Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid by Wendy Williams — 224 pgs

Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of SquidCephalopods, a group of animals that include octopuses and squid, may be some of the oldest creatures in the known world and can vary in size from a fraction of an inch to hundreds of pounds. In this wonderful exploration of one of the sea’s most mysterious class of creatures, Wendy Williams explores the strange and unique aspects of the cephalopod and explains why this odd creature may have done more for the advancement of medical science than any other animal in the world. She shares the reasons people are so squeamish when it comes to this animal and the unique way they display intelligence that scientists are only now beginning to discover and tap into. Drawing upon research that stretches back hundreds of years, Williams shares the common misconceptions that have hounded squid and octopuses from their earliest days and delights her audience with the weird and wholly unexpected reality and astounding facts about the cephalopods that abundantly fill Earth’s oceans.

I’m a nut for science writing, particularly nature writing. In my efforts to discover all that I can about the flora and fauna that populate the world, I sometimes come across a book that I can’t ignore. This was such a book. I had never really given squid and octopuses much thought because, frankly, they seemed a little too gelatinous and slimy for my liking. But when the opportunity to review this book came up, I jumped on it because it fed my need to know more about nature and the strange things in the sea. I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest by this book and found that Williams has not only a conversational and accessible style, but that she used the most fascinating analogies and illustrations to show just what being a cephalopod is all about.

Both octopuses and squid have developed and adapted all sorts of body weaponry over the millions of years they have evolved. They are known as experts at defending themselves, which seems counterintuitive because they don’t have the protection offered by bones or shell with which to repel predators. Some cephalopods even take fleeing from prey to the next level, like the Japanese flying squid, who can launch its body out of the water to avoid predation. Some are adept at using their skin cells to change colors, and this technique is not only used for camouflage, but also to turn parts of their bodies into either an attractant or repellent by producing some truly startling colors. All cephalopods live in salt water and some can live up to fifteen years. Most cephalopods, however, do not live that long at all.

This book was so packed with interesting information that it was like a treasure trove for readers looking for strange tidbits to keep the brain churning. For example, did you know that there are a few squid who can expel a mucus-filled ink that actually mimics the form of the squid when it’s released, making it easier for the animal to escape? Or that most cephalopods have three hearts and copper-based blood (as opposed to human iron-based blood)? Many people have probably heard that a cephalopod arm is capable from separating from the body, but did you also know that the severed arm has the capability to live independently for hours? Some cephalopods can even leave the water to hunt on land at certain times. One of the most interesting things I found while reading is that some cephalopods are filled with a protein based bio-luminescent bacteria that enables them to turn lighter and darker beneath the waves, enabling them to be both invisible to predators and giving them light with which to hunt more capably.

The research side of this book was also fantastic. Because of cephalopod research, the field of neuroscience has advanced monumentally, and studying cephalopods has helped science fill in questionable evolutionary gaps that have remained unsolved for hundreds of years. Research on squid has even proved promising in the search for a cure to Alzheimer's. It was also interesting to discover that squid share many characteristics with humans, such as binocular vision, similar neurons and neurotransmitters, and even some intellectual developments. The book also shares the fascinating logistics of cephalopod reproduction (which was an eye-opening section indeed), and expounds on the ability of cephalopods to solve complex and multifaceted puzzles. In fact, researchers at this point are a bit stumped in devising puzzles for these animals that will challenge them, because at this point, they have figured them all out in record time. As of this book’s writing, scientists are trying to discover a way of quantifying cephalopod intelligence, which is proving to be a difficult task indeed.

Reading this book was like being in a natural science class, but unlike a science class, the book was always entertaining and relevant and never repetitious or boring. I found so much here to pique my interest, and as far as science writing goes, this book was top-notch. Maybe I’m the only one who thinks that the myriad creatures of the sea are fascinating, but I have to say, if you pick up this book and give it a few pages, you will be just as engrossed as I was, I’m sure of it. In this fascinating look into the science of cephalopods, no stone is left unturned. A remarkable read.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


What is the plural of octopus? Merriam-Webster Ask the Editor - Octopus has the answer!

24 comments:

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

Wow, I wouldn't have picked this up on my own but I'm pretty sure you've got my hooked on a book about...squids?? Looks really neat!

Sandy Nawrot said...

This is one of those situations where you're going to come out learning something. I get in moods where I want to get smarter, but not every day. This is fascinating stuff though. They don't LOOK that smart, do they? I just know I eat them, and I fish with them.

Audra said...

I love it when a random nonfiction book crosses my path and makes me all the smarter for it! If you're feeling cephalopod-y, you might want to try Kraken by China MiƩville - he writes sort of literary 'weird' fiction -- it's very fun!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I'm one of those squeamish people! But I know they are intelligent, and I wouldn't eat them!

Amy said...

Squid are fascinating creatures. I've watched a few documentairs but I'm sure this book provides much more info than the shows. It's amazing how valuable they are to medical science. I didn't know the various ways cephalopods protect themselves from prey...very cool! I think the part of this book that discusses the contributions of cephalopods to research is great, too. I probably wouldn't have considered reading this book if I just saw it on the shelf, but your review has clued me in. And I know my husband will flip over this book!

bermudaonion said...

Science writing is hit or miss for me - quite often it's way too dry and, well, scientific, for me. This sounds like one that I might be able to understand.

Suko said...

Zibilee, your enthusiasm for this book is wonderful. You must be "part scientist", or at least a real nature lover. The cover of this book appeals to me, and your review is excellent, as usual. Who knew that a book about squid could be so terrific?!

Steph said...

Ack! I am such a nut for sea creatures, particularly octopodes (and no, I didn't have to look up the plural) and squid! They're just so weird and fascinating. I must find a copy of this book!

Marie said...

I love the sound of this! If only science class had been this fun!

Marg said...

I can't say that I read a lot of science books! This does sound interesting though.

Jenners said...

My son went through an ocean animal obsession and I learned a lot about squid and octopus and such that I never knew ... and it was fascinating. And you mentioned stuff that I hadn't heard. I can't wait to tell my Little One about some of this stuff. This sounds like a book I could read and then astound him with amazing facts. Does this book have any photos or anything?

Amy said...

This sounds fascinating!! Thanks for pointing it out for us and for sharing the facts zibilee. Great review!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

Hmmm, summer beach reading ... at the ocean?

I read a fair amount of nonfiction, and don't shy away from science. Maybe I'll get this for J, then I can "borrow" it.

Oh, great "ask the editor" video clip -- octopus trivia!

Stacy at A Novel Source said...

I am thoroughly impressed by you. Somehow you never cease to amaze me, both with your book selections and with your reviews. By the way, in my ecology class I have to come up with 4 ecological topics - sounds like the squid and octopus would definitely be a great choice - I'll have to narrow it down to one by next week for a research paper due in 6 weeks.

Geosi said...

This is an excellent review. You've rendered it so nicely that I am tempted to go for it. Thanks.

TheBookGirl said...

This is the second rave review I've seen of this book. I have very little science background, so I am always glad to find books about science that are accessible. Last year I read The Disappearing Spoon, about the periodic table, which was the same kind of thing; fascinating info, conveyed in a way that didn't make your eyes glaze over.
I am definitely going to put this one on my list. Thanks for the great review :)

Zibilee said...

Jenners,
It just so happens that this book does indeed have pictures, and some of them are quite cool!

Jenny said...

This is one of the last things I'd have thought I'd be interested in (lol) but you definitely make it sound very good! I, too, think they are too gelatinous for my liking, LOL!! And can you imagine seeing an octopus walking around on land? Wow! haha!

TheBookGirl said...

This is the second rave review I've seen of this book. I don't have much of a science background but I like to read about science, so I am always looking for books that are written in a way that doesn't make my eyes glaze over. This sounds like it is, and so onto the list it goes :)
Last year, I read The Disappearing Spoon, which was about the periodic table, and I thought it was good.

Darlene said...

I am very glad you enjoyed this one so much but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be one for me. lol.

Meghan said...

This actually sounds really interesting to me although I would never have picked it up on my own. Quirky science can be fun and it looks like this is!

Aarti said...

Cephalapods are so cool! They are so MYSTERIOUS, too, living so deep in the ocean and having no backbones and doing all sorts of craziness like growing to ginormous proportions. What a fun book!

Jenny said...

Euuuurgh, I get a yucky creepy crawly feeling on the back of my neck whenever I think about squid. I had to dissect them for science class in seventh grade, and this kid Andy spilled the bag of squid, so the whole class smelled like fish and formaldehyde, and just generally, I never want to think about a squid again as long as I live.

Geosi said...

I hope to be engrossed too. Would definitely seek out for this. Cheers!

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