Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Book Review: Hidden Kingdom is More Than "Eye Candy"

The latest offering from scientist, author, and photographer extraordinaire Piotr Naskrecki is sure to surprise and delight even the most seasoned tropical naturalist, student of entomology, and globe-trotting eco-traveler. Hidden Kingdom: The Insect Life of Costa Rica (Comstock Publishing Associates, Cornell University Press, 2017) represents one of the best introductions to arthropods in general, regardless of the geographic limitations noted in the title.

The centerpiece of this book, like his previous works, the critically acclaimed The Smaller Majority and Relics: Travels in Nature's Time Machine, is Naskrecki's mind-blowing imagery of creatures easily overlooked in the natural landscape. He literally renders his subjects larger than life, but then explains how the impact of these invertebrates far exceeds their diminutive stature. So, the magnified macro-world in pictures is simply a reflection of the unheralded, underestimated import of insects, spiders, other arachnids, and crustaceans to the rest of life on Earth. He further communicates this with clear, assertive prose that elevate any reader's understanding of the natural world.

The organization of the book makes it all the more inviting to those who might be unfamiliar with insects (the first chapter asks "What is This?"), or even downright afraid of them. He addresses the intimidation factor head-on in the chapter "Is it Dangerous?" He deftly explains why appearances like "Horns, Spines, and Claws" can be deceiving, but tiny sand flies and mosquitoes can put you in the hospital because of the tinier-still parasitic microbes that they inject when they bite you.

Remaining chapters discuss how insects survive through camouflage, chemical defenses, advertisement of those chemical defenses, and mimicry of other species with chemical defenses, as well as how insects communicate and how those devices for talking to each other allowed some insects to ascend to the truest societies in the animal kingdom.

Scientific terms are generally explained in context, with their first usage in the text, though the book might still have benefited by a glossary, even in place of the index. Some of the taxonomy (scientific classification) differs from what I have come to know, but there exist differences even in scientific circles and these discrepancies cannot be considered errors. Yes, there are a couple of grammatical errors, but I have yet to read a contemporary book without any.

Naskrecki refrains from preaching about the imperiled ecosystem that is tropical forests, and considering that he no doubt witnesses deforestation and other destructive practices every time he goes afield, this restraint is admirable and refreshing. If anyone ever asks "what's the big deal" if we cut down the Amazon, hand them a copy of Hidden Kingdom and ask them to get back to you. This book is a testament to exactly what is at stake for not just the healthy functioning of our planet, but for the future of advances in medicine and other human endeavors.

I would not hesitate to recommend Hidden Kingdom as a textbook for any college-level introductory entomology course. The initial chapter alone informs all the major orders of insects, independent of Costa Rica; but, those professors who teach classes in tropical natural history would do well to assign this book in advance of field trips to the New World rainforests, and dry forests.

Naskrecki has made advances in tropical biology of a magnitude comparable to Darwin, Wallace, and other heroic naturalists of a bygone era. One can scarcely believe that Piotr has the time to write and illustrate books, share his findings on social media (Facebook in particular), lead film crews into the forest (PBS Nature's six-part "Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise"), or mentor other photographers (BugShot macrophotography workshops), but he accomplishes all of this and more. His is a brilliant mind and generous spirit that are a rare combination. Naskrecki is without question one of the most publicly accessible scientists of our time, even considering that the digital age makes nearly everyone "followable."

Hidden Kingdom is a paperback book of 208 pages. Forgive the awkward dimensions (10 X 10 inches), as it dramatically amplifies the impact of the magnificent photos. Reward and promote excellence in science and art by treating yourself, your family, and friends to a copy of this most outstanding reference.

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