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Willey Ley's Exotic Zoology

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siteseer

Book Review:

"Willey Ley's Exotic Zoology" (Capricorn Books edition, 1966) is composed of revised chapters from three natural history books written across the previous twenty-five years: "The Lungfish, the Dodo, and the Unicorn" (1941); "Dragons in Amber" (1951); "Salamanders and Other Wonders (1955). So far, I have only read "Dragons in Amber" (see my review of it in a previous thread within the Fossil Literature category). Perceptible edits in the four chapters from "Dragons in Amber" seem to be limited to capitalization corrections. Some chapters from the other two books include substantial additional text (as indicated by footnotes postdating the releases of those titles).

Following an introduction which offers a brief history of progress in the field of zoology, profiling scientists from Aristotle to Darwin, the 22 chapters are grouped into 5 parts, each a general topic. Part 1 covers mythical beings that had or appeared to have had a basis in reality. Unicorns, dragons and men abominable or otherwise are discussed along with a surprising account of how the unassuming barnacle came to be understood.

Part Two is devoted to extinct animals with chapters on Triassic reptiles, ichthyosaurs, mammoths, and early flying vertebrates. Notes on the fossil deposits of Holzmaden and Solnhofen are provided to the reader as well.

Part Three attempts to unravel various mysteries of the sea such as sea monsters and a certain gigantic nut considered as the most valuable collectible among the super-wealthy across the 17th century.

Part Four visits far-flung islands with reports on particular extinct or near-extinct animals or legendary plants. The reader learns about the moa, the dodo, the kiwi, giant tortoises, and the story of a man-eating tree.

Part Five looks at living fossils: modern organisms belonging to ancient, much more diverse groups and surviving on

the last outposts of a once vast geographic range. The playpus, tuatara, lungfishes, and the coelacanth are among

those studied.

I enjoyed reading this book. Ley clearly loved natural mysteries and oddities and apparently enjoyed digging deeply into the legends and finely tracing the backstories which were sometimes peopled with historic figures. He reveals the all-too-human tendency to embellish an already-interesting tale. It dates back at least as far as human history remembers and lives today in our books and movies "based on a true story." The reader learns that the graceful unicorn was just a rhino many edits later (much to the chagrin of Marco Polo) and some mysteries remain unsolved after the last page, including that of an unusual fish scale obtained by a Tampa souvenir shopowner (p. 429).

The author also seemed to have been amused by the misinterpretations overcome in the path to the current understanding of the earth both in the sense of modern geography (islands with more than one name in more than one language) and the zoology (animals with more than one name in more than one language).

In his narrative Ley shows he was comfortable with a few languages as he weaves French expressions, his native German (and some Latin) into the English text. Furthermore, he did not shy away from quoting passages from 17th century English works (legible to the average American as a given sentence is often just a few vowels or a word once removed from modern usage). He seemed to have been intrigued as much by the origin of some of the terms used in the storytelling as in the path of particular histories.

This book is not abundantly illustrated and limited to line drawings but the selection of topics would appeal to many on the forum and the writing style is casual. Ley teaches science here but the instruction flows within field trips through time and across the world. I did not get a feeling that the text could have used additional visual aid at any point. While the book is nearly fifty years old and some of the information may be dated, the reader will find value in some of the accounts - perspectives on how the world was observed by laymen and scientists in previous decades and centuries.

Furthering its role as a time capsule this book reveals plate tectonics as relatively new to science. It came to be a widely-accepted theory only in the 1960's. Alfred Wegener had proposed that the continents were once joined together earlier in the 20th century but it was not until the late 50's that case-closing evidence was accumulating rapidly. The various chapters were written across that time. Ley observed (p. 268):

"...these same more recent ideas encourage the concept that the continents are not solidly anchored to the earth but may move. When such movements take place, the reasoning runs, portions of the continent may become detached and be left behind, as Madagascar looks like a piece of Africa that was left behind..."

That passage seems to have been written at a time when continental drift was gaining acceptance but perhaps just a few years before seafloor spreading and other lines of evidence rendered it undeniable. Ley recognized the changing tide in geology and seemed to be rolling with it since previous explanations of continental development sounded less likely.

For decades Ley was more widely-known as an early rocket researcher and popular science writer in the fields of

rockets and space travel. Sadly, he died less than a month before the triumph of the Apollo moon landing in July of 1969.

Edited by siteseer

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xonenine

if Ley writes half as well as you wrote this review, I will enjoy it immensely...thanks for the review! :)

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squali

if Ley writes half as well as you wrote this review, I will enjoy it immensely...thanks for the review! :)

Yea, what he said :)

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fossilselachian

Well done my friend!!

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siteseer

Xonenine, Squali, and fossilselachian,

Thanks for the compliments. It took me a few hours to write it out and then another couple of hours the next day to smooth it out. A couple of sentences still sound a little long but you'll never post anything if you try too hard to be perfect. I hope more members write book reviews to steer the rest of us toward the good stuff.

It was one of those books that I didn't know about when I found it and it was great. There are a lot of little facts and "fish stories" in it. In the late 70's I read an article about the mokele-mbembe, the name given for the reported sauropods still living in western equatorial Africa. My brothers and I thought that was a cool name and still talk about it from time to time. One of the chapters in the book talks about it so I thought that was cool. I just wish I had known about Ley's books when I was a kid.

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Fossildude19

Jess,

Thank you for taking the time to write this review.

I want to go read Ley's books, based solely on this review.

Well done, indeed.

Regards,

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siteseer

Thanks, Tim.

The book was a great find and it was only $5 at a local used bookstore.

Jess

Jess,

Thank you for taking the time to write this review.

I want to go read Ley's books, based solely on this review.

Well done, indeed.

Regards,

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