Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Animals No One Wants to Lose

from Disneynature African Cats
Get close to endangered animals where they live in three fascinating new books about surviving in a changing world.

Each account is stunning and is sure to fuel readers' compassion for the creatures profiled: three species of manatee, two African cats and whales.

Climate change, loss of habitat, hunting and poaching threaten all of these creatures, and in the case of manatees and whales, collisions with boats are also causing numbers to fall.

All three books, written for kids 8 and up but visually appealing to all ages, tie in beautifully with Endangered Species Day this Friday, an effort begun in 2006 to galvanize young and old to help protect disappearing species and wild places.
The first book, The Manatee Scientists: Saving Vulnerable Species, is part of Houghton Mifflin's celebrated Scientists in the Field series, which takes science out of the lab and into the outdoors -- an ideal series for any aspiring biologist.

Readers follow three researchers to a shallow, crystal-clear river in Florida and the murky canals of  the Amazon and West Africa as they collect data and anecdotes about the adorable and vulnerable behemoth.

They learn that manatees live in shallow, slow-moving rivers and spend much of their day dining on floating plants. They have elephant-like skin, a huge, doughy body that tapers to a paddle-shaped tail and a snout with whiskers.

"Years ago, sailors somehow mistook manatees for mermaids, and as a result, manatees fall into a group of animals called sirenians," writes author Peter Lourie, and, as readers discover, they are "as uniquely captivating."

Photographs show the plant-eating giants rolling around in water like playful puppies and poking their nostrils out of a river like a dog sniffing around -- a stunning sight, particularly given that manatees are very timid and in the Brazil and West Africa are rarely seen.

Sometimes the best vantage point for seeing these shy mammals is from a low-flying plane, according to Dr. John Reynolds, a manatee expert in Florida.

"You're only seven hundred feet above the water, and you can see them rise to breathe and interact with one another," Reynolds explained. "You see the moms and the calves beside them, many with boat scars on their backs."

Though a manatee may survive as many as 50 collisions with boats, they spend so much energy recovering that less time is put into reproducing, according to scientists. For a species that doesn't reproduce often -- on average just one calf every two to five years -- this can be dire.

Manatees are generally sluggish, moving only three to four miles per hour. They spend their days eating plants, which builds gas in their system and in a unique adaptation, causes their bodies to rise and fall in the water without them moving their tails or fins.

"A manatee is an amazing animal," Reynolds said, "a hodgepodge of mammalian adaptions. It has things no other mammal has."

Readers also see snapshots of the researchers capturing and tagging manatees so they can follow their movements -- an essential tool since many manatee live in murky rivers over a range too vast survey. Tracking where they go helps identify which habitats they prefer and thus are the most important to protect from heavy human use.

The next book, African Cats: The Story Behind the Film, is a lush coffee-table companion to the hit film documentary African Cats about a lion cub and mother cheetah in the Masai Mara National Reserve of Africa.

Filmmakers Amanda Barrett and Keith Scholey fill the book with stunning photographs. In one image, a male lion and crocodile bear their teeth at each other just feet apart. In another, a mother cheetah lays in the grassy Savannah nursing her cubs at sunset.

Their observations read like journal entries, and have so much detail and immediacy that readers will feel as if they're there too. Barrett and Scholey also name the creatures so it's easier to follow their story, and throughout express emotions about what they see.

To tourists "the lions are a great but brief photographic opportunity," they write. "To us they are old friends, each with a story to tell of trial, tribulation and triumph. In the last two years, their world has been our world, and we have often lived in apprehension not knowing what will happen to them next."

The third book, The Secret World of Whales, is a playful, almost poetic anthology of whales by journalist Charles Siebert and whimsically illustrated by Molly Baker -- graphic arcs of waves wash across the page and narrative pictures play out along the edges.

Sprinkled in between are photographs of a whale swimming by with his head turned toward readers as if nodding hello, and whales blowing water out of spouts, leaping out of the ocean and swimming deep below the surface as camera lights reflect off their bellies.

Siebert covers a vast amount of information, yet his words are spare and conversational. He touches on the myths and legends of the whale, explores why these giants are in trouble, explores some of their most intriguing abilities and shares what it's like to encounter a baby whale eye-to-eye.

"I could see my own reflection in the glassy brown orb of his huge oval eye," Siebert recalls in the introduction. "He floated there, watching me as though he was trying to figure out who and what I was. …I knew then that this was the closest I would ever come to meeting an extraterrestrial."

Today, the five most endangered whales are the North Atlantic right whale, Western Pacific grey whale, bowhead, narwhal  and Cook Inlet beluga whale.

Each of these books envelops you in what it is like to be that particular animal and the further you read, the more you feel the passion of scientists who are trying to save it.

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