Wednesday, June 15, 2011

For Love of Insects

Science fiction writers in need of an alien or two have only to peruse this book for inspiration. There's the bombardier beetle, for instance, which is capable of discharging with great accuracy jets of boiling acid from its butt.

Yes, boiling.

Spraying is only one way to deliver a toxic substance. Some millipedes, for example, ooze cyanide from glandular pores. Others creatures, lacking defensive glands, are reflex bleeders – their toxic bodily fluids leak out from easily ruptured cuticle. Additional delivery methods include defensive vomiting and defecating. Yowza!

Larvae of the leaf beetle protect themselves by extruding fecal matter in long strands, which they then attach to themselves until they are completely hidden from view, creating the appearance of a tiny haystack.

Some insects practice seminal gift giving. In one species of moth, males lose 10% of their mass when mating. They transfer not just sperm to females, but also nutrients and protective alkaloids. Copulation takes upward of 9 hours.

Butterflies engage in a strange behaviour called puddling. They drink and expel prodigious amounts of water (eg 600 times their body mass) in order to acquire sodium, which is then transferred to females during mating.

Bolas spiders, which do not make webs, bring down their prey bola-style, using a thread with a drop of glue at the end.

These are only a few of the creatures you'll meet in this wonderful book, which is packed with brilliant colour photos that illustrate the bizarre goings-on of insects and arthropods.

The author, Thomas Eisner, is one of the fathers of chemical ecology. He tells us that probably far less than half of all insect species have been discovered, leaving unknown a vast reservoir of chemical compounds. "Chemical prospecting in the world of insects can still bring real rewards," he writes.

He passed away earlier this year.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Maurice Richard

The dressing-room was his telephone booth, where he donned the red and blue costume of the Habs.

Off ice he was as mild-mannered as Clark Kent, a devoted husband and father, respectful citizen and church-goer.

On ice he was Rocket Richard, a man with a short fuse and blazing eyes, "defender and exemplar of the downtrodden French Canadian through both his brilliant play and the righteous violence of his fists." All he lacked was a cape.

In 1955 he was involved in a stick-swinging incident with Hal Laycoe of the Bruins, in the course of which he punched out a linesman. He was suspended for the final three games of the season and for the playoffs. Enraged fans attacked NHL president Clarence Campbell at the Montreal Forum and a riot ensued. The next day Richard calmed the city with a few words on the radio.

Of the authoritarian Campbell, author Charles Foran writes:

Living and working in Montreal did little to heighten Campbell’s insensitivity. Operating out of the imposing stone Sun Life building, an edifice that, more than any other, represented Anglo financial dominance and smugness, and residing nearby the mentally walled ghetto of Westmount, the league president carried on both his professional duties and private life as a colonial administrator in India or Africa might have done...

The Richard Riot was a manifestation of the simmering dissatisfaction felt by Quebecers, and a precursor to the Quiet Revolution that began in 1960, the same year Richard retired.

Stuff I Didn't Know

How tough Richard was. Early in his career he fought twice with a player on the NY Rangers, "a marginal talent with a background as an amateur boxer." Both times Richard knocked him out with a single punch.

He tried several times to enlist during the War, but was turned down when x-rays showed that breaks in his ankle, leg and wrist -- incurred while playing hockey -- had not healed properly. "The ankle, in particular, was permanently misshapen."

The emergence of “gladatorial hockey” occurred after the War with the return of veterans. "'If you know nothing else about the time I played,' Richard would later say of this period, 'know how violent the game was.'"

One year he led the league in penalties. Fans routinely paid his fines.

His famous jersey number was chosen after the birth of his first child, who weighed nine pounds.

After he retired Richard became so unhappy at the way he was treated by the Canadiens organization that he refused to drink Molson’s beer or allow it to be served in his tavern.

The shocking end of Howie Morenz: leg broken in four places during a game, hospitalized with his leg in traction, began drinking heavily, had a nervous breakdown, and -- still in hospital a month and a half after being admitted -- died of a heart attack. He was 34.

End Thoughts

This slim compact book is more of a sketch than a full-fledged bio, and similar in scope (I assume) to others in the series of "Extraordinary Canadians". No illustrations.

Series editor John Raltson Saul mentions the filming of forthcoming documentaries. Until then a worthwhile substitute is the feature film, The Rocket, with Roy Dupuis as Richard and several NHLers in supporting roles, including Vinnie LeCavalier, Mike Ricci and Sean Avery.

You can also view a four-minute clip from a CBC Fifth Estate documentary about Richard.

Dust jacket painting by Tavis Coburn.