I’m not sure what anyone looking might make of the images I looked up… For the last book, it was T-Rexes mating and duck vaginas. This time, it included a fish having a googly eye sewn onto the side of its head, beautiful immortal jellfish, whale falls (I recommend NOT looking that one up yourself) and checking out which animal has the most interesting shaped skull.
Death on Earth is a friendly, down to earth exploration of what it means to be alive, evolution and why living creatures die. As always when I’m working on scientific projects, I learned all kinds of things along the way. There were only a couple of times I felt grossed out creating the images (see whale fall, or rather don’t…) as the book is more of an exploration of what it means to be alive than anything too gory, and we made the decision that for the most part the illustrations should be of living animals.
The project raised some interesting questions for me as I read and drew… why are we so weird about death and why is it such a taboo? Why is our culture often so obsessed about anti-aging and shunning natural processes? How should we talk about death with children?
I was already moderately obsessed with how we talk and think about death – I find it really interesting that the Mexican-style Day of the Dead celebrations and imagery has become more part of Halloween in the UK in recent years, and wonder if it has something to do with us wanting a different framework to think about what happens when we die and how to relate to lost loved ones. Death is, after all, a natural part of life, and I sometimes worry that by not talking about it, not facing it, not discussing our plans for our final moments, we make our own lives and the lives of the people we leave behind much more messy and complicated than if we could just find the words to discuss everything more openly…
So I loved this project. It was another thought provoking book to work on, I adore Jules’s writing and it’s great to be part of his journey as he explores new subjects and hones his craft. The book features 20 of my illustrations.
Death on Earth: Adventures in Evolution and Mortality by Jules Howard is published by Bloomsbury Sigma on the 10th of March 2016.
Artemia. I’d heard of sea-monkeys before, but never actually seen any until I started my image research. They’re really quite cute… and not at all how their name suggests. They are one of the few animals that can survive going into a completely dried up, death-like state, and then come back to life when they are put into water, possibly centuries later.
The googly eyed fish. There is the most amazing video online of vets at an aquarium sewing an artificial eye onto one of the ageing fish in their collection. He is apparently being picked on by other fish, so they carefully attach a new one and he swims off to a new life…
Ermine moth caterpillars. These little creatures are incredible – they can cover whole trees or streets of trees in their silky nests, so that they look like they’ve been wrapped in gauzy white fabric. So small and so industrious. Unfortunately, it seems that this kind of thing can bring up unfortunate associations for us humans, and trigger a disgust response and a need to tidy things up….
Ming the Clam. You can age clams by counting the rings in their shells, a bit like trees. The shell of Ming the Clam at Bangor university is evidence of the longest living life form – 507 years old before he died. His precious shell is the subject of much scientific study and pondering about ageing and lifespan length and what determines when creatures die.
A bird in the hand. This drawing is from a photograph that Jules took of a dead magpie – apparently the Corvid family that they belong to have been known to exhibit mourning behaviour. In the book, Jules does some experimenting to see how other birds react to a dead bird in their patch. The idea that animals respond to the death of other animals is a surprisingly controversial one from a scientific perspective – there is a great deal caution in evidence when it comes to describing animal behaviour too anthropomorphically.
Whale fall. This was one of the gorier bits in the book, although also a rather beautiful concept. The body of a whale fallen to the bottom of the ocean, like the remains of any dead animal, provides so much resources for other creatures to live on. I’ll avoid going all Lion King on this one, but life certainly doesn’t end in death…
Sorrowful Antechinus. Wow. So… these rare marsupials have some interesting behaviour. For one fevered mating season, the males will mate until their body starts to fail, their fur falls out, and they die. Death by sex… What a way for this sweet looking animal to go.
The crow man. In a long running study, animal behaviourists wore masks when they trapped and banded a group of crows in a field. Not only did these intelligent birds learn startle and start circling whoever was wearing the mask, they also passed the information to other crows who had never been captured, and down to their offspring. This is interesting for all sorts of reasons, not least because it shows how fear can spread in non-human animals, much like the hysteria started by the press about the false widow spider in the UK…
Suicide rat pact. Rats are susceptible to a really strange disease, that causes them to do the opposite of what their natural instincts tell them, and seek out predators. Toxoplasmosis is a parasite that causes the rats to basically become suicidal, a behaviour that’s otherwise very rare in nature. (Spoiler alert: reading this book will change how you think about lemmings!).
Turkey vulture. What handsome characters these endangered birds are. Such amazing faces and expressions. Of course, like all carrion eaters, they provide a vital role in the life-death-life cycle. Unfortunately, vultures are having a spectacularly hard time, as their populations are plummeting due to the use of an anti-inflammatory in cattle which is poisonous to them.
Batastic. Thankfully for bats, humans have found other sources of fertilizers than their waste, which used to be ‘mined’ from their caves, causing the bats all sorts of distress. But of course, in nature there is no such thing as waste, so bird and bat droppings were found to be hugely beneficial for enriching soil for farming. Like putting manure on your roses…
Horrid Ground Weaver. This species of tiny money spider is incredibly rare – with only a handful of sites in the UK thought to support it. Humans hold the fate of these rare spiders in their hands, as they could be driven to extinction through building development on these sites.
Toad on a Road. Jules and I met working for the wonderful wildlife charity Froglife. If you’re a Common Toad in the UK, there is a fairly high chance that you might meet your end on a road – toads are very faithful to their breeding sites, and roads often are built in their way. The migrate en mass to their breeding ponds, and if they have to cross a busy road… it doesn’t end well. Thank goodness for Toads on Roads volunteers, going out with buckets and torches to help the toads make it safely 🙂
Bring out your dead. Ants have a reputation for being super organised in their colonies, so of course it seems natural that they would have a system of disposing of their dead. Dead ants are carried out of the colony to help prevent infection and disease.
Donkeys. Back to the controversy in ascribing mourning behaviour to animals… If any animals meet the scientific definition of that, it could be donkeys. They form very strong pair bonds and there is anecdotal evidence that they show behaviour changes when they lose their companion.
Immortal jellyfish. This was one of my favourite illustrations to draw – such beautifully strange creatures. This species is of extra interest to the study of ageing and death, as they get to a certain point in their lives, and then go backwards…
Nightingale singing. Song birds have changed the view that growth and death in the brain only happens one way – when they don’t need the song-packed area of their brain out of breeding season, it shrinks and can then regrow when needed.
Epilogue eel. How surprisingly sweet is this eel’s face? I haven’t cute-ened him up really, they pretty much look like that…belying the fact that they are remarkably efficient at killing other animals by electrocution…