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A friendly tour of unusual animal adaptations misses many highlights

Strange Survivors: How Organisms Attack and Defend in the Game of Life

Oné R. Pagán
BenBella Books
240 pp.
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The Iberian ribbed newt (Pleurodeles waltl) is an evolutionary biologist’s dream. Unremarkable in appearance, with rough slate-colored skin, it’s found across the Iberian Peninsula and southward in Morocco. Nondescript perhaps, but the newt is superlative. When threatened, its ribs puncture the sides of its body like a row of defensive spears. At the same time, it releases venom that coats its newly exposed ribs.

Elsewhere, evolution has resulted in countless other species with survival strategies as strange as, or stranger than, the Iberian ribbed newt’s. West Chester University biologist Oné R. Pagán describes many of them in Strange Survivors.

An expert in flatworms, Pagán introduces us to a variety of creatures well practiced in attacking and defending themselves, from cone snails and jellyfish to poison toads and spitting spiders. There is the slow loris (Nycticebus genus), a nocturnal primate from Southeast Asia that produces a two-stage toxin in glands on its arms. When it licks the already-poisonous toxin from its glands, the loris’s saliva activates it and makes it more potent still. Like many species, it is unaffected by its own toxin. We meet venomous shrews; mantis shrimp armed with percussively powerful limbs; electric eels, capable of generating 800 volts of electricity; and toxic birds, such as the pitohui of New Guinea, which not only are inedible but also can cause sneezing, stinging, nausea, and numbness when handled.

The first chapter is a primer on evolution; the second provides an outline of important biological concepts such as DNA, metabolism, replication, life, and death. Frustratingly, though, examples of the strange highly evolved species that fill the book’s later chapters are few and far between. This is a mistake. It’s too much to ask a reader to digest nearly 50 pages of background information with only a glimpse at the organisms alluded to in the book’s title.


The slow loris produces a potent toxin in glands on its arms.

Scientific writing—even when it is intended for a lay audience—requires precision. Instead of specifics, however, Pagán often resorts to generalities, describing a cell membrane as “rather versatile,” a snail’s venom-injecting mechanism as “rather sophisticated,” and a fish’s startle response as “rather useful.” The text is punctuated throughout with clichés, another sign of imprecision, including: “to be fair,” “come to think of it,” “truth be told,” and “by the way.” The book’s many footnotes, several of which send the reader on a detour to the bottom of the page only to find an unnecessary aside about Star Trek, are a bit tiring.

Strange Survivors also falls short on a more fundamental level. As far as unusual survival strategies are concerned, the Tree of Life is heavy with fruit. No one would expect a single book to be exhaustive—Pagán himself admits that the book contains but a “small fraction” of unusual survival strategies employed by animals—but he fails to mention so many candidates that eventually one becomes aware of their omission.

There are almost 70 species of flying fish belonging to the Exocoetidae family, that, when threatened, leap from the water and fly using long winglike fins, for instance. They can remain airborne for more than 40 seconds and fly for hundreds of feet. But Pagán doesn’t mention them.

He doesn’t mention the bombardier beetle either, which defends itself with an almost-boiling cloud of noxious gas that explodes from its abdomen. Or the boxer crabs of the Lybia genus, which hold a sea anemone in each claw, like colorful pom-poms, to help them catch prey. Or Octopoteuthis deletron, a squid that willfully detaches one of its arms to confuse predators.

He doesn’t discuss the defensive strategies of the skunk or the porcupine. He doesn’t mention mimicry at all, missing an opportunity to highlight the elephant hawk moth (Deilephila elpenor) caterpillar, which resembles a snake, and the larvae of the alder moth (Acronicta alni), which look like bird droppings.

He doesn’t mention camouflage either, neglecting the chameleons and cephalopods that change color so that they match their surroundings; the stick insects that evolved, over millions of years, to become indistinguishable from the tree branches on which they stand; and the stonefish, which resembles, well, a stone.

A better book would have mentioned at least some of these incredible strategies, even briefly, in a bid to illustrate the richness of biodiversity that surrounds us. Regardless, it is clear that Pagán cares deeply for his subject. Even in its incompleteness, his book sent me on a careful search for the creatures he omitted.

As rabbit holes go, it was a pleasant one, riddled with strange and sinuous half-hidden tunnels. Searches like that are filled with meaning. That alone may be enough reason to read Strange Survivors.

About the author

The reviewer is the author of The Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2017).