Wednesday, May 09, 2012

"Life in a Shell"

Book Review

Life in a Shell; a physiologist’s view of a turtle

Donald C. Jackson, 2011 Harvard University Press; Cambridge, MA

protected California desert tortoise
OK, I love turtles

Let me just put that right up front. That said, Professor Donald C. Jackson’s Life in a Shell is a book destine to become prominent in my library. Between these pages, science, discovery and wonder all come together. Professor Jackson invites you into his laboratory and the scientific process, while always keeping you in awe of his subject–turtles.

Jackson spent the majority of his career at Brown University as a Professor of Medical Science, where he researched how some freshwater turtles survive for extended amounts of time without oxygen. One of the greatest charms of this book is that it offers insight from the scientist himself and is clearly referenced when referring to the scientific work of others.  With ease and anecdotal accounts, Jackson weaves his studies together with the work of other researchers and students to clearly explain the respiratory wonders of turtles.

  • How do turtles breath when they are the only vertebrates with a ribcage that can’t expand? Remember their ribs form part of the shell.
  • How can painted turtles hibernate in the bottom of iced-over ponds without access to the surface to breath? This isn’t holding your breath for a few hours, it is finding a way to slow down your metabolism, alter your body chemistry and acquire available oxygen in the water so you can survive for months.
  • And then there is the ultimate turtle survival skill, maintaining life without oxygen at all. 

If you think of turtles as slow and irrelevant, think again. If you regard the 3-chambered heart of a turtle as less capable than a racing 4-chambered human heart, you’ll be stunned. A turtle heart can beat 100 times a minute in a warm, exercising animal or slow to once every ten minutes in a cold individual surviving without oxygen. Our own hearts struggle to fluctuate four times their resting beat and fail quickly without access to oxygen. If you don’t think understanding the complexity of a creature that can manipulate its metabolism is important, then you’ve never consider human space travel or the numbers of trauma patients that could be saved if their bodies could be slowed down in the face of severe injury to keep them alive until they arrived at a medical facility.

Turtles are a wonder; ancient survivors that now face serious challenges because of human mistreatment, unsustainable harvesting and habitat loss. Life in a Shell will give you renewed respect for the unique creatures that are turtles.

Other Book Reviews

Feathers; The Evolution of a Miracle
Alex and Me
The Geese of Beaver Bog

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