1) Bicudo, J. Eduardo P.W. et al. Ecological and Environmental Physiology of Birds. 2010. Oxford University Press. Paperback: 317 pages. Price: $65.00 U.S.
SUMMARY: Ecological and Environmental Physiology of Birds focuses on our current understanding of the unique physiological characteristics of birds that are of particular interest to ornithologists, but also have a wider biological relevance. An introductory chapter covers the basic avian body plan and their still-enigmatic evolutionary history. The focus then shifts to a consideration of the essential components of that most fundamental of avian attributes: the ability to fly. The emphasis here is on feather evolution and development, flight energetics and aerodynamics, migration, and as a counterpoint, the curious secondary evolution of flightlessness that has occurred in several lineages. This sets the stage for subsequent chapters, which present specific physiological topics within a strongly ecological and environmental framework. These include gas exchange, thermal and osmotic balance, 'classical' life history parameters (male and female reproductive costs, parental care and investment in offspring, and fecundity versus longevity tradeoffs), feeding and digestive physiology, adaptations to challenging environments (high altitude, deserts, marine habitats, cold), and neural specializations (notably those important in foraging, long-distance navigation, and song production). Throughout the book classical studies are integrated with the latest research findings. Numerous important and intriguing questions await further work, and the book concludes with a discussion of methods (emphasizing cutting-edge technology), approaches, and future research directions.
RECOMMENDATION: For those with a technical interest in avian physiology.
2) Wells, Spencer. Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization. 2010. Random House. Hardbound: 230 pages. Price: $26.00 U.S.
SUMMARY: Pandora’s Seed takes us on a powerful and provocative globe-trotting tour of human history, back to a seminal event roughly ten thousand years ago, when our species made a radical shift in its way of life: We became farmers rather than hunter-gatherers, setting in motion a momentous chain of events that could not have been foreseen at the time.
Although this decision to control our own food supply is what propelled us into the modern world, Wells demonstrates—using the latest genetic and anthropological data—that such a dramatic shift in lifestyle had a downside that we’re only now beginning to recognize. Growing grain crops ultimately made humans more sedentary and unhealthy and made the planet more crowded. The expanding population and the need to apportion limited resources such as water created hierarchies and inequalities. The desire to control—and no longer cooperate with—nature altered the concept of religion, making deities fewer and more influential, foreshadowing today’s fanaticisms. The proximity of humans and animals bred diseases that metastasized over time. Freedom of movement and choice were replaced by a pressure to work that is the forebear of the anxiety and depression millions feel today. Wells offers a hopeful prescription for altering a life to which we were always ill suited, recommending that we change our priorities and self-destructive appetites before it’s too late.
A riveting and accessible scientific detective story, Pandora’s Seed is an eye-opening book for anyone fascinated by the past and concerned about the future.
RECOMMENDATION: For those interested in human deep history and our future.