Winter World - Book Review

28 November 2012
As winter's on its way I decided to give this a read as it had been on my list for a while. It's not the first of Bernd Heinrich's books that I've read - I also have "Why We Run - A Natural History" which is an excellent comparison of animal and human endurance and locomotion strategies.

The Central Thread
The book takes in all the major animal kingdoms looking at the various strategies employed by different types of squirrels, reptiles, birds and amphibians. The author is also something of an authority on which insects are active in winter, and which have other coping strategies. Finally, the book also looks at viruses and bacteria and how they can survive in a kind of suspended animation for so long. The book is held together with a single narrative thread which both introduces the matter and also keeps it more readable. The central character of the story is the diminutive Kinglet (Regulus satrapa), an American relative of our Goldcrest (Regulus regulus). The search for how such a tiny animal can survive such hard winters is the catalyst for the writer's research and he certainly leaves no stone unturned.

The Highlights
Diversity is the keystone of the different approaches to survival - from an in depth discussion of hibernation and the differing approaches to it to looking at communal strategies and various forms of bringing down body temperatures. The writer has examined bird stomachs, crawled inside a beaver's lodge and frozen and reanimated insects in his quest for the mechanisms they employ. The explanation is scientific enough to be satisfying, yet certainly not dumbed down.

The only weak area is when he talks about animals which use supercooling in order to avoid having ice crystals form inside their bodies. Whilst I can understand the logic of such a process and how crystals can be prevented from forming there is not enough explanation of how a creature can employ such a physical process and not freeze solid if it moves slightly. While it's an interesting idea, and certainly not the most common strategy it was the only area of the book where I felt the explanation was a little lacking. The video here shows what happens when supercooled water is knocked.

For those who have an interest in the northwoods in winter, the ecology and behaviour of that environments denizens or just a sense of wonder about the vast range of niches and approaches in the natural world then this book is a 4 out of 5. If you're looking for survival strategies you can employ or information that will directly benefit hunting or animal watching then the book's slightly less pertinent. I'm glad I've read it and I'll probably add it to my winter book rotation.

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