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Moth: An Evolution Story

Isabel Thomas, Illustrated by Daniel Egnéus
48 pp.
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Moth is a storybook illustration of a textbook tale of environmental degradation, then rehabilitation, and the natural selection driven by both. The tale is vividly brought to life in spellbinding watercolor collage renderings of swirling Geometridae and landscapes caked in soot.

We learn that peppered moths (Biston betularia) in the United Kingdom had a liking for trees covered in lichen, their light-and-dark speckled wing and body coloring camouflaging them as they rested. The more charcoal-colored among them were, as any hungry bird would have told you, more conspicuous and thus extremely rare.

But the Industrial Revolution turned the world upside down, literally turning white to black. Coal-fired factories drowned the sky and everything under it with soot. Trees blackened, lichen succumbed to sulfur dioxide, and the charcoal-colored moths became less conspicuous than their lighter relatives. Again, the birds noticed, and the once-prominent speckled moths became far less common than their charcoal-colored kin.

Eventually, we began to recognize the myriad ills of pollution. The air got cleaner. The trees and lichen recovered. And once again the lighter-speckled moths became more successful at blending in and survived.

Evolution is not always so tidy. But together, Thomas’s words and Egnéus’s illustrations introduce the contours and landmarks of this story in an elegant and engaging fashion. Moth also conveys broader lessons to guide young readers on a journey into a life in science, or just a life well lived: “Scramble through a forest…Be silent. Be still. Look closely…and hope.”

About the author

The reviewer is a senior editor at Science.