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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Read Local: Unusual Creatures -- Carnivorous Seahorses and the Truth about Honey Badgers

Posted By on Wed, Oct 31, 2012 at 10:00 AM

click to enlarge This water-dwelling, microscopic animal is called a Tardigrade, but his friends call him a water bear.
  • This water-dwelling, microscopic animal is called a Tardigrade, but his friends call him a water bear.

New York City might be home to the big houses, but this scrappy city just happens to be the epicenter of publishing on the Best Coast. Join Alexis Coe every Wednesday for Read Local, a new series which exclusively focuses on books produced in the Bay Area.

What is an unusual creature? According to author Michael Hearst, "An animal that looks, sounds, smells, or acts in a way that makes you stop and say, "Whoa, dude! What's up with that?"

There are 50 animals who garner such a response from Hearst in his new book, Unusual Creatures: A Mostly Accurate Account of Some of Earth's Strangest Animals (Chronicle 2012). A composer best-known as a member of One Ring Zero, Hearst has already released an album, Songs for Unusual Creatures, on the subject.

See also:

John F. Kennedy and the Holy Grail of Pez Dispensers

Two-story Dollhouse Isn't Child's Play

click to enlarge Related to the ever popular Seahorse, don't underestimate the Leafy Sea Dragon: a devout carnivore, the diminutive creature will use its pipe-like snout to suck small shrimp and fish into its toothless mouth.
  • Related to the ever popular Seahorse, don't underestimate the Leafy Sea Dragon: a devout carnivore, the diminutive creature will use its pipe-like snout to suck small shrimp and fish into its toothless mouth.
Informative and delightfully irreverent, each unusual creature is accompanied by striking, if not downright stupendous, artwork and diagrams by Arjen Noordeman, Christie Wright, and Jelmer Noordeman. The book is very much dominated by scientific data (Latin names, behavioral attitudes, physical characteristics, habitats) to inform, and quizzes that provide as much knowledge as they require. Hearst has a gift for transmitting such knowledge: Roguish commentary full of palpable glee, makes this new book a welcomed addition to the shelf.
click to enlarge 9781452104676.jpg

"It's true, it's true, there's an elephant shrew," Hearst writes by way of introduction, but then he's all business, connecting its genetic makeup to manatees and noting that the misanthropic Mammalia often clears an emergency escape route from a solitary nest. After delivering a full page of facts, the author is often moved to verse. The Dugong, a mammalian "sea cow" who hovers over underwater pastures off the coast of northern Australia, Southeast Asia, and the east coast of Africa, receives a 12 line poem celebrating the "bulbous beast" who "vacuums up the sea grasses ... and perhaps a little more."

click to enlarge Headlamps are for chumps: The Humpback Anglerfish is born with a bioluminescent lantern.
  • Headlamps are for chumps: The Humpback Anglerfish is born with a bioluminescent lantern.

With the turning of a leaf, we say goodbye to our final creature, the Yeti Crab, a blind deep-sea crustacean discovered in 2005, and move onto a page with a header that asks, "You know what makes me sad?" If an animal goes extinct from a giant meteorite, Hearst is somber, but he can rationalize the demise. What can't be forgiven, however, is the destructive human behavior that led to the extinction of the Tasmanian tiger, Tecopa pupfish, and Hartebeest antelope. "We have a problem," Hearst writes, but we can fix it. The suggestions that follow are neither groundbreaking nor heavy-handed: Turn off lights, adjust your thermostat, hang your clothes to dry, buy local food, use less stuff, and so on.

click to enlarge The Hagfish has 99 problems, but predators aren't one: When provoked, a Hagfish secretes a sticky slime which suffocates potential threats.
  • The Hagfish has 99 problems, but predators aren't one: When provoked, a Hagfish secretes a sticky slime which suffocates potential threats.

Published in San Francisco by a Brooklyn author, Unusual Creatures is intended for ages 8-12, but who wouldn't want to know that Salavador Dali kept a giant anteater he often walked through Paris, or that the skin of a Honey Badger is tough enough to resist machete blows from angry farmers? I could continue to wax rhapsodic about it, but why listen to me? Lemony Snicket weighs in on the cover:

"Unusual Creatures is a rich and fantastic book of charming imaginary animals who ... what? They're real? I'll be under the bed."

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook. Follow Alexis Coe on twitter @alexis_coe.
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