Nasty, Brutish and Short: wonderful animal behavior science-stories

The experience of reading Nasty, Brutish, and Short: The Quirks and Quarks Guide to Animal Sex and Other Weird Behaviour is eerily similar to the experience of listening to Quirks and Quarks on CBC radio: a series of short, pleasurable, informative stories told with a lot of charm and enthusiasm. The Quirks team have made Bob McDonald, the presenter, into Canada's greatest science teacher, a font of fascinating facts and corny jokes that grab your attention and make you smarter.

Nasty, Brutish and Short is written by long-time Quirks producer Pat Senson, and draws heavily from the animal behavior stories that have appeared on the show, following their format as well: some introductory material (with a corny joke), comments from a scientist who's discovered something remarkable, and then a deeper explanation with context grounding. Die-hard fans of the show (like me) will even recognize scientist quotes transcribed from the interviews conducted for the show. And, like the show, each segment takes just a few minutes to read and digest (making it perfect for reading aloud to friends, keeping by the toilet, or using for a goodnight story), but stays with you afterwards for days and weeks.

Animal behavior is a great and fundamental subject, dealing as it does with sex, poop, kids, fighting (and more sex and more poop). Nasty, Brutish and Short has got everything you need to satisfy your sciento-prurient interest, from two-penised spiders that tear one organ off at mating time so they can keep up with their mates to crazy spiralling duck-penises to savage bowerbird love-battles to bisexuality in beetles to sea slug aqua-orgies. They also do a good job covering the awesomely weird and gross world of parasitism, as well as an illuminating chapter on what scientists have to do to get up close and personal with their subjects (my favorite: the neuro-anatomist Bruce Young, who's made a name for himself by aggravating wild cobras in order to track the beautiful geometric patterns made by their venom-spitting).

I was raised on Quirks and Quarks, driving around with my parents to the grocery story on Saturday or sitting around the house listening on the kitchen radio. It inspired and fed my love of science. Today, even though I live thousands of kilometers away on another continent, I still listen to the podcast religiously (or, rather, atheistically). Nasty, Brutish and Short really captures the feeling of the show, and will enliven your family's car-trips, lazy weekends, and pleasure reading.

Nasty, Brutish, and Short: The Quirks and Quarks Guide to Animal Sex and Other Weird Behaviour