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In this book Nick Arnold introduces us to the fascinating science of animals and not just the cuddly, fluffy varieties we're likely to have at home. Here we can learn about slimy creatures, smelly creatures, ferocious creatures, poisonous creatures and many more besides, exploring different habitats from deserts and rainforests to mountain tops and the ocean depths. It's impossible to read this book without being staggered by the incredible variety of the animal kingdom. In keeping with the ethos of the Horrible Science series, this book revels in gruesome detail but despite its light, conversational tone and a generous sprinkling of jokes and cartoon illustrations, it sends out a serious message. It teaches respect towards animals and conveys just how tough animals need to be to survive in the natural world. It encourages children to see animals in an unsentimental way. Some may be terrifying and repulsive, but as Nick Arnold points out, "For them, it's more important to be alive than to be nice." It's an excellent book for budding young scientists and also those children who feel intimidated by conventional science books because its informal style lets them learn in an unpressured way.
What I like about the Horrible Science books is that they don't just force feed children with facts, but they actually encourage children to think for themselves. One way Nasty Nature achieves this is by a selection of true/false quizzes. For example, there is a Weird Wildlife quiz in which readers have to try to work out whether the creature being described is real or if it is just too freaky to be true. It isn't as easy as you might think because what becomes apparent is that some real creatures sound almost as ridiculous as some that are made-up. The duck billed platypus, for example, has a duck's bill, fur, poisonous spines like a lizard and it lays eggs like a bird. It sounds like something Dr Zeuss might have invented. So if that exists, what about the Iberian singing goat? Children realise that you can make something sound plausible even if it is totally untrue and it cautions them not to blindly accept what they are told but to make their own judgments, a life skill that can be attributed to many situations apart from science.
Another way this book invites children to think for themselves is in the 'Could you be a naturalist?' sections where the reader is asked to consider a particular situation, often with reference to the work of a famous naturalist, and say what they think would be the likely outcome. For example, children are asked to predict the result of experiments that were carried out in the 1980s to show how bats hunt. Of course, reading about other people's experiments is just one part of science and this book offers opportunities for children to conduct experiments of their own. These are always simple and do not require complicated equipment so can easily be set up at home. For instance, with just an old shoe box, a bicycle lamp, an egg and a glass bowl you can make observations which will explain how a chick manages to breathe inside an egg.
The book explores some truly intriguing topics. Those who doubt the capacity of animals to show emotion will be interested to read that baby elephants have been shown to suffer nightmares. If you always assumed that talking parrots were just copying what humans say, learn about Alex, an African Grey, who could ask for things and communicate his feelings. You can also read about Washoe the chimp, who learned sign language. As usual, the information is presented in a variety of witty and amusing ways, which hold the reader's attention and keep it fun. For example, there is a series of Teach Yourself Language Guides for those who want to learn to speak whale, dolphin or even spiny lobster language. There is a spoof travel brochure for Wing-It Holidays, which is an inventive way of explaining how birds migrate to sunnier climes in winter. A table of Stunning Sense Statistics allows you to find out how human senses compare to the senses of various animals and there is also a challenge to match a selection of animals to their favourite disgusting foods. There is also an interesting lesson about how to read the expressions of your pet cat or dog and a quiz in which you have to imagine you are a lioness on the African plain and find out if you've got what it takes to be a successful hunter. The Good Parent Awards set out which animals are the best at caring for their babies, which makes quite surprising reading.
I don't think this book is just for children. If you're the sort of person who enjoys collecting intriguing trivia facts of the kind you might pick up when watching QI, this book will not disappoint. Did you know, for instance, that the fiddler crab turns red when it is cross, black when it is scared and purple when it sees another fiddler crab it fancies? Maybe you were already aware that the Australian white tree frog used to reside in smelly ponds but in these modern times likes to make its home in toilet cisterns. Perhaps you even realised that pigeons' brains contain magnetic crystals sensitive to the earth's magnetic field, which is why they know which direction to go in. My daughter's favourite trivia fact was that the vampire bat must drink its weight in blood every night in order to survive. The author helpfully puts this into context for us by saying, "that's like you having to slurp a bath of steaming hot blood for your supper." My daughter was also intrigued to learn that vultures have bald heads because their feathers would get covered in gore from sticking their heads into bloody carcasses. Charming!
Certain animals get a bad press, but this book redresses the balance somewhat. Nick Arnold may not actually make us love snakes, but he puts their deadliness into context by explaining how humans kill far more snakes than snakes kill humans. There are some rather endearing facts about rats too. For my daughter, who has always considered our cat to be sadistic for torturing the mice and birds that he catches, this book comes up with an alternative explanation as to why cats play with their prey, something that had certainly never occurred to either of us.
The book ends with a bumper quiz, which the whole family can enjoy. It's a chance for young readers to share what they have learned and a sure way to start off some interesting conversations. Nasty Nature can be enjoyed just as a light-hearted book on animal trivia, or it can be seen as a taster book which will inspire more in depth study of animals. At just 168 pages, it can only really skim the surface of a vast and complex subject, but it introduces important topics that can be pursued in more detail later, such as evolution, conservation and comparative psychology. Nasty Nature is available new from Amazon for £5.39.