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  • BOOK REVIEW

Amazing ants, brain maps, and mammals before the dinosaurs: Books in brief

Book cover

Ant Architecture

Walter R. Tschinkel Princeton Univ. Press (2021)

About 14,000 ant species are known, including 1,400 from Brazil. Their behaviour is intriguing. For example, to protect their nest at night, a few sterile Forelius pusillus workers conceal the entrance from outside with debris; they then march into the desert and die. Myrmecologist Walter Tschinkel focuses on his excavation of Florida nests in a highly personal, sometimes witty memoir flavoured with soil science, physics and chemistry. But, he admits, “most of the central mysteries of ant nests remain intact”, such as how the insects organize their digging.

Book cover

Brainscapes

Rebecca Schwarzlose Profile (2021)

If each human brain neuron were connected randomly to the other 86 billion, notes neuroscientist Rebecca Schwarzlose, the brain would be more than 20 kilometres wide. Instead, they link through maps of the “body, senses, movements, and crucial sources of information”. These “brainscapes” are the complex, partially understood subject of her clear, often vivid history. Much evidence derives from people with brain damage or other conditions, such as blind children who can remap their visual cortex for uses such as language processing.

Book cover

A History of World Egyptology

Edited by Andrew Bednarski, Aidan Dodson & Salima Ikram Cambridge Univ. Press (2021)

Egyptology began in an international atmosphere, with rival French and English researchers deciphering hieroglyphs in 1814–23, and a French–Italian expedition visiting Egypt in 1828–29. So it is appropriate that this encyclopedic history, with contributions from 19 nations, should analyse the subject’s development globally, country by country. It is both immensely detailed and generally accessible, despite failing to include the Rosetta Stone in its copious index.

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Beasts Before Us

Elsa Panciroli Bloomsbury Sigma (2021)

This pioneering study of the origin of mammals by palaeontologist Elsa Panciroli presents radical worldwide research from the past 20 years, based on new fossils and technologies. “If you thought it all began with the extinction of the non-bird dinosaurs” after a catastrophic asteroid impact 66 million years ago, says Panciroli, “think again.” Mammals go back much further. They first diverged from reptiles and birds in the Carboniferous period, more than 300 million years ago — long before the rise of the dinosaurs.

Book cover

The Sea is Not Made of Water

Adam Nicolson William Collins (2021)

Writer Adam Nicolson’s latest nature book concerns the seashore. The intertidal zone, he reflects, is one of the most revelatory habitats on earth. Inspired by the Victorians, he uses poetry and science to engagingly chart his creation of new rock pools near his wife’s family home in Scotland. They are, he writes, “governed by the movement of the planets; philosophical understandings can be applied to the ecology of invertebrates; the life of the crabs is attuned to the tides.”

Nature 596, 342 (2021)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02176-4

Competing Interests

The author declares no competing interests.

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