Consider, if you will, the lobster

Andrew Selkirk, the inspiration for DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe, ate a lot of crawfish and spiny lobsters while marooned in the Juan Fernandez Islands. When he returned to Scotland, he took up lobstering.

This is the kind of thing you learn in Richard J. King’s Lobster. This book is one of the Animal Series from Reaktion Books, distributed by the University of Chicago in this country. Each book tackles one animal, or, sometimes, several — since there may be more than one species of said animal. One taxonomist has tallied 248 species of lobster, for instance. Some are still being discovered. Each of the Animal books interweaves biology, history, and human culture with great illustrations. I wasn’t aware of the Dürer work above, for instance, and I’m pretty aware of Dürer.

I’ve found the series uneven. King’s a good writer, though, and knows his A-B-seas. I’m looking forward to his natural history of Moby Dick, officially released next week from Chicago.

The word lobster comes from the Latin for locust. Lobstermen call ’em bugs. I once found one on the rocks near the foot of the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn Bridge Park (one park, two bridges). A ranger said it was probably swept down from Long Island Sound by the ferocious currents of the tidal strait we misnamed the East River. The Sound used to host a vibrant lobstering industry, but warmer waters, pollution and pesticides, and over-fishing put paid to that. Further north, however, in the Gulf of Maine, lobstering is going gangbusters, and is considered one of the most sustainable fisheries there is.

But for how long? We’ve seen this movie before, many times.

Some lobster species have extraordinary larval forms. They are thin, transparent, all legs. This was news to me. I thought they were just smaller lobsters…. But then crustaceans are most wondrous and curious creatures. Remember that Darwin was fascinated by barnacles, which are basically crabs who glue themselves to a substrate and batten down the hatches when the tide runs out.

Vocabulary builder: what’s the opposite of anthropomorphizing, the giving of human characteristics to animals? What about when you give humans animal characteristics? King uses theriomorphizing, from theriomorphic, meaning a deity in animal form.

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