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book review

The Social Biology of Wasps

by Kenneth G. Ross and Robert W. Matthews (ed.)

This book was published in 1991 so it’s certainly not hot off the presses but I’ve recently read it and thought it was worth a Review.

The Social Biology of Wasps is a collection of chapters written by different authors, which can sometimes make the book repetitive but for the most part this volume maintains a consistency of quality and focus that keeps the whole tied together.

The title of this book is key. As much as I would love “The Biology of Social Wasps” this book is more focused than that, instead detailing Social Biology of Social Wasps. The positive side to this focus is that it allows the subject of sociality in the vespids to be explored in great detail, but the negative result is that natural history and basic biology of most species is not discussed in any detail. In this book it allows a more focused discussion, but I would occasionally find it frustrating to find the asnwers to basic questions about the species discussed (what do they eat, what are their nests like, what’s a typical life cycle?) missing or mentioned only in passing in a way that made it difficult to connect some of the arguments of social theory with the species subjects of said arguments/theories.

The first half of the book is called “The Social Biology of the Vespidae”. The chapters in this section begin with two chapters detailing some background on the family tree of Vespidae (where the subfamilies fit) and a very brief overview of the solitary and presocial vespids.

The next six chapters overview the social biology of different groups of vespids. The first, Stenogastrinae, was fascinating to me because it was a group I had never heard of. Stenogastrines are also known as hover wasps and because they’re in the tropics they haven’t received as much study as the temperate wasps. A quote from this chapter will illustrate some of the fascination I felt: “Authors… described with wonder their hovering flight… their shy habits, and their strange, camouflaged nests hidden in the wet and dark parts of the jungle, hanging from roots and threadlike fungi along streams and near the spray of waterfalls.” Another highlight from the chapter on hover wasps was the illustrations of their varied nest architecture, which range from cells lined up in a stack along a stem to cells arranged in a ring, facing inward, creating a donut shaped nest.

There are excellent drawn illustrations through the volume, many done by Amy Bartlett-Wright. Amy is a scientific illustrator and artist who has been doing this now for 35 years. Check out her website: https://amybartlettwright.com/.

These chapters overviewing the subfamilies do well to illustrate what we know and what awaits further study in the social biology of these wasps. They often highlight similarities between strategies but also fascinating differences. One of the comments mentioned multiple times through the book is the influence that ants have had on wasp evolution, as there have been suggestions that they have driven many of the nest designs and defensive strategies of these insects by their relentless ubiquity. A quote that describes this: “There is no potential nesting site in the tropics that is entirely free of ants, many of which readily accept wasp brood as food. It seems likely that the Azteca-wasp nesting associations [an association where Polybia wasps nest inside the nests of Azteca ants, using them as unwitting guards against more dangerous ants] are only the most conspicuous examples of ant-wasp interactions, and that further study will reveal that swarm-founding wasps have as many “words” for ants as Inuit have for snow.”

As I mentioned earlier, these overviews could have done with a little more natural history in my opinion, but as the focus of the book is on the sociality of the wasps, the brevity of such information can be forgiven (the book is already 600 pages long minus the references section).

The second half of the volume is titled “Special Topics in the Social Biology of Wasps”. This half of the book is where repetition between chapters occurs, but usually it’s helpful rather than hindering. Most of the chapters take a particular aspect of the wasps’ biology and use it as a lens to view their sociality through it, demonstrating the various pressures or influences that piece of the puzzle has. For excample, three chapters in a row are about Nutrition, Genetics, and Nest Architecture. Each of these chapters looks at the Social Wasps through their particular focal point and illustrates how it could have provided an impetus for these insects to gain sociality, or at least start them on the path they’re on now. Because of this, it can be repetitive, but usually the repetition reinforces the fact that these are distinct, but not mutually exclusive influences on the evolution and maintenance of sociality. They should be looked at as pieces of the same puzzle, rather than all-encompassing explanations by themselves. One of the most intriguing chapters for myself was Robert L. Jeanne’s chapter “Polyethism” which convincingly demonstrated how individual behaviour can lead to sociality and even maintain it in the colonies of these wasps today, mostly through the comparison of direct reproductive fitness and indirect reproductive fitness.

The chapters on the nests of Social Wasps are fascinating as well, because a nest is something constructed not by an individual as in birds, but by a group of cooperating insects (in many cases, several generations of cooperating insects). These chapters are illustrated with some of the more bizarre nest arrangements (as well as the more familiar) and demonstrate some of the ways in which nest types could develop in relation to each other.

The chapter on the exocrine glands was not particularly fascinating to me, and felt somewhat out of place, since no other chapter dealt with physiology/anatomy of the subject species.

The final chapter, “Evolution of Social Behavior in Sphecid Wasps” was an excellent overview of Sphecid wasps’ social biology. This chapter gave plenty of examples of the diverse paths wasps have evolved down, and the many questions that are raised by viewing comparatively wasps and bees.

Because this book was published almost 30 years ago now, I’m sure that much would be updated and edited in a newer edition. Some of the questions raised will have been answered, many would have branched into further questions. I’m not a professional Social Wasp Biologist, and so I can’t say what those answers are, where the questions now lie, of the focus of such studies are now. I can tell you that as far as I know, there is no other overview volume like this one for Social Wasps. So if you’re fascinated by them like I am and can handle dense science writing, then dive in and learn to appreciate the incredible insect societies that blossom and buzz all around us.

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book review

Book Review: Pterosaurs, by Mark Witton

Anyone who finds fossil animals fascinating will be delighted by this book by Mark Witton. The science is well-explained, yet in-depth, and the illustrations (photographs of fossils, skeletal reconstructions, and paintings) are incredible.

Pterosaurs begins with several overview chapters to bring the reader up to speed on the basics of pterosaur anatomy and terms, demonstrating some of what we know and what we don’t know about these flying reptiles. The majority of the book details each pterosaur group with a chapter. Here you will familiarize yourself with the ornithocheiroids, pteranodontians, and dsungaripterids. As with many dinosaur names, some of the scientific nomenclature can be a bit tongue-twisting, but by reading this book you will begin to tease apart the differences between pterosaur groups and so become more apt to recognize the names even if you have trouble saying them aloud.

Each pterosaur group chapter has a history of the group’s study, an overview of their anatomy (often highlighting differences and similarities between other groups), hypothesized locomotion (how each group of pterosaurs moved both on the ground and in the air), and ideas about the group’s ecology in the Mesozoic. The history of study was often interesting, seeing how a pterosaur group’s identity changed with new fossils or new ideas about old fossils. The anatomy sections are a bit difficult for myself to get through because I’m not a paleontologist and had to often reference the anatomy overview chapter at the beginning of the book. With the overview diagrams’ help, I was able to comprehend most of what was being described, at the least I was able to recognize the major differences between groups that were being highlighted. The sections on locomotion were fuel for the imagination, conjuring images of how these ancient creatures actually moved through their environments. Witton would often compare each groups’ purported flying ability to a modern group of birds to better convey their distinctive flying style. Of course much of this and the ecology sections are speculation, but Witton provides lines of evidence for and against various flying and feeding modes that have been suggested which brings to light what we know and what we don’t about how these animals lived. The ecology sections are my favourite because I love to imagine the animals as part of the Mesozoic environment, living their lives alongside the plants and animals of their time.

Along with the informatively dense but readable text are the illustrations which are amazing. For each pterosaur group there is at least one skeletal reconstruction of a species along with a fully realized painting of them launching. Besides these, there are photos and drawings of particularly well-preserved fossils. Accompanying each chapter is at least one full-page painting of a scene from the time of the pterosaurs, whether it’s Pteranodon diving into the ocean after a bait-ball of fish, or a Rhamphorynchid investigating a Jurassic snail. These paintings are wonderful at giving life and colour to the fossils and placing these creatures in their setting.

Sprinkled throughout the information-rich text is humour. My personal favourite is a caption for a painting of Azhdarchids which describes them as fleeing the next chapter about pterosaur extinction.

All in all, the book is a wonderfully informative, beautifully illustrated volume, full of descriptions and context for a group that doesn’t get as much press as the Dinosaurs. After finishing this book, you’ll be convinced that pterosaurs were an amazing and unique group of fossil animals as well, that deserve to be treated with the same amount of awe and wonder.

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book review

Book Review: Flora of Middle-Earth

Despite paying a lot of attention to the little invertebrates that scurry about in the undergrowth, I tend not to pay too much attention to plants. This isn’t on purpose, or because I dislike them for any particular reason, but I think it’s difficult for us to look at them in the same way that we look at animals because they don’t move about (on the same timescale or in the same ways) and they don’t seem to display varied behaviours. If we can move past these false ideas about plants we may realize that life doesn’t flourish against a green background, but rather, the drama of life plays out amid the foliage and thorns and seeds and roots just as much as it does amid the fur and feathers, claws and teeth.

One book that has opened my eyes to this world of green, growing things is Flora of Middle-Earth by Walter S. Judd and Graham A. Judd. 

I have been an avid fan of Tolkien’s mythos and the science of living things for most of my life, so when I found this book, I felt that it had been written specifically for me. What really drew me to the book was that it was written by a world-renowned plant scientist and this knowledge shows through details of plant biology and ecology within its pages. The book succeeds on both a scientific and a literary level, as the author and illustrator understand plants and Middle-Earth extensively. They even draw on the History of Middle-Earth series which are unfinished manuscripts by J. R. R. Tolkien put together by Christopher Tolkien, to fill out the botanical landscape of this fictional, yet powerful world. The first chapters give an overview of plant biology, evolution and ecology, as well as outlining the biogeography of plant ecosystems in Middle-Earth throughout its known history (First to Third Ages). After this, there is a chapter that contains a key to identifying the plants that are detailed through the majority of the book so that if you encountered a plant in our world you could follow the descriptions to its genus or species. This section isn’t particularly useful in my opinion because although Tolkien mentions over a hundred plant groups within his legendarium there are many more plants that exist, so that you could very easily follow the keys to a dead end. Next is a chapter devoted to the two most important plants in Middle-Earth: Telperion and Laurelin, the Two Trees of Valinor. This was interesting, seeing where Tolkien might have drawn his inspiration for the fictional Trees from plants that exist in our time and place. 

Following this is the largest section of the book which runs through over 140 plant types mentioned in Tolkien’s writings. For each plant, there is a quote containing a mention of it, a general overview of its place within Middle-Earth ecology and culture, a study of the plants names (how Tolkien can you get?), a description of the plant’s ecology and biology in our world, a mention of its place in human culture and a botanical description of its form. Alongside this impressively detailed treatment, many of the plants receive a woodcut-style illustration which shows them in the context of Tolkien’s stories and world. 
The final chapter is a Note from the Illustrator, so if you’re interested in this book primarily for the artwork, there is a description at the end of how and why he created the illustrations the way he did.

Part of what enhanced my appreciation of the book was reading it while in Algonquin Provincial Park, a place filled with memory and meaning for myself, just as Middle-Earth is. Reading about a plant’s place in Tolkien’s writings while encountering some of the same plants in Algonquin Park was an experience that is a microcosm of what is so special about this book and the Tolkien legendarium as well. Tolkien’s writings shed a new light on the world around us, just as this book sheds light on a piece of that world (Middle-Earth) and our own world.

The greatest accolade I can give this book is that I learned a lot about Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and the ecology of plants in our own world. If you’re interested in either of those things, I would highly recommend this excellent, beautiful book.

Algonquin Park in Autumn.