The amazing world of flyingfish by Steve Howell – review

19 August 2014 by GrrlScientist, posted in Biology, Book review

SUMMARY: Written by a professional pelagic birding tour guide and photographer, this book presents a popular account of what is known about the enigmatic flyingfishes, and it’s illustrated with an abundance of breathtaking full-colour photographs.

After browsing through shelves and shelves of field guides in a typical nature bookshop, you might suspect there’s a field guide for absolutely every group of anything you can find on the planet -- birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fishes, insects, plants, trees, dinosaurs -- and yes, even rocks. But there’s one group of animals about which no books have ever been published; flyingfish. But naturalist Steve Howell has remedied this oversight with his new book, The Amazing World of Flyingfish [Princeton University Press, 2014; Amazon UK; Amazon US]. Written by a professional pelagic birding tour guide and photographer, this book presents a popular account of what is known about these enigmatic fishes, and it’s illustrated with an abundance of beautiful full-colour photographs.

The flyingfish -- written as one word, according to biologists -- form a taxonomic family (Exocoetidae) comprising more than 60 species of ray-finned fishes that occur throughout the world’s oceans, primarily in equatorial tropical and subtropical waters, where they live in open ocean at the surface of the sea. Their main distinguishing feature is their elongated pectoral fins that they can open to form a large flat surface after they’ve launched themselves clear of the water, allowing them to glide safely for long distances above the waves to escape aquatic predators. Of course, after flyingfish have become airborne, seabirds will then attempt to catch them on the wing for a quick meal, too.

Although flyingfish are not very large -- most species reach just 15-30 cm (6-12 inches) in length -- they are an essential part of a functioning marine ecosystem, linking the very tiny to the very large. Flyingfish consume planktonic sealife floating at or near the surface of the ocean whilst they themselves serve as a key prey fish for tunas and dolphinfishes (dorado), as well as dolphins and seabirds.

Flyingfishes arose approximately 66 million years ago, and are missile-shaped fishes that evolved one of two basic fin designs: those with two large pectoral wings are thought to have evolved to escape predatory tunas, and those with four wings (their pelvic fins are also elongated) are thought to have adapted specifically to flee hungry dorado. Flyingfish typically glide for distances of 15-90 metres (50-300 feet) at speeds of 32-64 kph (20-40mph), remaining airborne for 10-30 seconds or longer. These fishes sometimes land on the decks of ships, and may have provided valuable food for the Polynesians during their voyages around the southern seas.

Flyingfishes come in an assortment of beautiful colours and colour patterns, some of which consist of UV hues that cannot be seen by humans. Since almost nothing is known about these fishes, it is possible that young flyingfishes (“smurfs”) look dramatically different from adults of the same species, and that adult males and females may also look different from each other, making it difficult to ID them to species without a DNA sequencer in-hand.

Nevertheless, Howell is not deterred: he enlists the help of his colleagues to assign names to the flyingfishes he’s photographed -- a task that they meet admirably. So Howell’s readers learn to associate these fishes with such evocative common names as the Bonin windshield, leopardwing, double hyena, Pacific necromancer, pixelated midget and Apache pinkwing. (You may also wish to look through or download A working guide to the flyingfish of the western Pacific odyssey, by Howell and his colleagues.)

The photographs in this book are absolutely beautiful, and they alone make the book well-worth purchasing. Some flyingfishes have such exotic colour combinations that they seem to result from an artist’s imagination and some photographs are so striking that they appear to be digitally enhanced.

This slim book is filled with fascinating facts, interesting anecdotes and lovely photographs about a widespread family of fishes that are almost completely unknown. Fishkeepers, fishermen, globetrotters and nature lovers -- whether an adult or a young person -- will enjoy this book. Hopefully, it will help inspire both research and conservation efforts focused upon these essential animals.

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Steve N. G. Howell was born in Cardiff, Wales, and developed his birding skills locally before venturing farther afield. He has spent 30 years of his life leading birding trips in Central and South America (particularly in Mexico), and more than three years at sea. He is recognised as a world expert on seabirds, particularly the tubenoses (Procellariiformes). Howell has published scientific papers and popular articles about birds as well as writing or co-writing a number of field guides. Howell serves on the editorial board of Cotinga (the journal of the Neotropical Bird Club) and is a Research Associate at the California Academy of Sciences, a former book review editor for Western Birds, and a former member of the California Bird Records Committee. In 2005, the American Birding Association presented him with the Robert Ridgway Award honouring his many publications in field ornithology.

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Disclaimer: GrrlScientist has no known connection to the book's author. Outside of receiving a free review copy of this book, no compensation was received by GrrlScientist for this review. All images appear here by courtesy of the author and publisher.

NOTE: this piece is slightly edited from the original, written by GrrlScientist and published on The Guardian.

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When she's not birding, Grrlscientist can be found on on her eponymous Guardian blog, and she sometimes lurks on social media; facebook, G+, LinkedIn, Pinterest. She's quite active on twitter: @GrrlScientist

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