The Age of the Horse; An Equine Journey through Human History by Susanna Forrest. Grove Press, paper 2018.

The horse has been a remarkable companion throughout human history. Susanna Forest has celebrated that relationship, from the capture of wild horses on the dry Siberian landscape to the contemporary relegation of the horse to that of a pet. When the horse ran wild on that early environment, there were several horse species. The wild horses on our western plains are relatively recent, having been introduced by the Spaniards with their conquest of Mexico and Central America.

There is one species that remains a truly wild horse as opposed to domestic horses that have become wild, the Przewalski’s Horse. It was reintroduced into the steppes of Central Asia, but with little success.  The Przewalski’s Horse was last seen in the wild in 1966.

Horses also remain as a part of the sports world. That would include various forms of horse racing, including harness racing. Bull fighting is less than acceptable to many but the fancy of others. Polo is a horseback-mounted team sport and one of the world’s oldest sports. It remains a well-appreciated sport in South Asia. Riding schools and clubs are keeping Chinese horse enthusiasts in the saddle.

Horses remained an important source of military power until the mid-nineteenth century. Forrest tells us that the Germans rounded up 750,000 horses to power their invasion of Russia in June 1941– Operation Barbarossa. Those horses accompanied three million German and Allied soldiers. Barbarossa may prove to be the last horse-powered army. And certainly it involved the last cavalry charge.

For a time there was a considerable demand for horses for urban transport: First two-wheeled hansoms and then four-wheeled omnibuses. True, horse manure mixed with mud befouled our streets, but it might have been a better solution for supplying urban power than the coal- and oil-burning vehicles that replaced it.

City streets witnessed a lot of abuse of the horse. And that led to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Work remains, however.

Horsepower. The rate of power is given in terms of the horse; even steam engines, electrical motors, and automotive engines are rated in terms of a draft horse.

Horses have taken on the character of pet dogs and their numbers continue to grow. Susanna Forrest has us looking around for other instances horse survival. Circus performers, for example.

Circus horses were taught dances! But even that marginal use to entertain us has gone the way of the traveling circus. Buggy rides for tourists: Petting farms. Zoos. Clydesdales are still a part of many parades. Horses remain a prestigious animal to acquire, especially in China. Hence the world’s horse population may grow, along with the Chinese economy.  We – expensive automobiles, they – elaborately bedecked horses.

Mules and donkeys are relatives of the horse, and they held on longer in the world of advertising. Twenty mules pulled borax wagons out of the western dry lands. Borax was said to bring whiteness and color to the home washing machine. The Pony Express opened up cross-continental mail delivery. The TV show, Death Valley Days, among others kept the draft animal alive on television. And Forrest suggests that one third of the world’s beasts-of-burden are still horses.

Few of us eat horse meat and perhaps that is a major reason for the decline in numbers of horses. Probably one billion people eat horse meat. A lot of horse meat goes into the dogfood we feed to our most popular pet. Horsehair upholstery and leather belts continue. The age of the horse hangs on.

The old nag is generally “put out to pasture.” Halleluiah! The horse had not been treated well when working for mankind, so retirement is a likely improvement for our friend, the horse.

Spying on Whales; The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures by Nick Pyenson. Viking, 2018.

Whales are truly the most awe-inspiring animals of our Anthropocene age. Hunted as a source of oil for lighting, whales  have, more or less, recovered from the whaling industry of the last several centuries.

Many whale species have gone extinct over the millennia. Those that have survived, Nick Pyenson argues, have evolved various characteristics that favor their survival. They have proven to be the right size to survive, neither too big nor too small. They have survived because they are one of the ocean’s greatest predators, and not picky eater. They have accommodated themselves to feeding on krill, zooplankton found on the water column. They occupy the first rung  of the ocean’s food chain. Whales have stayed global – adopting migratory behavior that provides insurance against regional calamities. And whales have acquired a resiliency by evolving a “culture” within their pod.

Whales are hardly ever seen, remaining at the bottom of the ocean for long periods of time. They are able to dive to impressive depths because they can reduce the amount of oxygen in their blood by holding their breath and thereby reducing their buoyancy.  Pyenson has obtained measurements of over 135 minutes without gulping any intake of oxygen.

Rather than teeth, many whale species have a substance called baleen, plates of bone on the upper jaw. Baleen is commonly found in land animals as well, forming hooves, feathers, claws, and finger nails. The fossil remains of whales suggest, however, that some of these species, at least, once had teeth.

Whales, like large land animals, elephants, for example, are characterized by what paleontologists call gigantism, greater size resulting from their global presence. This gigantism operates in much the same way that island environments have led to dwarfism.

Part of the reason that we don’t see a lot of the whales is because they were harvested for decades from the North Atlantic. Many of the whalers were from the Basque country of Spain and France. They mined right whales, bowhead whales, and other whale species they found along the Labrador Coast. The Basque whalers dominated the industry for five centuries. Remnants of that economy can still be seen in the abandoned warehouses in the Antarctic and lining the shore of salt-water habitats in the cold regions of the European continent.

There is good evidence from archeological sites that indigenous peoples have hunted these giant mammals for thousands of years. Fragments from New Zealand suggest a very old date for a whaling industry, one of the earliest industries known to humans. DNA bone fragments suggest that many different whale species were hunted.

The Anthropocene has, generally, not been kind to whales and whale populations. They were hunted down for their oil (blubber) that, when refined, was used for illumination. In the twentieth century alone some 325,000 blue whales were processed in whaling stations that lined Norwegian and other northern European shores. Fleets of factory ships once roamed the oceans in search of whales and whale-oil. Diesel-powered whalers have replaced the sailing ships of old. And they are much more efficient. The International Whaling Commission has attempted to regulate the industry with some success in reducing the numbers of whales that are harvested. But tourists can still view the remnants of this whaling industry on South Georgia and Antarctica.

Like horses, whales have grown larger and then smaller, at one time the size of a large domestic dog. Judging from their fossilized remains some extinct whale species once had four legs. During their sojourns on land, the whale’s closest relatives were the descendants of African hippos. Some whale species have transitioned from the sea and saltwater to fresh water habitats over the millennia.

Nick Pyenson explains that there are two hundred bones in a single whale skeleton, often scattered over the ocean floor, hence difficult to reconstruct. The best hunting for the fossil remains of these earlier whales is in Egypt.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of whale life is the whale song. Some whales use echolocation for hunting and navigation. The whale song consists of a repertoire of clicks and high-pitched sounds. The songs seem to be a unique pattern shared by “families’, or as Nick Pyenson calls them “acoustic clans.”

Whale evolution provides a fascinating example of the phenomenon of animal evolution. And the adversity caused by human interventions.


The Source; How Rivers Made America and America Remade Its Rivers by Martin Doyle. W.W. Norton

            If our water resources are carefully managed, Martin Doyle claims, there would be sufficient rainfall for our needs. A big if!  Commonly there are shortages of rain, particularly in the dry areas of the country west of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. On the other hand, we have floods resulting from abnormal amounts of rainfall east of those great rivers. Variations in the amount of rainfall have their effect on river systems, so we have devised a system of levees – elevated banks – that keep the “flood waters” contained. Shortages of rainfall- dry spells – are less well managed.

            In those years when the rains are insufficient, “water wars” occur. Users compete for water. Long-term water shortages are mostly the result of an ever-expanding land use, which we call “suburbia.” Water shortages are also the result of increasing “industrial uses,” an essential part of the manufacturing processes. “Waste” water is also used to help us deal with the various effluents polluting the environment.

Nature supplies bacteria to help with the process of ridding ourselves of those effluents. That works fairly well, given enough time. Given enough time, the water that reenters our streams and lakes should have been stripped of a major effluent – methane. The methane can then be used to produce some of the energy needed for the restorative process. Given time and the right processing, this breaking down of waste water can also produce both nitrogen and phosphates, also useful byproducts of our water treatment plants.

Water in the Eastern U.S. has also been a source of power, the “fall line.” Doyle has a description of how water, over the centuries, has powered our economy.

In the eastern US, there is a geological feature involving falling water, the fall line. The earliest uses of the fall line in the U.S. were to power lumber and grist mills, and to manufacture flour. If the supply of water was erratic, it was useful to dam up and store water above the fall line in a lake that, when, needed, could produce a fall and source of water power. Hence water power “in storage.”

It took time to adopt steam – heating water by burning coal to produce steam. Steam could be used to power machinery connected to a power source by belts. We then learned how to convert steam power into electrical power. Happy ending: from falling water to an electric light switch.

 Martin Doyle tells another interesting story. How were these power sources financed? Private enterprise, or mostly state enterprise? There are thousands of dams and power sources throughout the country that are the result of “private enterprise”. On the other hand, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the Hoover Dam, and other huge projects are government enterprises created and run by a “public sector.”

Before this federal intervention, there had to be a means of paying for this infrastructure. The early canals built in this country collected tolls and fees. But Doyle reminds us that these larger state financed projects had to await the Income Tax Amendment (1913). This constitutional amendment gave the government the authority to collect income taxes and hence the where-with-all to finance such huge projects as the TVA.

It was during the two presidencies of Ronald Reagan (1980 to 1988) that we entered the world of derivatives, options, and swaps and the ability to issue municipal bonds with lower interest rates, new financial mechanisms to pay the bills. Infrastructure costs could be sliced and divided up into federal debt allowing it to be bought and sold by private investors.  Pollution permits were now saleable. Hence President Reagan’s version of the free-market would enable the costs of the environmental activism of the public sector to be financed by the money market. Even the roadbuilders could buy “stream credits” when planning their new roads.

For many years the Army Corps of Engineers went around straightening our meandering rivers so that they were better able to serve river transport. But that had its costs, Doyle reminds us. Straightened rivers ran faster and deeper, resulting in more erosion. The disappearing meanderings had been important breeding grounds for fish and other animals. The artificial lakes behind the hundreds of dams made for good fishing. However removing the dams as they aged became a necessary, but often neglected, component of the dam-building. We are now restoring those “meanderings” and hence the environment for wildlife.

Those who look after our rivers and lakes are now taking an interest in beavers and their dams.

Silent Sparks; The Wondrous World of Fireflies by Sara Lewis. Princeton University Press, 2016.

As kids we spend evenings, gathering fireflies into jars to make lanterns. Once that wonderment was over, the jars were opened and the fireflies took off.  Depending upon the species, they tended to fly and flash differently, some close to the ground from which they had emerged so recently.

I have never seen    Sara Lewis’s Silent Sparks brings back my childhood memories of summer a firefly in my Florida backyard.

Fireflies are not flies nor bugs. But rather beetles, a very diverse family. Beetles arose some 150 million years ago and today constitute 25% of all species. The Latin names for the two species that Lewis focusses on are Photinus and Photuris. These species were described years ago by James Lloyd an entomologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Florida.

Lewis describes the complicated metamorphosis of fireflies (sometimes called lightening bugs or glow worms). During their lifetimes, all beetles undergo complete metamorphosis. That requires drastic changes in their physical structures and habits, and in their habitats.

In the northern latitudes they live longest – sometimes one to three years – in their larval state, where they are voracious eaters of snails and earthworms. . They are pupae for a comparatively brief period of two weeks or so, when they rearrange their bodies in metamorphosis to better survive when they emerge in their new, adult habitat – mostly on or near the ground under damp leaf mold in wooded areas or grassy meadows.

The adults exhibit what biologists call sexual dimorphism. Males and females are recognizably different as adults, easy to identify because of the differing shape of their light-producing lanterns. They emerge from metamorphosis with a much distorted male/female ratio of 218/12. That ratio results in considerable female promiscuity.  So a lof of energy must be expended by the male in his search for females of the same species with which to mate.

The males of some species have evolved an ability to synchronize their flashes. The pattern of flashes that they exhibit varies from species to species. Species notification, Sarah Lewis calls it. That would seem to violate evolutionary logic because that synchronization would seemingly be an exhibit of co-operation. Biologists have scurried to put up an explanation for this phenomenon. Lewis favors what is called the “beacon hypothesis.” Together, gathered on a blade of grass or on tree trunks, the males gradually synchronize their flashes and since their flashing patterns vary between species, their beacons better attract the attention of the females of their species, who take up perches nearby.  The females of some species assist the hunt by releasing pheromones.

Entomologists talk about the various firefly species as being reproductively isolated, i.e. they breed only with others of their same species. They are true to their own gene pool. They have species specific signals.

Lewis spends less time in describing their use of “perfumes.” Better is her description of what she calls gift-giving. These nuptial gifts are valuable when nutrients are scarce. Their examination requires a scrutiny of the interior spaces of the male reproductive glands where their sperm is wrapped into packages. Once the “bundle” reaches the female reproductive tract after mating, it is stored in a pouch and slowly digested over the next several days.

How is the male controlling his flash? Chemicals, and it is difficult to explain, the mechanism, but Lewis has it controlled by “light switches.” Here and elsewhere the author lapses into anthropomorphisms and metaphors.

Lightening bugs have numerous predators – spiders and bugs – and they arm themselves against these predators by using poisons, potent toxic steroids. Most do not eat as adults. They do have blood, which is useful for certain medical tests, and therefore they are harvested.

Females of the group, Photuris hunt, catch, and eat male lightening bugs of other groups. The females have thus become femmes fatales.

What seems to be the leading cause of the fireflies’ declining numbers in addition to the harvesting for commercial uses? Light pollution confuses the male’s flashing, so bring back the night. Yard lights: make sure they are turned off when not in use.  Land clearing destroys the habitat for the larvae. Fireflies are not good at dispersing to new habitats and so this is particularly harmful. Pesticides and fertilizer.

In the last section of Silent Sparks, Sara Lewis provides the reader with a field guide for common North American fireflies that might be found in our backyards, including range maps. Helpful, and you might want to take a trip up to the Appalachians to see many of the species.   Or, even better yet to Japan, Korea, and Malaysia to see more of those wondrous worlds.

Honors for Jack Davis. And deserved.

Jack Davis, Department of History, University of Florida, has just won the Pulitzer Prize in history for his book, The Gulf; The Making of an American Sea. His book was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Gulf is an environmental history of the region. Published by Liveright in a hardback edition, his book came out in paper this past month –  March, 2018.

See my review elsewhere on this site.

Darwin’s First Theory; Exploring Darwin’s Quest to Find a Theory of the Earth by Rob Wesson.

Darwin’s First Theory; Exploring Darwin’s Quest to Find a Theory of the Earth by Rob Wesson. Pegasus Books, 2017.

Charles Darwin is best known for his On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection. His “first theory” however was an important contribution to the science of geology. He received an invitation to participate in the voyage of the HMS Beagle, from 1831 to 1836. Its purpose was to explore and map the coasts of Argentina and Chile. Part of that long voyage was spent hiking through the Andes on field trips.

Darwin was still a young man, twenty-two, having just completed his studies at the University of Edinburgh and Cambridge. He hadn’t yet married, nor established a career. Rob Wesson suggests that he considered his selection to be a big honor. But he needed to bone up on his geology and so he engaged in a ramble through North Wales with a noted geologist, Adam Sedgwick.

Darwin’s cabin mate on the HMS Beagle was Robert FitzRoy, an English officer in the British Royal Navy and captain of the ship. They got along well, though FitzRoy was already showing signs of the depression from which he would suffer later in life.

FitzRoy, like many other scientists who read Darwin became alarmed when his theories were less not easily reconciled with the creation accounts in the Hebrew Bible. True, Biblical stories about a catastrophic flood in the creation of Earth did not necessarily conflict with observations that Darwin and others were making about natural phenomena, particularly of tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. (Tsunamis were in Darwin’s time called tidal waves.) But Darwin was creating a new language that was less and less confirming of the Genesis account.

After their voyage Darwin and FitzRoy were invited to give papers and take part in the discussion of their observations of the coast of Patagonia at the Royal Society. This prompted an often heated discussion over the next half-dozen years about Darwin’s “first theory.” Charles Lyell, British lawyer and geologist, joined the conversation arguing for what he, and Darwin and other geologists referred to as Uniformitarianism – the theory that Earth was shaped by the same processes still in operation today.  Lyell popularized the idea of uplift and subsidence, which fit well into Darwin’s observations of the presence of coral reefs now visible well above the surface of the ocean.

Wesson has captured an edifying portrait of the lively scientific community in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. They were not necessarily associated with the country’s universities. There were now many professional organizations that you could be invited to join. Papers were given in rooms of some social clubs if the organization itself did not have a club room.

One of the topics of conversation was “erratics.” These were boulders that were “out of place” and had somehow gotten to their locations by some mechanism, not yet well understood. Some geologists suggested that they were brought to their location by icebergs. The possibility of glaciers transporting them had not yet been proposed because there was no clear understanding of glaciers and what we call the ice age.

The idea of an ice age also explained another geological puzzle that these geologists, including Darwin, found quite mysterious. Called the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy, they were once the various shorelines of ancient, ice-jammed lochs. But there was no sign of what might have blocked the valley to create those various shorelines. Again glaciers became the proposed solution.

There was as yet no speculation on drifting continents, subduction and uplift, although Darwin and his generation had begun to describe the phenomena. Darwin was also beginning to think about species and the mechanism of natural selection that would explain their diversity. We would call this thinking about geological and biological phenomena “thought experiments.”

Wesson’s book is about Darwin’s “first” theory, not about On the Origin of Species. That explains why the famous letter from Alfred Russel Wallace proposing the same mechanisms that Darwin was considering. Wallace’s paper on the subject was jointly published along with some of Darwin’s writings in 1858. Finding out that the idea of natural selection was circulating amongst naturalists prompted Darwin to publish his Origin.

Darwin’s theories were much discussed in Great Britain because he was also an accomplished writer. And there was already a conversation going on about his first and subsequent theories that drew in Wallace, Lyell, Adam Sedgwick, and other geologists and biologists.