Private Lives Reviewed

P. K. L. Ng, S. S. L. Lim, L.-K. Wang & L. W. H. Tan, 2007. Private lives: an exposé of Singapore’s shores: i-viii, 1-212, profusely illustrated in full colour. (The Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, Singapore; see here). ISBN 978-981-05-8717-8.

This book is a real jewel: packed with colour photographs of superior quality, there hardly is a page that is not displaying some intriguing sea creature. Of the 220 printed pages, only the copyright page and the 9-page (taxonomic) index are in simple black-and-white! Of course, there are more books with splendid colour pictures of marine animals, but this book is special in that many photos appear to have been deliberately taken and chosen to exhibit extraordinary features or remarkable behaviour of their various subjects. Indeed these are not the usual pictures, often taken for beauty or amazement, or simply for having success with a large public. In contrast, the pictures printed herein are already telling a story of their own by highlighting some intriguing feature, or structural detail, or interesting behavioural aspect of the animal or plant depicted. Even for the specialist there is a lot to discover by studying each and every photo meticulously. And truly, the quality is so high that even the smaller figures are capable of revealing a lot of details. What to think of a series of pictures of egg masses, some just forming a clump, others in a delicate, orderly arrangement; the upside-sown jellyfish with its symbiotic zooxanthellae; the delicate structure of worm casts; the anal cerci of Ligia regulating the isopod’s salt content; … and so on and so forth.

The text is also special: the authors, all well-known marine biologists and university teachers, have availed themselves of the opportunity this publication has offered them to share their broad experience and knowledge with a wide public, evidently ranging from the interested (and educated) layman to the highly critical colleague abroad. The result is a collection of stories describing aspects of the everyday life of an array of animals that populate the shores of Singapore, arranged around themes, like, e.g., “The vegetarians”, “The sanitary engineers”, “The killer elite”, “The master camoufleurs”, to pick out a few of the 14 categories treated. As the authors indicate themselves, they have purposefully chosen not to make an identification guide, but rather a text telling about the intricate structure and the way of life of representative or peculiar animals and plants, and how these cope in the harsh environment of the borderzone between sea and land. In doing so, they draw attention to “marvels of nature” that would otherwise have easily been overlooked, and next they concisely but clearly explain the phenomenon in focus. For instance, the stages of the reproductive cycle of the flowering plant Enhalus are disclosed in six informative photographs; micrograph details of a mollusc’s radula are used to explain the functioning of that organ; a mud crab caught in the act of clipping off a mud ball from its mouthparts evokes a story on the processing of mud in order to extract the organic material from it for a living; and also here I could go on, for these are the tales that make up the book.

The order of the chapters thus follows the “production line” of Nature, starting with plants and continuing with herbivores, carnivores, etc. An obviously logical way of presenting a text devoted to the functioning of the seashore environment, and hence giving the best possible insight into the actual processes governing the food webs and nutrient cycles of this aggregation of marvellous habitats. The headings of the various sections have been edited so as to produce quite appalling phrases: “Standing on your head” for a two-page exposé on barnacles; “The living vacuum cleaner” to characterize creeper snails; “Living dinosaurs” to denote the birds; … etc., etc.

As regards the representation of Crustacea, we carcinologists can be more than pleased. Members of our group are amply represented, and by series of different species: barnacles, rhizocephalans, isopods, amphipods, ghost shrimps, stomatopods, true shrimps and prawns, hermit crabs, porcelain crabs, and many, many crabs, of course, including zoeae and megalopae. Again, the stories told are full of detail as, e.g., the special cutting tooth in the right chela of Calappa, clearly depicted and its role in gathering food fully explained, including the correlation of the right-handed crab with the dextral whorling of most gastropod shells.

Evidently, other groups are represented as well, from all major groups of algae, along with relavant flowering plants, through sponges, cnidarians, nemerteans, annelids, molluscs, echinoderms, tunicates, true fish, sea snakes, seabirds, and mammals, up to man inclusive.

In short, the quality of the pictures and of the text alike, moulded within the framework of a treatment by trophic level rather than by taxonomic group, appears to work perfectly well. The reader is constantly challenged to move to the next intriguing section, right from the very first page, up to the acknowledgements. This set-up also has an educational aspect: people will be invited to think about how things work in nature rather than merely recognizing an array of species of different form. They will presumably (as one may hope) be stimulated to see rather than merely look: for the majority of mankind looks without seeing all there is to see for the trained eye. We, biologists, have been trained to see, and through books like this we export our ability to people without an education in the life sciences: I am sure that will be appreciated by many!

To conclude, the lay-out of this compact book has been masterfully designed by Kepmedia International Pte Ltd. and deserves special mention here: the already splendid material provided by the scientists has been exquisitely merged together into the little gem this book has become. Everyone with an interest in the sea and/or in crustaceans, who has a chance to have a look into this book will immediately buy it: of that I am convinced!

J. C. von Vaupel Klein

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