You, your children and your grandchildren are unlikely ever to meet face-to-face a giant oarfish (Regalecus glesne); Thompson’s caecilian (Caecilia thompsoni); albatross (Diomedeidae); Indian star tortoise (Geochelone elegans); northern gannet (Morus bassanus); Arctic hare (lepus arcticus) or narwhal toothed whale (Monodon monaceros).
But you still have an opportunity to see these and some 160 other magnificent creatures in the 97-page, hard-cover Muzeon Hahayot (Animal Museum) just published in Hebrew by the Schocken Publishing House.
The original – which at 40 X 30 cm. qualifies as a coffee-table book but is full of intelligent text to read rather than only captioned drawings – was published in English by Templar Publishing in the UK four years ago and titled Animalium. The NIS 99 edition for Hebrew speakers is printed in sepia on high-grade, thick paper and is a feast for the eyes.
It was capably written by British children’s author Jenny Bloom with stunningly beautiful illustrations by Katie Scott and expertly translated into Hebrew by Dr. Avi Arbel. Scott’s illustrations are reminiscent of the rich paintings of birds by 19th century American ornithologist and naturalist John James Audubon. Even though Bloom writes books for youngsters, Animal Museum will be interesting to adults as well.
Animalium, a best-seller in the US and around the world, was the first in a series of virtual museums where you can “wander” through galleries that are “open” 365 days a year, so one can expect to see more of the series from the Israeli publisher. Each of the six chapters features a different branch of the tree of life, from the invertebrates to the huge muskox. Some are in danger of extinction.
As several of the creatures, like the orange-and-black-spotted Gila monster, are poisonous, it’s fortunate that you are not nearby but able to view this Heloderma on two pages.
Dr. Sandra Knapp of London’s Natural History Museum writes in the introduction, “We share our planet with about two million other species of living things – and these are only those we know and have named.” This variety of creatures may seem far away and not part of our daily life, but this biological diversity is what protects the planet Earth as a good place to live, she continues.
“We humans are one species of living things, like a jellyfish or giraffe, so we are part of the biological variety and share Earth with all the others.” Without the others, most of them tiny insects and part of the food chain, man would not be able to eat. They also trigger our imaginations.
Knapp added that all the creatures in the natural history “museum” are contemporary and living somewhere on the planet, and that she hoped that “we will be able to imagine a future in which we humans can share this planet in a good way with these wonderful species. After all, Earth is home for all of us.”
The invertebrates were bunched together not because they have so many characteristics in common but because they are all lacking a spine consisting of vertebrae. Most of them, according to the author, originated as early as 540,000 years ago. As they comprise 97% of the animal kingdom and are found in nearly every corner of the globe, they have proven themselves to be developmentally successful. They include insects; crabs, lobsters and related species; snails, clams, octopuses and their kin; starfish, sponges, sea-urchins and their relatives; jellyfish; and worms.
The sponges developed from single-cells animals. Sea-dwelling fossils found in south Australia were found to be 665 million years old. Since they have no nervous system or internal organs, it would be easy to regard them as plants, but in fact they are animals that live off bacteria and tiny creatures and react to stimulants from their environment. Sponges have a hollow inside so that they can be nourished by oxygen and food and eliminate carbon dioxide. A few species even have substances that are of medical value, so they are of special importance to man.
Cephalopods (“head-feet”) are molluscs that include the squid, octopus or nautilus, all marine animals with tentacles, a prominent head, a bilateral body and usually the ability to squirt black “ink.” Jellyfish come in 10,000 varieties that attach themselves to rocks but also are very good swimmers that paralyze or poison and gobble up other creatures.
Man has identified as many as 10,000 different kinds of flying insects. They have an external, boneless but hard skeleton and jointed extremities; insects are also characterized by metamorphosis from larvae to adult stages. The butterfly’s life cycle passes through four stages – egg, larva, pupa and adult.
There are some 365,000 kilometers of beaches on Earth and many creatures such as crabs, clams and others with shells occupy them. Some can open their shells a bit to filter the food from the water. Exposed at low tide to the air, they are covered by salt or sweet water when the tide rises. Some, like barnacles, have glands that release a glue-like substance to stick them to the rocks.
Fish were the first cold-blooded vertebrates to evolve from the invertebrates; some prefer warm water while others live in freezing cold water. Their fins evolved into the legs of the first tetrapod land vertebrates, which are amphibians. Because of kashrut considerations, observant Jews are well aware of which fish have scales and fins and are thus kosher.
Sharks, going back 420 million years ago, lack scales and are obviously not kosher. The largest predator in the world is the great white shark, which is six meters long. Instead of bones, sharks have cartilage that enables them to be light and flexible in the water. Some lay eggs while others give birth to live offspring. They float in the water like birds fly in the air; if they stop swimming, they drop to the seabed. Their sense of smell is so acute, that they not only sense blood but also electrical signals released by their prey.
Their teeth grow constantly to replace those that have become dull. Ray fish are all flat, composed from cartilage, with long tails like cats. They spend most of their time on the seabed waiting to catch their victims; they use camouflage to blend in with the colors below. They can identify their prey’s weak electrical signals released by the muscles and nerves more easily in salt water than in the air because of the better conduction.
Corals, as Israelis know well from the Eilat region, are magnificent creatures with soft bodies that live together on the seabed. Coral polyps are related to sea anemones and jellyfish; at their base is a hard, protective limestone skeleton called a calicle that forms the structure of coral reefs when a polyp attaches itself to a rock and buds into thousands of clones. Corals are sometimes considered the “rain forests of the oceans” because of the many other creatures that live among them.
Amphibians get their names from he Greek word meaning “living in the water and also on land.” They first developed 370 million years ago from fish that developed lungs. Cold-blooded creatures, the amphibians lay jelly-like, transparent eggs. Reptiles that evolved from them were more successful at adapting, thus amphibians are smaller in number than those that live exclusively on the land. Able to breathe through their skin as well as their lungs, they spend the winter sleeping under water while their metabolism slows down dramatically.
Frogs also undergo complete metamorphosis, after growing lungs, they lose their gills and tail along the way. In some varieties, the male keeps the eggs in a sac in its stomach, while in a type that lives in Europe, the female carries the eggs in a sac on its back. All frogs have a very good sense of hearing and can communicate with others living great distances away by croaking.
Turtles, which are reptiles going back 220 million years, are categorized as living in swamps, on dry land and in water. They are even older denizens of the Earth than snakes, alligators, crocodiles and lizards that appeared “only” 140 million years ago. Those turtles that live on land have harder, more domed shells than those in the water that are softer and flatter. They may move very slowly, but they usually have very long lives, some of them a century or more.
Serpents, mentioned as an evil creature in Genesis, apparently developed from lizards and lost their limbs in the process. There are some 3,400 different kinds, all of which can swallow their pray whole and digest them without chewing them up.
The original birds, according to the author, were unable to fly and evolved from the dinosaurs that lived in trees 150 million years ago. In this way, they survived the disaster that killed off the dinosaurs. All bird species are warm blooded and have wings. While ostriches and penguins are too heavy to fly, most birds have hollow bones and beaks that enable them to take to the sky. In fact, albatrosses spend most of their time in the air and catch prey, touching down only to nest and raise their chicks.
Flamingoes, ibises and storks all have thin, long legs and necks and subsist near or in the water from small creatures. Flamingoes, especially, are very social birds that warn each other about dangers. In the wild, they eat brine shrimp, algae, crustaceans and aquatic plants, but in the zoo, they are served a special diet rich in carotenoids to preserve their pink-orange colors.
Birds of prey such as hawks, eagles and vultures are at the top of the food chain, meaning that no other creatures feed on them. Their feet are designed to hold their prey tightly and feed on them. Exotic birds like parrots and macaws boast bright, eye-catching colors – at least the males that use their feathery costumes to attract females in elaborate, showy dances. Among their relatives are tiny hummingbirds that are the only birds able to fly backwards. Owls, with their two eyes, humanlike, in the front of their faces, thus look intelligent but don’t have very high IQs. Nevertheless, they are awake at night, have acute hearing and are very good catching small mammals to eat.
Birds living in the forest include many songbirds that warn their counterparts of danger and migrate as part of flocks over long distances to find food and appropriate climates.
We, of course, feel closest to warm-blooded mammals that are suckled by their mothers. Marsupials, which include kangaroos, koalas, wombats and possums, have pouches to raise their young, came from Australia and the Americas and date back 50 million years ago.
Unlike most mammals, elephants have no sweat glands and thus can get hot easily; fortunately, their big ears allow them to fan themselves, and they can cool off in the water, where they are good swimmers.
Rodents multiply quickly and comprise 40% of all mammals. They include mice, rats, prairie dogs, porcupines, beavers, rabbits, hares, squirrels, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils and capybaras. Their teeth grow constantly, requiring them to chew food to erode them. A mouse can give birth to large litter of many pups, even 100 in a single year.
Bats are the only flying mammals; their echolocation skills make it possible for them to find food at night via their radar. Amazingly, there are more than 1,000 varieties, 32 of which live in Israel.
The big cats like lions and tigers live in savannas where they can hide in tall grasses and catch large prey such as antelopes, rhinos, buffaloes, zebras, young elephants, hippos, wild hogs, crocodiles and giraffes and even smaller animals such as birds, mice, hares, lizards and tortoises.
Animals with cleft hooves and that chew their cud and are thus kosher include sheep, goats, deer, gazelles, roe deers, wild goats, ibex, antelopes and mountain sheep. include cattle, deer, antelopes, gazelles, goats, and sheep.
Primates such as monkeys evolved between 65 million and 85 million years ago and are highly intelligent. Some 2.3 million years ago started to walk on two feet. Once their “hands” were free, they were able to develop skills by using tools. Homo sapiens developed from them some 200,000 years ago, first in Africa, but as a crossroads, Israel has been the place where large number of prehistoric hominids have been found.
Including these and many other animals, this volume will serve as a mesmerizing introduction for children to the world’s biodiversity and maybe encourage them to become biologists, zoologists, entomologists, herpetologists and other types of scientist. Adults will also learn from it.