This year, as you may have noticed, has been one long party in honor of Charles Darwin. That’s now drawing to a close. But don’t put away your glad rags. Next year is also slated to be one long party; this time, in honor of biodiversity. Yes, 2010 is to be an international knees-up for the other species on the planet.
It’s not clear to me what, in practice, this celebration is going to mean. But the prospect of it has led me to get out some picture books — books like “The Deep,” which is full of incredible photographs of strange beings. For example: Chondrocladia lampadiglobus, the ping-pong tree sponge, which lives more than a mile and a half below the surface of the sea. This creature looks more like a piece of modern art than an animal: it has an array of spherical, translucent globes on stalks that join together at the center. It looks harmless, decorative even. But it’s a carnivore. Shrimps or other critters that settle on it quickly become stuck; the sponge then consumes them.
Or — this book is one of my favorites — “Identification Guide to the Ant Genera of the World,” which consists of hugely magnified images of the faces of ants, both head-on and in profile. I’ve never identified an ant with it; but I love looking at the astonishing variety that we, in our bigness, don’t usually get to see. Some of the faces are smooth; others have whorls and ridges. Some ants have unobtrusive mouth parts; others have great scythes. With this book in hand, there’s no need to invent monsters: you just need to imagine how terrifying it would be if ants were the size of rhinos.