Strange And Shocking Animal Abilities Are The Focus Of This Neurobiologist’s New Book

Who is the fastest hunter in the animal kingdom?

Are fish capable of mind control?

Can snakes trick prey into swimming right into their mouths?

Neurobiologist Kenneth Catania was curious about these and other questions, and set out to answer them in his new book, “Great Adaptations.”

For as much as we know about the Animal Kingdom, there are yet countless secrets that lay undiscovered. And perhaps no one understands this better than Catania. According to Science News, Catania remembers the first time he saw a star-nosed mole in a children’s book. When he was 10, he found one dead near a stream by his home. And in college, he worked on a project that saw him trapping the animals in the wetlands of Pennsylvania.

The frilled nose of a star-nosed mole.
Source: YouTube/OMSI
The frilled nose of a star-nosed mole.

Throughout most of his life, Catania had no idea what the mole’s signature star nose was used for. So, he set to find out.

Care to join him?

Kenneth Catania is the author of "Great Adaptations."
Source: YouTube/OMSI
Kenneth Catania is the author of “Great Adaptations.”

The story of the star-nosed mole and similar mysteries from the Animal Kingdom form the premise for “Great Adaptations.” In this work, Catania looks at some of the more curious, yet often overlooked, features of animals on Earth, from the blazing fast attack of the ravenous water shrew, to the cockroach’s unique defense against body-snatching wasps, to leaping electric eels.

“It’s part of human nature to be intrigued by mysteries, but the mystery only gets us to the door,” Catania said. “You never know what you might find on the other side.”

For one experiment, Catania put his arm into a tank of water with an electric eel.
Source: YouTube/Vanderbilt University
For one experiment, Catania put his arm into a tank of water with an electric eel.

Catania begins each story with an anecdote from his personal life. He explains his first exposure to these creatures which, not unlike many viewers, is typically far from the role of biological researcher. Catania doesn’t let an overabundance of research data get in the way of telling a good story. He lets the animals most interesting traits tell it on their own.

“The animals are always able to do something unexpected and more interesting than I’d imagined,” he said.

Lofty discussions aside, this book is not strictly for the layperson. Catania keeps each segment interesting enough to surprise even the stodgiest readers. In investigating electric eels, for instance, Catania offers the writing creatures his own arm as prey, suffering through the shock in the name of science.

Catania has studied the fascinating rivalry between cockroaches and wasps.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Catania has studied the fascinating rivalry between cockroaches and wasps.

By the end, it’s clear that Catania learned more from his experiments than he expected. And he admits, there is still so much to learn.

“I’ve stopped assuming I know the limits of animal abilities,” he said.

Learn more in the video below.

02 Great Adaptations by Kenneth Catania from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.

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