An Enchanting Introduction To The Natural History Of Animal Behavior

David Attenborough, a man with an insatiable passion to witness, wonder and study our fascinating living planet, made natural history approachable for layman through a series of highly informative and engaging documentaries and books. Of his works, the ‘Life’ trilogy, which is considered as a pioneering series of documentaries is highly engaging. In ‘Trials of Life’ the third work in this trilogy, Attenborough take us on a journey around globe telling us about ‘Ethology’ or the objective study of animal behavior, in his signature style of flair and simplicity.

David Attenborough, the ever-curious observer of the natural world

"My first assignment obliged me to stand knee-deep in bat droppings, in a cave in Borneo. I found that much preferable."

When David Attenborough – ever dedicated to travels & observing the nature – resigned his administrative position with BBC in 1979, for pursuing his passion for filming & writing, he made this remark, which underline his love for being in the field observing the wonders of nature. His curiosity and passion to learn and the penchant nature in which he shares the results of his study to his readers without being too much academic makes his works easy to follow and understand.

The ‘Life’ Trilogy

The ‘Life’ series of documentaries and companion books, which cover an entire spectrum of living things spread across the whole globe, offers an expansive impression of our natural world and are widely acclaimed for the extreme simplicity of their presentation. While ‘Life on Earth’, the first work in the series, concentrated on the development of animal life from it’s beginning, in ‘ The Living Planet’, Attenborough traces evolution through a study on how animals physically adapted their bodies in accordance with their environment. In ‘The Trials of Life’, the final part of the trilogy, Attenborough travels across the globe inspecting the how & why of animal behavior.

The Trials of Life or ‘A study in animal behavior’

The dust cover jacket of the Hardbound edition, with its photograph of a ‘killer whale preying on sea-lion cubs on a lonely beach in Patagonia’, itself can spark the interest in a nature enthusiast by offering a sneak peek at the theme of this volume – the ways in which animals behave and utilize their bodies for survival.

While making the study of animal behavior, Attenborough doesn’t limit his selection to any particular geographical location or to any specific life forms; he inspects a whole range of representatives from the animal kingdom – mammals, insects, reptiles, fish, birds – from all over the globe and painstakingly observe and tell us about the behavioral patterns of the animals and how they use their bodies to guide the various phases of their life.

Like the other works in the series the book is neatly organized into a sequence of chapters, which inspect a specific phase of life for every living beings – like birth, growing up, hunting, courting etc – and concentrate in great detail how animals tackle ‘the trials of life’ at each stage by adapting their behavior towards survival.

It tells us that the ultimate aim in each of these behavioral patterns is oriented towards survival and eventually passing their genes to the next generation.

"All organisms are ultimately concerned to pass on their genes to the next generation. That, it would seem to a dispassionate and clinical observer is the prime objective of their existence. In the course of achieving it, they must face a whole succession of problems as they go through their lives. These problems are fundamentally the same whether the animals are spiders or squirrels, mice or monkeys, llamas or lobsters. The solutions developed by different species are hugely varied and often astounding. But they are all the more comprehensible and engaging for they are the trials that we also face ourselves."

In the Initial chapter titled ‘Arriving’, we are presented with that amazing phase of life called ‘Birth’, by inspecting some of the fascinating ways in which life forms comes into the world. In one of the most profligate of strategies adopted by a species for survival, we meet the crimson crab, which is endemic to the Christmas Island, and their saga of annual mass migration from forest through the islands towns to reach the sea for spawning.

A Christmas Island red crab[Source]

In this perilous and costly journey we come to know about a tiny life form and it’s behavioral strategy entirely based on sheer numbers –millions of crabs spawning at the same time with each crab producing about a hundred thousand eggs -, designed to beat the multitudinous hazards they face for their offspring in the form of predatory fish and secluded nature of the Island.

A Malleefowl[Source]

In the same chapter we come across the Malleefowl living in the open scrub country of Southern Australia and their complex process of keeping the eggs warm using a primitive form of incubator that they make from decaying vegetation and sand. The whole process is very complex and lengthy and is aimed in keeping the eggs close to 34° C for several months. Attenborough explains this process in great detail and the science involved in it that the birds perform like clockwork will amaze the reader.

In the chapter ‘Finding Food’ the reader will make acquaintance with the ‘Honeypot Ants’ of central Australia and their unique way of tackling the problem of storing honey for yearlong use. They use a number of ants – specialized workers known as repletes – virtually as jars.

The repletes used as jars among Honeypot ants[Source]

These repletes are kept in galleries down the ground and are fed with the honeydew and nectar collected by worker ants. A fully ‘stored’ honeypot ant’s abdomen can grow to the size of a large pea and they cling on to the roof of the galleries as storage tanks; when needed they regurgitate the honey droplets for the use of the whole ant nest.

This book is full of such mesmerizing stories related to the mechanisms of survival from the animal world. Altogether the 'Trials of Life' – and the entire 'Life' series – is a very good introduction to natural history, which apart from the tonnage of information it presents is further enriched by the energetic, ever curious mind of Attenborough. The book can delight you due to the sheer simplicity of the narrative and the stunning quality of the photographs that the book is lavishly sprinkled with.