father of Little Miss Muffet. It relates well-known (but true) stories like the Large Blue: a caterpillar that things it's an ant, and the ants that think it's an ant. It tells tales like the six million Cabbage-White butterflies said to have been caught (and eaten? …

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