The Raptor and the Lamb: Predators and Prey in the Living World

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9780805042986: The Raptor and the Lamb: Predators and Prey in the Living World
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Based on an up-close examination of fossils, a study of predator-prey relationships explores the vast interdependent chain of existence that has existed throughout natural history. 10,000 first printing.

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Review:

"Most animals are either eaten or eat other animals," writes zoologist Christopher McGowan. "Plants, too, are often consumed by animals. Consequently the chances of being devoured, or of eating some other organism in order to survive, are exceedingly high." McGowan looks at several kinds of predator-prey relationships, examining such creatures as the supposedly rapacious crocodile (a surprisingly light eater, when all the facts are in), the big cats (whose prey usually outweighs them but cannot compete with a lion's or tiger's explosive force), and a host of snakes, spiders, and insects. Packed with facts, The Raptor and the Lamb makes a fine--if sometimes gruesome--introduction to biology.

Review:

The most striking event of our vacation this summer was the morning we looked out of our window to see one of "our" half-tame greater spotted woodpeckers being eaten by "our" not quite so tame resident pine marten. The world, said Erasmus Darwin, "would seem to be one great slaughterhouse ... whose first law might be expressed in the words 'eat or be eaten'." The Raptor and the Lamb is an eloquent exposition of the consequence of being somewhere in the food chain.

The heart of the book is a series of loving accounts, written in a plain prose that verges on poetry, of the behavioural, physiological and anatomical adaptations of predators for the capture of prey, and of the prey for the avoidance of capture. The pas de deux of the hunter and the hunted, whether in the unfamiliar world of the blind copepod, a minute crustacean, finding its prey by sensing "near-field displacements" in the water, or the more familiar world of the zebra throttled by the lion, is analysed in a style that makes for compulsive reading. Christopher McGowan clearly loves animals and their adaptations, and this is a thoroughly enjoyable popular account, written for the reader who likes something meatier than a TV wildlife spectacular. The illustrator, Abigail Rorer, deserves a better billing for her charming line drawings than the admittedly handsome mention in the acknowledgments.

Vertebrate predators take the lion's share of the text: mammals, birds, reptiles and sharks, hunting by sea, air and land. Comparative morphology and physiology are more fun in this book than I could ever have believed; they are then applied to make some excellently cautious and reasonable constructions of the predatory interactions of dinosaurs, and a wonderful foray into the different sensory world of the predatory planktonic crustacea. The text throughout is punctuated with visually vivid vignettes describing individual acts of attack and destruction.

I am intrigued by McGowan's apparent rejection of the concept of a co-evolutionary "arms race" between the prey and the predator. The adaptations of the predators, he makes it very clear and in elegant detail, have evolved for the apprehension of their prey. He proposes however that the evolution of counter-strategies by the prey does not in itself cause any further evolution by the predator. The running abilities of African herbivores are not a response to their being hunted, but are an adaptation for traveling long distances in search of grazing. The gazelle's ability to sprint from a cheetah is merely a by-product of its need to run efficiently in search of grass. But using an analogous argument, I can challenge McGowan's belief that moths which mimic butterflies have been forced to become diurnal, to fly with their model. Surely, it is moths that are already diurnal that evolve mimicry.

The chapters on camouflage, natural chemical warfare, and plant defenses through trichomes (their surface outgrowths) and secondary compounds, are good but less compelling. McGowan is at his best with the sheer physicality of hunting; the magnificence of top predators such as falcons, lions, cheetahs and hunting dogs, or the effect of viscosity on motion at the scale of the plankton. In its objectivity and refusal to be emotional, the text be becomes very moving -- for example, in the account of "suicide" by an African buffalo cornered by five lions. The spectre of sudden or more often lingering death haunts the pages through to the eloquently understated final vignette, where, in case you thought it was safe to go into the garden, Homo sapiens appears as a surprising victim of the eternal struggle. -- Reviewed by: John R.G. Turner - "Nature" Magazine, School of Biology, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, U.K.

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