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BOUND TO PLEASE / All things wet and wonderful

The Japan News

By Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterThe Extreme Life of the Sea

By Stephen R. Palumbi and Anthony R. Palumbi

Princeton University Press, 225pp

Stephen Palumbi is a biology professor at Stanford University. His son Anthony is a science writer and novelist. Together, they are the writing team who have created “The Extreme Life of the Sea,” a survey of weird and wonderful marine creatures.

The table of contents reads like material for an English lesson on superlative adjectives, filled with words such as “hottest,” “deepest,” “fastest” and so on. Each of these adjectives labels a collection of amazing facts. For example, the chapter on the “smallest” creatures reveals, “There are about as many bacteria in a quart of seawater [just under a liter] as there are people in India — about a billion.”

The “oldest” chapter explains that when sharks first appeared 418 million years ago, their famous teeth gave them an overwhelming survival advantage because nothing else alive at that time had teeth at all. Meanwhile, the “living fossil” coelacanth has an advantage in today’s overfished oceans because its flesh is so unappetizing — “dense, oily and foul with urea” — that there’s little point in catching it.

Older still are trilobites, which appeared more than half a billion years ago and “were a dominant part of life in the sea for 200 million years, 100 times longer than our own species has existed.”

Horseshoe crabs are nearly as old and are still around. The authors compare them to a car whose shape they share, which has set its own longevity record: “Like a Volkswagen Beetle, they stick out like a sore thumb but persist in sturdy practicality.” In fact, horseshoe crabs are “double living fossils” because their larvae take the form of some long-lost relatives — trilobites.

Some sea creatures embody opposite extremes at the same time. A certain type of tidal urchin will suffocate if kept out of the water but will drown if submerged for too long. The Pompeii worms that live on deep-sea thermal vents have tails that can tolerate temperatures near boiling even while their heads, just a couple of centimeters away, are adapted to the deep-sea cold. The authors speculate the creatures circulate fluids through their bodies “like a natural heat pump.”

The chapter titled “Strangest Family Lives” includes a look at the tiny male anglerfish that parasitically attach themselves to the bodies of vastly larger females. While swimming free, anglerfish males barely develop beyond the embryonic stage. After they attach themselves to a female, the circulatory systems of the two fish merge, so that the male doesn’t even need to eat. His brain and other organs break down and are absorbed by the female’s body until only his gonads remain, permanently attached to the body of the female fish, who activates them as needed.

And there are many more fascinating fish in “The Extreme Life of the Sea.”

While packed with scientific information, this book is an easy read. The average chapter is just over 10 pages long, and each is divided into clearly labeled subsections. It is fairly generously illustrated and written in a light, conversational style — as seen by the references to Volkswagen Beetles and the population of India.

These characteristics make this an easy book to dip into, but once you get started, you’ll probably want to immerse yourself.

Beach book?

If you take this book to the seashore, be sure to sit near the rocks. That way, you can observe the life-and-death struggles of barnacles and snails even while you read about them.

Maruzen price: ¥3,320 plus tax (as of Oct. 2, 2014)

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