Wild tales: In new book, Janaki Lenin explores fascinating animal behaviour through a scientific lens
Janaki Lenin's book Every Creature Has a Story is a compilation of 50 essays on various unique behavioural patterns observed and documented by wildlife scientists across the globe.
Did you know that the chameleon's eyes are one of its kind among all the vertebrates? The eyes have a telephoto lens arrangement which enables them to spot their prey five to ten metres away and at the same time magnifying the image on the cornea to an extent that a small fly appears to it as big as a crow!
In addition to that, the eyes provide the chameleon with an almost unrestricted view in any direction without moving its head. Each eye can look at different objects in different directions independently but at the same time; the brain processes them together to be aware of what each eye is seeing at a given point in time. Scientific studies have proved that the chameleon is also able to make a preference between the two and act upon that decision.
"If humans had this remarkable ability, we could watch a football match and a movie at the same time and bring our eyes together for the goal or climax," writes Janaki Lenin in her latest book, Every Creature Has a Story. Lenin is a freelance journalist and writer; her primary focus area lies in wildlife science and conservation practice in India. She was the coordinator of the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station from 2005 until 2009, and the Regional Chair of IUCN’s Crocodile Specialist Group for South Asia and Iran between 2008 and 2012. She also runs a publishing company called Draco Books, and has previously authored books like My Husband and Other Animals and A King Cobra’s Summer.
A compilation of 50 essays on scientific revelations around behavioural patterns among a variety of animal species, Lenin's upcoming book aims at communicating the otherwise complicated phenomena in an easy, everyday language and at the same time making the narrative interesting enough for readers of all age groups and temperaments to engage. From pregnant fathers among seahorses to empathetic prairie voles, a rodent species known to express compassion towards their distressed companions — the book, much like its name, brings to fore some unusual stories from the world of flora and fauna.
In an email interview with Firstpost, Janaki Lenin discusses the process that went in shaping her upcoming book and some interesting fun facts of the animal kingdom. Edited excerpts below:
When did the idea of this book come to you? You have been writing and documenting science stories for a while now, why did you think a book would work at this point?
The idea for the book came first from my editor at The Wire, Mukunth Vasudevan, in 2016. I had written about 40 essays when he asked if I was thinking of compiling them into a book. I didn’t think there was a book yet, but the seed of the idea was planted. Later, historian Mahesh Rangarajan urged me to do it ‘now’. I spent months updating the research, fact-checking, and re-writing the essays. The enthusiasm of Krishan Chopra and Ananya Borgohain at HarperCollins overruled any second thoughts I had about the book.
What was your research process like? How long did it take to collate all the material, do the fact-checking etc? Were any other collaborators involved?
I subscribe to several journal alerts for new scientific papers. One of the last things I do before quitting work every day is scroll through them. I read the paper, question the researchers, read other papers written by them, read the work of others in that field, and ask them what they think is the significance of the research. Sometimes, I go back to the researchers for clarifications. That is really the entire process.
Was there any criterion involved in selecting the 50 species that feature in the book?
I had more than a hundred essays to choose from, and the only criterion was, ‘Does this make me go “Wow”?’ Anything that was subpar didn’t make the cut. At the end of that winnowing process, the top 50 essays remained.
Is there a specific template/language you choose while writing on the flora and fauna? After reading a few chapters one can notice the language being very simple, so much that any age group can easily engage with the text. Is that a deliberate choice?
I write for a general readership, for readers who don’t have a science background. I struggle to explain so they don’t have to struggle to understand. I do the heavy lifting as a storyteller so readers can float with the story.
Our environment has been exploited for ages now, the ecological balance has completely gone for a toss. In the past few years, the discourse around conservation and preservation of the planet has come to the fore. Do you think your book will be a nice starting point for the uninitiated? If yes, how?
As we become increasingly urbanised, the gap between humans and animals widens. One of the themes that runs through all my writing is that the distinction between us and them is artificial. In many ways, animals are extraordinarily endowed compared to humans. Some have sharp noses like fur seals and sharks while others have no smell at all like puff adders. Unless we appreciate the natural world, including some creatures that seem ugly, we don’t care for it.
My goal for the book is to make readers appreciate and understand the amazing species with whom we share this planet. That is the building block on which conservation can operate.
Despite being a book on animals, the narrative has many human elements especially when certain traits or behaviours are depicted. It almost feels like you are trying to make a subtle point — that we have all evolved from a single organism. Could you explain?
There is really no trait that is uniquely human. You’d find other animals have some version of what we take pride in ourselves. Chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys use tools, rats are compassionate, keas play, African wild dogs vote when to go hunting, humpback whales may be altruistic, ants overcome the frailties of old age, palm cockatoos play the drums, ticked off fruit bats yell at their neighbours. They almost seem human. Or should I say, we almost seem animal-like?
How much has Charles Darwin and his theory of "survival of the fittest" influenced you while conceptualising this book?
Evolution is the thread running through all the stories. When a species exploits a gap in the ecosystem to survive, it faces some serious challenges. For example, bar-headed geese escape cold winters by flying from Mongolia over the Himalaya into the Indian subcontinent. They crest the mountains in one go and don’t stop to rest. This marathon requires a tremendous amount of oxygen but oxygen levels are low at those heights. Before summer, they make the return journey which is even more arduous. They go from sea level to between 5,000 and 6,000 metres. If we did the same thing, we’d be dead. How on earth do they do it? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
What is that one startling animal story you encountered upon while researching, that you decided to feature in the book as well? And, which is your favourite chapter?
Picking favourites is always tough. I love the story of the honeyguides leading the Yao people to beehives. And the great tits that are so loyal to their mates that they’d rather go hungry. The story of how land snails kill their parasites is wild. I also love the story of female nightingales picking their mates by listening to their songs. It always makes me wonder whether rock stars make good fathers.
What else are you working on?
Talking about a work-in-progress somehow deflates my energy for it, and it languishes. I really want to kick this next one out into the world soon so you’ll know of it in time.
Janaki Lenin's Every Creature Has a Story is published by HarperCollins India and will be released on 27 July. It is available for pre-order on Amazon.
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