cover image The Modern Bestiary: A Curated Collection of Wondrous Wildlife

The Modern Bestiary: A Curated Collection of Wondrous Wildlife

Joanna Bagniewska. Smithsonian, $29.95 (256p) ISBN 978-15883-4730-5

Zoologist Bagniewska debuts with a brilliant tour of the animal kingdom’s oddities. Inspired by medieval bestiaries, or illustrated texts on creatures “containing natural history information (factual or otherwise), doused in didactic sauce with a strongly Christian flavour,” Bagniewska offers concise and witty descriptions of 100 critters. There are roundworms who “force ants into impersonating fruit,” a tarantula that “keeps frogs as pets,” jellyfish that defy death, peacock mantis shrimp with eyes that are “among the most complex in the animal kingdom,” foxes with ears so big they make up a third of their height, and butterflies that are “able to make crocodiles cry, only to drink their tears.” Bagniewska admirably moves beyond trivia and delivers insights into ecology and evolution (explaining, for instance, how mole salamanders, who form “a female-only species,” managed to survive, and how sea cucumbers evolved to protect themselves) and eschews simplistic conclusions: “Pretty much any such point can be proven or disproven if you dig into the animal kingdom deep enough,” she writes. Nature lovers will be eager to see what Bagniewska does next. (Sept.)