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Under The Microscope

PENGUIN, by Lloyd Spencer Davis; Pavilion 1993; 76 pages; $39.95

This book -- distributed appropriately enough by Penguin -- is subtitled A season in the life of the Adélie Penguin. Otago University zoologist Lloyd Spencer Davis has spent 15 years studying the Adédelie and brings that experience to a slightly unusual form of natural history authorship.

Davis is rather apologetic in his preface about writing this book from the penguin point-of-view, but he needn't be. As he says, "it is up to us scientists who have the privilege of working in Antarctica to act as the mouthpiece for those animals and plants that live there". Davis, in penguin persona, makes a fine mouthpiece.

It would be so easy to fall into a fatal cuteness, but Davis steers well clear of that danger. He is not afraid to bring us the fullness of penguin life, harsh and bleak as it may be. This is not a book where you'll find fox-trotting penguins with chip packets under their flippers.

During the shadowed time that preceded the sun, a male in a nest adjacent to mine deserted his eggs. Starving, skinny, it being a long time since he had last fed, he was unable to wait any longer. Throughout his last day on the nest he had incubated only half-heartedly, standing over the eggs, only half protecting them. At last he gave the eggs a final peck, then stalked off towards the sea, defeated.

The approach works well. It is a delight to read a work which is scientifically sound but which hasn't lost sight of the beauty of language. Davis has a lyrical touch, so much so that I could "hear" much of his text -- it'd make a great radio piece.

This is not to detract from Davis's many well-presented photos which accompany the text. They're used imaginatively and effectively in a book which has a rather spare design to it, in keeping with the subject matter. Even the page numbering has had thought put into it.

Vicki Hyde, NZSM

Vicki Hyde is the editor of New Zealand Science Monthly.