Summer reading: Elephants and octopuses 

I’ve finished two animal-related books recently, and I thought they both deserved a mention on the blog. Actually, I didn’t read either of these in the technical sense of the word. Instead, I listened to both of them as audiobooks through my Audible account. But, as they both really are books, I think the term “summer reading” still applies!

Soul of an octopus

I recently downloaded and listened to Sy Montgomery’s Soul of an Octopus. The book is full of information about octopus biology and behavior, woven together with a narrative of the author’s adventures as she gets to know (and love) several octopuses at the New England Aquarium. Part science and part personal journey, the book wasn’t quite what I was expecting. However, I still found it an interesting listen. 

The book’s delightful narrative dispels myths about octopuses and other sea animals. Octopuses have often been regarded throughout history as evil sea creatures. Until fairly recently, people have know very little about their fascinating biology and their great intelligence. They are quit smart and full of individual personality. However, octopuses are a bit “alien” in many regards, and I enjoyed learning more about their biology – for example, they have three hearts, blue blood, taste sensors on their arms, and their brain wraps around their throat. Pretty wild stuff! 

Much of the book details the author’s interactions and adventures with four captive octopuses at the New England Aquarium – Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma. As you read the book, you start to feel like you know each of these octopuses as friends. The book is quite descriptive and makes you feel part of the action. At times, you almost feel like you are there, watching the octopus or even touching it. 

Each octopus has a distinct personality and enjoys interacting with people. Octopuses are quite intelligent, and scientists are still discovering everything they are capable of doing. Octopuses in the wild are known to use tools. For example, some will carry a coconut half to use to hide in, particularly when passing through an area without many places to burrow and hide from predators. And pet octopuses (yes, some people keep them as pets!) can follow a human’s pointing finger, enjoy watching TV, and can most certainly recognize individual people. 

I enjoyed this book, but it’s probably not for everyone. But, if you’re looking to get up close and personal with some octopuses this summer, you may enjoy reading “The Soul of an Octopus.”

Beyond Words

The second animal book I’ve listened to recently is Carl Safina’s Beyond Words, which is a fascinating journey into the behavior and intelligence of animals. Although the book discusses a variety of different species, the majority of the stories focus on elephants in Kenya, wolves in Yellowstone National Park, and killer whales in the Pacific Northwest. For all three species, Safina spends great lengths of time following field researchers to learn in detail about each species and about the personalities of individual animals.

The book is filled with powerful stories that emphasize the intelligence and rich emotional lives of the animals Safina follows. I appreciated Safina’s attention to detail and that he chose to follow individual animals and families of animals. I felt this really helped the book come alive, as if I was right there with Safina, following behind him. Although most of the book is delightful, parts of the book are also tragic, as Safina describes how human activity is threatening the families and social fabric of each of these three species. 

Safina asks some deep questions in the book. He returns several times in the book to the interesting question of comparing different animal species to humans. For example, people love to ponder questions such as “How does whale intelligence compare to human intelligence?,” “What would it be like to be a wolf?,” or “In what ways are elephants like us?” These are all very human-centric questions. In several interesting passages, Safina argues that we should appreciate elephants as elephants (or any other species as itself) rather than always just trying to compare them to humans. While we often think many species lack in intelligence or ability, they may very well think the same about us. 

If you’d like to spend a few weeks following elephants, wolves, and killer whales, learning about their behavior, family structure, culture, communication systems, emotions, and intelligence, I recommend taking a look at Carl Safina’s Beyond Words. 

If a lion could speak…

In Beyond words, Safina quotes philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “If a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand him.” We always wish our animals could talk, but it’s interesting to stop and think, what if they could speak English? Perhaps Wittgenstein is right. Their lives and experiences are so different from ours that we wouldn’t even be able to understand what they were trying to say. 

However, even though we can’t talk to animals, we can learn a lot about their lives by studying their behavior and biology. I enjoyed both of these books as they helped me learn more about the fascinating lives, intelligence, emotions, and personality of octopuses, elephants, wolves, killer whales, and other creatures. 

Have you read any interesting books recently?

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