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Good Reads  Earth System Sciences  Atmosphere  Climatology

Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid How the Natural World is Adapting to Climate Change

Popular Science
By: Thor Hanson(Author)
281 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Icon Books
Nature writer Thor Hanson explores how climate change influences the biology of a diverse cast of animals.
Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid
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  • Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid ISBN: 9781785789786 Paperback Feb 2023 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1 week
  • Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid ISBN: 9781785788475 Hardback Feb 2022 In stock
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About this book

A fascinating insight into climate change biology around the globe, as well as in our own backyards.

Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid is the first major book by a biologist to focus on the fascinating story of how the natural world is adjusting, adapting, and sometimes measurably evolving in response to climate change. Lyrical and thought-provoking, this book broadens the climate focus from humans to the wider lattice of life.

Bestselling nature writer Thor Hanson – author of Buzz (a Radio 4 'Book of the Week') – shows us how Caribbean lizards have grown larger toe pads to grip trees more tightly during frequent hurricanes; and how the 'plasticity' of squid has allowed them to change their body size and breeding habits to cope with altered sea temperatures.

Plants and animals have a great deal to teach us about the nature of what comes next, because for many of them, and also for many of us, that world is already here.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A well-structured and smooth introduction to climate change biology
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 6 Mar 2023 Written for Paperback

    If you had asked me last week how animals and plants will respond to climate change, I probably would have told you that they are expected to move towards the poles, shifting their home ranges as temperatures rise. This is indeed one possible response, but the challenges and opportunities for organisms are far more diverse and unpredictable. Biologist Thor Hanson has previously written much-praised books on feathers, seeds, and bees. Here, he gives a well-structured and terribly interesting whistle-stop tour of the nascent field of climate change biology and some of the fascinating research that is underway.

    Part of what makes Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid a very readable book is its logical organisation. Hanson sets the stage with the history of our discovery that the world was not constant but subject to change, and the discovery of carbon dioxide. But the book revolves around the challenges that organisms face, their responses, and the results. All three hold diverse surprises. To flesh out this framework, each chapter discusses several examples of exciting research, glued together with autobiographical anecdotes.

    As the climate changes, so does the timing of seasonal events (the study of which is known as phenology). When for instance plants flower earlier, pollinators might still be absent or in hibernation. Increasingly, species "find themselves in the right places at the wrong times" (p. 39). Rising temperatures can push animals to the edge of their comfort zone, and work on lizards shows they spend more time sheltering to avoid overheating, which is time not spent foraging. Work on starfish has shown that heat pulses can encourage disease outbreaks, contributing to marine epidemics. On land, forests in North America and Canada are suffering from one of the largest insect outbreaks in history, with bark beetles moving north almost unimpeded. Thousands of species are on the move, though rarely at the same speed or even in the same direction, making the situation so chaotic as to be unpredictable. Biologists have started talking of global weirding as whole ecosystems are now unravelling and rearranging themselves, challenging both the species remaining behind and the invaders trying to settle into new environments. Part of the reason that organisms move is that certain requirements in their habitat are no longer met and research on various mollusc species reveals how they struggle to build, maintain, and repair their shells as the oceans absorb carbon dioxide and acidify.

    But all is not lost, "nature is not defenseless" (p. 82). Plants and animals can and do respond, and biologists often summarize it with the acronym MAD: Move, Adapt, or Die. Though, as Hanson goes on to show, that rather undersells it. Earlier chapters already discussed moving as a response, and populations can redistribute themselves surprisingly quickly. Even trees move, a story which has a fascinating deep-time component not mentioned here. However, there are limits to how far polewards or upslope you can go. Near the top of both you run out of habitat, and work on mountain top specialists amongst birds has demonstrated species winking out of existence. Other species, the plastic squid of the book's title, are incredibly flexible, whether in their behaviour or morphology. Humboldt squid in the Gulf of California seemingly disappeared in response to heat stress, until scientists realised they matured in half the normal time, staying much smaller as a result. There is also some delightful work described here on the titular hurricane lizards that documented an evolutionary response in Caribbean anole lizards in the wake of hurricanes, involving both long-term meteorological data and a leaf blower. Hanson's chapter on refugia is absolutely fascinating. There are places where stable microclimates allow plants and animals to hunker down and ride out the storm, with sites in Europe and North America still harbouring survivors from the last ice age.

    As the book progresses, Hanson managed to draw me in further with ever more fascinating ideas and clever explanations. I was sold on his pitch for the final part of the book where he explores the results from the interplay of challenges and responses. He covers the "potentials and pitfalls of prognostication, how models are made, how surprises are certain, and how the clearest sign of what to expect may lie in what has already happened" (p. 151). He nimbly explains the concept and history of the Holdridge Life Zone System. This has become a staple of ecology textbooks that combines certain climate variables to predict vegetation and habitat conditions and has been ground-truthed and refined over the decades. But model predictions can mislead, and checking what actually happens on the ground can give surprising insights. The little auk is a bird species that lives near the North Pole and feeds at the edge of the ice shelf. It was predicted to follow the retreating ice northwards, but instead has turned to a new local food source: zooplankton shocked to death by freshwater pulses from melting glaciers. Joshua trees, meanwhile, are an evolutionary anachronism, "haunted and hampered by the past" (p. 185). They cannot spread northwards because our ancestors extirpated their seed disperser, the giant ground sloth. And in what seems to be applied lessons lifted straight from Felisa Smith's textbook Mammalian Paleoecology, Hanson discusses what the past can reveal, because "while the drivers of this episode may be different [...] climate change is nothing new" (p. 187). He delves (literally) into the value of packrat middens and discusses the relevance of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum as the best past analogue for what is in store for us.

    Given that this book is a whistle-stop tour of climate change biology, it is inevitable that some topics are not explored. Fortunately, other books pick up that slack, with e.g. Greenhouse Planet discussing what all that extra atmospheric carbon dioxide means for plant growth. And Hanson only dips his toes into the impact of climate change on humans by referencing a smidge of environmental history and pointing out that our responses today often mirror those of animals and plants.

    It has been a few years since I reviewed Hanson's last book and I am embarrassed to admit that I forgot just how captivating and accessible his writing is. An enthusiastic science communicator, he seems to have the enviable ability to find researchers working on underreported topics and get them to spill their beans. Hanson effortlessly combines accessible reporting with insights into fundamental biological and climatological processes. To this, he adds a spoonful of endearing personal anecdotes to make for a delightfully smooth introduction to climate change biology.
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Thor Hanson is a biologist whose previous books include The Impenetrable Forest, Feathers (longlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize), The Triumph of Seeds, and Buzz. He lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest, USA.

Popular Science
By: Thor Hanson(Author)
281 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Icon Books
Nature writer Thor Hanson explores how climate change influences the biology of a diverse cast of animals.
Media reviews

"An original, wide-ranging and carefully researched book [...] contains important lessons for humanity."
– Mark Cocker, The Spectator

"[A] fascinating exploration of climate change, exploring the adaptation of species in different habitats. Hanson is a biologist whose passion and expertise are writ large here, as he combines personal observations [...] with the latest scientific research in a lively, engaging and optimistic assessment of the planet's future."
– Hannah Beckerman, The Observer

"Hanson supplies abundant reason to marvel at nature's ingenuity, but also to fear for it in the face of the drastic changes we are generating."
– Philip Ball, The Guardian, 'Book of the Day'

"While humans wrestle with net zero targets and greenwashing, other species have had to adapt to the impacts of climate change, as American biologist, Thor Hanson, reveals in this carefully researched book. His accounts of how squid have responded to warmer waters, and lizards to fierce storms, are both poignant and sobering."
Financial Times, Environment Summer Books of 2022

"Nature-lovers [...] will marvel at the incredible ingenuity of creatures across the globe."
Publishers Weekly

"This compelling read will spark the interest of everyone who cares about what is happening to the natural world."
– Library Journal (starred review)

"A masterful storyteller, Hanson interweaves his own formative experiences into the narrative [...] The book's forward-looking approach seems intended to encourage readers' curiosity about climate change, with the notion that, once suitably informed, they will feel compelled to take action."

Hanson is an affable guide and storyteller, with a knack for analogy, a sense of humor and the natural curiosity of a scientist."
New York Times

[Hanson is] an ideal guide to a topic that might otherwise send readers down a well of despair. [...] The challenge feels overwhelming, and as a single concerned citizen, much feels out of my hands. Yet Hanson's words did inspire me to take a cue from the rest of the species on this warming world to do what I can."
Science News

Close study of how animals are living with climate change reveals that humans are at the center of more things than we realize [...] [Hanson makes] glaringly clear that we are not in command of what we have set in motion. The biodiversity and versatility on display in the animal kingdom of which we are part have lots to teach us. To remain at home in the world, we too will need to change."
The Atlantic

"From the author of the much-loved Buzz comes a fascinating look at the transformations that are already underway all round the world [...] Hanson combines an in-depth understanding of climate change biology with lyrical writing and philosophical insight."
The Bath Magazine

"Interesting and thought-provoking [...] This book is well worth reading, to embrace and take on the wider perspective that nature is more adaptable and able to change than we might realise."
Irish Tech News

"An enjoyable, thought provoking book."
– Brian Clegg, Popular Science

"[A] whirlwind tour of the biological impacts of climate change [...] easy and enjoyable to read."
– Tegan Armarego-Marriott, Nature Climate Change

"This isn't a doomsday look at the future of the Earth, but encourages the reader to think critically about the impact we have on the planet, offering valuable lessons for humankind to learn [...] [An] excellent read."
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