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Natural Histories:

25 Extraordinary Creatures That Have Changed Our World

Brent Westwood and Stephen Moss

Sharks so hard to like bc their faces are so immobile and lacking any of features that give us meaning. It's as if they represent what life might be like if it were ruthless and merciless, and not moral or kind at all. Damian Hirst's shark (The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living), mouth open, ready to attack, trying to point out that we only experience death a fraction of a second before becoming dead. (We've always used living animals to make art, particularly to make some exotic dyes.) The shark was sold by Charles Saatchi to an American collector. But it began to disintegrate and in 2006 it was replaced by a completely new specimen, raising interesting questions about what constitutes an original artwork.

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We grossly over estimate our chances of dying from 'headline events' such as shark attacks or plane crashes, the odds of which are vanishingly small. An average of 4 people a year die of shark attacks worldwide. The language used to describe attacks is always heavily loaded - sharks are always 'lurking' or 'prowling', 'menacing' or 'terrorising', and their victims are always 'innocent' or 'unsuspecting'.

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Figured out which plants and herbs were useful by trial and error, aka 'trying and dying'.

Start as parts of asteroids. When detach they are meteoroids. In atmosphere they (briefly) become meteors. Then, once hits ground, it's a meteorite. But many people are wrongly convinced they have found a meteorite ("I saw it fall from the sky and found it") but actually a terrestrial rock (a "meteor-wrong"). It's very unlikely to see both the path of the meteor and be in the same place as it lands, simply bc of the scale on which this is happening. It is so bright and fast moving that observers assume it is close by. "It fell just behind the barn" when it actually fell 200 miles away.

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Charles Darwin was first to realise how coral reefs form on tropical islands, and he wrote his first book on that subject. More famous is R.M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island in which three boys are shipwrecked on one. It's 'a jolly good adventure' on one level, and an idealistic polemic on the other - the coral island is a paradise where codes of honesty, decency and christianity as well as the superiority of white western civilization. The ideal was ripe for subversion. William Golding was a teacher with a far more cynical view of young boys. He wrote Lord of the Flies, a dystopia rather than a new Eden.

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Snakes and Ladders is source of phrase 'back to square one.'.

William Wordsworth:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host of golden daffodils
Beside the lake, beneath the trees
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Domestic chicken Gallus gallus by far the most common bird in world with population of about 25 billion, or 4 for every human on planet.

A century ago there was a theory that the embryos of emperor penguins would show a link between birds and reptiles. An egg was collected by part of Robert Falcon Scott's doomed polar expedition in 1911. Emperors nest in one of coldest parts of Antarctica. To get there 3 Englishmen trekked at snails pace for 100km in almost total darkness and in temperatures down to minus 50 degrees C. When they got there a severe blizzard blew away their tent, leaving them with just their sleeping bags. When the storm abated 36 hours later they were amazed to find their tent, more or less intact, nearby. They collected 5 eggs, 2 of which broke on way back. The 3 remaining eggs went to the Natural History museum and prepared for microscopic study, but WW1 intervened and it was not until 1934 that results of the study published. And the verdict: not only did it not prove any connection between birds and reptiles, but actually added nothing at all to scientific knowledge. The whole ordeal had been completely in vain.

Fatal attacks by bears in North America average about 3 a year, but again the headline effect makes people worry more than necessary. Bears live alongside humans - in Romania there are about 200 per square km, the equivalent of 15,000 bears in whole of Scotland.

In medieval times, cats were Satan's agents, while dogs were purely working animals - herding hunting and guarding. The only pets were cage birds - parrots for the highest status.

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Egyptian soldiers in pharoahs' times wore live scarab beetles as jewellry (a symbol of life, as believed a giant beetle pushed the sun across sky every day, so a protective spirit). More recently a fashion in Mexico for decorating a large but docile beetle with semi-precious stones and then attaching it to your clothing on a short leash so it could walk around.

Beetles make up a quarter of all known species of life - 400,000 have been studied and named, and it is thought that anything up to another 4 million are yet to be formally identified.

Fleas caused social change. The Black Death (bubonic plague is a bacterium that blocks the flea's stomach, causing the starving insect to bite repeatedly in efforts to get a meal) decimated populations in Western Europe. In England the shortage of labour gave survivors bargaining power and the chance to escape lifelong serfdom.

Inuit tribes allowed a quota of bowhead whales to kill each season. When the carcasses have been stripped, the remains are dumped a few miles out of town, which attracts a large and spectacular gathering of polar bears. This in turn attracts a large gathering of tourists, who pay Inuits well for the privilege.

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