Mother Nature may be the nurturing, benign and benevolent provider of bounty, but there’s a darker side that we don’t always pay attention to — full of lethal plants, predatory animals, and tiny organisms that can invade and destroy us. In his new book “Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You,” Dan Riskin takes readers on a fascinating, fact-filled tour of nature’s dangers.
A Canadian evolutionary biologist and bat expert with a bachelor of science from the University of Alberta, a masters from York University and a PhD from Cornell who hosts the science show “Daily Planet” for Discovery Canada and “Monsters Inside Me” for Animal Planet, Riskin gives first-person accounts of his own creature encounters, beginning with the botfly larva that burrowed into his head on a trip to Belize, an experience he says brought him closer to nature and made him more aware of his place in it. (Apparently, fatherhood has also made him aware, and he writes about that too.)
The book is organized by the Seven Deadly Sins: Lust focuses on the DNA-driven, often lethal quest to reproduce, Envy analyzes animals that covet, steal and fight over property and each other, Sloth examines parasitic organisms, and Wrath delves into the world’s deadliest creatures, from giant orcas to small but equally dangerous spiders, snakes, jellyfish and all sorts of insects. Riskin also expounds on man’s place in nature. “We’re hardwired to be selfish," he points out, but we can use our intelligence to help our fellow man and the ecosystem.
As for the eye-catching title — a suggestion from his biologist wife — Riskin says it’s a response to “all those celebrities and snake oil salespeople who pretend ‘natural’ is always good,” and companies and the media that label products that way. “Botulism is natural, and so are rattlesnakes,” he reminds. “The truth is that Mother Nature doesn’t really give a rat’s ass about you one way or the other. You’re a bag of calories, and for those bacteria, viruses, predators, parasites, and decomposers that have the tools to take you apart, there’s no reason for them not to. Mother Nature doesn’t want to make you healthy. If anything, she’s trying to kill you.”
The book came about because, he says, “I love the disgusting parts of science: the snot, the parasites, the caterpillar that can launch its poop at 1.3 meters a second. I wanted to share that, so that people everywhere would be able to gross out their dinner companions with scientifically accurate stuff. I wanted to convey that there are lots of ugly things in nature, but that they are part of what makes the natural world so surprising, fun and beautiful.”
Riskin’s encounter with the invasive botfly, which “changed my relationship with nature by getting me outside my comfort zone,” was a real eye-opener for him. “There’s no better way to feel at one with nature than to have a maggot live under the flesh of your head and steal calories from you. Almost every creature in the world is full of parasites. No animal species is known that doesn’t have parasites. I start my book with the story of my botfly because I think it was just as important to my education about biology as the scientific research was,” he explains.
Researching for the book added to his vast repertoire of biological knowledge. “For instance, I knew about the sand tiger shark babies that swim around inside their mom, eating their siblings before any of them are born. But I didn’t know about the Verreaux eagle that pecks its little sibling to death as soon as that sibling hatches. A lot of the research I cite is from the past 10 years,” Riskin notes. “There’s always new stuff coming out, and it never ceases to amaze me.”
Bats are always of particular interest to him. “Bats are charismatic. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, everyone has an opinion of them. I like bats because they’re diverse — more than 1,200 species, more than a fifth of all the mammal species in the world. There’s so much we don’t know about them. As a scientist, I studied the biomechanics of their movements; how they walk, fly, and land. I loved learning about bats. They were so full of surprises, and with so many species, there was an endless world to learn about.”
Photo: Darren Goldstein/DSG Photos
Unsurprisingly, Riskin isn’t scared of bats, but he does admit to fearing one creature. “I’m scared of ants,” he confesses. “They’re resourceful and clever.” But in general, he’s fairly fearless about the deadlier forms of nature. “I love it. It just drives home how incredible life is,” he says. He’s also “encouraged by the rise of life after each of the major extinctions. It reminds me that no matter how bad we are to the planet while we’re here, life will thrive after humans wipe themselves out with their stupidity.”
Riskin, whose TV appearances as a guest science expert led to his current hosting gigs, took easily to the broadcast medium. “I love doing TV. It’s an essential part of my bigger mission to make science accessible to as many people as possible,” he says of “Daily Planet.” “I’ve loved the travel: Japan, Sweden, Ireland, China and more. But beyond that, it’s fun to meet bright people who are changing the world, and to be present for things like Mission Control during the landing of the Mars Curiosity Rover. That was too cool for words. I still can’t believe that seven-minutes-of-terror landing worked!”
As for “Monsters Inside Me,” it’s “a great show because it’s true. We won’t exaggerate. We just tell it like it is. Nature is grosser and more disturbing than anything we could make up.” There’s no official order yet, but Riskin is “optimistic they’ll ask us to make another season. We’d certainly love to do one!”
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