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Good Reads  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Ethology

Incredible Journeys Exploring the Wonders of Animal Navigation

Popular Science
By: David Barrie(Author), Neil Gower(Illustrator)
323 pages, b/w illustrations, b/w maps
A spell-binding book for the general reader on the massive topic of animal navigation and migration.
Incredible Journeys
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  • Incredible Journeys ISBN: 9781473656857 Paperback Mar 2020 Out of stock with supplier: order now to get this when available
  • Incredible Journeys ISBN: 9781473656826 Hardback Apr 2019 Out of Print #245708
Selected version: £10.99
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About this book

In Incredible Journeys, award-winning author David Barrie takes us on a tour of the cutting-edge science of animal navigation, where breakthroughs are allowing scientists to unravel, for the first time, how animals as various as butterflies, birds, crustaceans, fish, reptiles and even people find their way.

Weaving interviews with leading experts on animal behaviour with the groundbreaking discoveries of Nobel-Prize winning neuroscientists, Barrie shines a light on the astounding skills of animals of every stripe. Dung beetles that steer by the light of the Milky Way. Ants and bees that navigate using patterns of light invisible to humans. Sea turtles, spiny lobsters and moths that find their way using the Earth's magnetic field. Salmon that return to their birthplace by following their noses. Baleen whales that swim thousands of miles while holding a rock-steady course and birds that can locate their nests on a tiny island after crisscrossing an entire ocean. There's a stunning diversity of animal navigators out there, often using senses and skills we humans don't have access to ourselves. Incredible Journeys reveals the wonders of these animals in a whole new light.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A spell-binding book for the general reader
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 14 Jun 2019 Written for Hardback

    The ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi (also written Lao Tzu) supposedly wrote that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. But as writer David Barrie shows with Incredible Journeys, before we can even take that step, every journey starts with navigation: where are you and where are you going? Animals of all stripes can make incredibly long journeys, usually without getting lost. This wonderful popular science book explores the remarkable diversity of strategies they employ to find their way.

    The bulk of the book is divided over 25 short, very readable chapters in two parts: non-map and map-based navigation, with a short third concluding part containing the last two chapters. Each chapter ends with a fascinating or peculiar case study, anecdote, or passage that could not be comfortably fitted in the main story. Barrie deftly moves between summarising findings from academic papers, introducing classic studies and pioneering scientists, and first-hand reporting when he joined researchers in the field.

    Humans are visual creatures and Barrie describes how both humans in the past and indigenous people today still rely on the sun and stars for navigation. Landmarks are of course other common features to use, though few people can match the perceptiveness of Inuit navigating the barren snowy landscapes of the Arctic. More unusual cues are characteristic smells and sounds, or the presence of birds near land. Barrie also goes into some of the neurobiology of human navigation, looking at the role of the brain’s hippocampus. Many more details on human navigation can be found in Wayfinding, published around the same time. And for those who want to try their hand at natural navigation, Tristan Gooley and others have turned this into a mini-genre.

    Navigating the world comes with its own terminology and some helpful illustrations show earth’s magnetic field, or how the sun’s path across the sky changes during the seasons. Surprisingly though, basic terms such as azimuth and latitude-longitude are not pictured. Determining longitude, i.e. east-west position, was long a problem, even after the invention of the first navigational aids such as compasses and maps. The story of how it was cracked is told in The Illustrated Longitude and the author’s own Sextant.

    The human story is just a side-show, however, because where this book really shines is its coverage of animal navigation. Barrie mentions well-known examples, such as bees and their famous waggle dance (heavily borrowing from The Dancing Bees), the ability of many insects to observe polarised light (we here meet the specialised area in insect eyes that Land also described in Eyes to See), or the migrations of the monarch butterfly (see also Chasing Monarchs). Many other mechanisms and behaviours will be unfamiliar even to most biologists and Barrie mines the primary literature for some delightful examples.

    What to think of dung beetles navigating in straight lines by the faint light of the milky way? Or the ant’s in-built mental odometer which allows it to count steps (see the forthcoming Desert Navigator), the importance of smell in fish, or spiny lobsters trudging along the sea bottom in a straight line for hundreds of kilometers? Then there is the contested but increasingly well-supported idea that pigeons might be using low-frequency sound (infrasound) generated by natural processes such as wind, waves, and earthquakes. And insects, such as the Australian Bogong moth or the silver ‘Y’ moth in Europe can migrate thousands of kilometres. In closing the book, Barrie remarks that during its writing, he was struck dumb time and again by the extraordinary skills animals show while navigating. His writing instills the same in the reader, to the point that if some of these examples do not leave you in awe, you need to check you still have a pulse.

    I have so far studiously avoided mentioning the two bigger topics that take up quite a bit of space in this book: bird navigation and the role of Earth’s magnetic field. Birds have been particularly well studied (see for example Long Hops or the thorough The Avian Migrant, classics such as The Migration Ecology of Birds and Bird Migration, or the very recent A Season on the Wind), and there are plenty of examples given here of the globe-spanning excursions that birds are so well-known for. Magnetoreception remains a mysterious topic so far: clearly, animals can navigate using geomagnetism, but a well-defined sense organ is not obviously present. Barrie shortly summarises the leading ideas and, as with the rest of the book, he does an admirable job distilling complex topics into clear and enthralling writing.

    Animal migration is a massive topic and Barrie is upfront about only scratching the surface here. Students and practising scientists are well advised to check out textbooks such as Animal Migration and Migration: The Biology of Life on the Move. On the other side of the spectrum, the illustrations here are lovely, but if you really want to marvel at what technology has revealed, check out Where the Animals Go. But how does Barrie’s book compare to other popular science books? Notably, there is Gould & Gould’s Nature's Compass, published in 2012. It covers many of the same topics, but the authors, being biologists, provide more technical detail, no doubt better suiting readers with a background in biology. Heinrich’s The Homing Instinct is perhaps more comparable in level, but migration forms only part of his book, with “animals making a home” being the other topic covered. Incredible Journeys is thus perfect as an entry-level book for a general audience and, with its kaleidoscopic coverage of topics, is a spell-binding read.
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David Barrie grew up on the south coast of England where he fell in love with sailing and – in particular – the art of navigation. At the age of 19 David crossed the Atlantic in the 35-foot yacht 'Saecwen' and the following year competed in the 2000-mile Observer Two-Handed Round Britain Race in Shamaal II – a Contessa 26, one of the smallest entries. In 1981 he sailed his own Contessa 32 from Lymington to the Azores and back, and in 1984 took part as navigator in the China Sea Race from Hong Kong to Manila. In recent years he has cruised in the Hebrides, Norway, the Caribbean and British Columbia. He is a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Navigation and a member of the Royal Cruising Club. David studied Experimental Psychology and Philosophy at Oxford University. His working life has been varied: deck hand on a ferry, diplomat, intelligence analyst, arts adminstrator and campaigner. The great great nephew of the playwright J.M. Barrie, he is married with two daughters and lives in London.

Popular Science
By: David Barrie(Author), Neil Gower(Illustrator)
323 pages, b/w illustrations, b/w maps
A spell-binding book for the general reader on the massive topic of animal navigation and migration.
Media reviews

"David Barrie, who himself has sailed the oceans using a sextant, is passionate about navigation and describes in delightful detail the myriad ways in which animals get around [...] eye-opening book."
– Frans de Waal, The New York Times Book Review

"In this often immensely entertaining book David Barrie explores the latest scientific research [...] What is engrossing about Barrie's book is not just the remarkable behaviour of the individual animals [...] but the often painstaking detective work undertaken by the scientists seeking to discover how they operate [...] [Barrie] is an admirably reliable and assiduous guide to what we do and don't yet know."
– Andrew Holgate, Sunday Times

"Barrie has a good eye for colourful detail [...] Rather than merely telling entertaining stories about cute creatures, he wants us to take responsibility for our own role in throwing the animal world off course."
Mail on Sunday

"Incredible Journeys is a wonderfully refreshing read. The book flawlessly intertwines personal stories from Barrie's past with easily digestible accounts of the academic progress in the field of animal navigation, as well as remarkable tales of human navigation [...] Barrie writes for a general audience, breaking down the complex field of research that is animal navigation and exploring it in a way that engages the reader no matter how limited their background [...] After reading this book you won't be able to look at a bee without respecting their navigational talents."
Navigation News Magazine

Barrie (Sextant), a member of the Royal Institute of Navigation, masterfully conveys new discoveries about animal navigation in this impressive popular science work [...] Each chapter contains a surprise even for those familiar with the topic, such as the theory that homing pigeons make use of smell to navigate. Barrie cleverly stokes readers' curiosity about the subject with short sections at the end of each chapter describing even more remarkable, still unexplained feats [...] This is a must-read for anyone fascinated with the wonders of nature."
Publishers Weekly

"Barrie's passion makes him an engaging guide, flitting from fact to anecdote like a butterfly hunting for nectar."
New Scientist

"This book is packed with extraordinary tales of the navigational abilities of the animal world, and the importance of understanding them [...] crammed with fascinating and often baffling feats of animal navigation."
Sydney Morning Herald

A wonderful combination of science and travel writing that deserves to win awards – David Barrie's book on animal migration is popular science writing at its very best."
Butterfly, the magazine of Butterfly Conservation

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