REVIEW

Madlen Ziege delves deep into the world of animals, plants and people to show how we communicate

  • Nature Is Never Silent: How Animals and Plants Communicate with Each Other, by Madlen Ziege. Scribe, $29.99.

Madlen Ziege is a German scientist who wrote a PhD on communications among rabbits in rural and urban environments. In this book she goes far beyond the warren, into the world of many other animals, including people, and into the genuinely surprising ways that fungi and plants communicate.

I found the sections on the communication of non-animal living things the most mind-boggling. The idea that a fungus might lure nematodes into a trap by sending out a particular scent makes us question notions of what we mean by an "advanced" species.

Similarly, the "zombie-ant fungus" controls the brains of ants, changing their behaviour, and rendering them submissive to their fungus overlords. In the plant world, flowers are a familiar means to communicate with insects, and the book examines the delightfully gruesome ways of carnivorous plants.

Ziege has an engaging style, and, for a book dealing with difficult concepts, Nature Is never Silent makes for a pleasurable read. The author performs in science slams, and there is a real joy and energy here.

The book is broken down into short sections, allowing the reader to take in a lot of information in a few paragraphs. The translation from German is so good that one forgets one is reading a translation.

While the fungus sections are a highlight, there are many interesting facts and descriptions throughout. What is communication? How does data differ from information? The author leads us effortlessly through these questions.

As to animals, we look at rabbits, whose communication strategies include the deliberate marking of areas through mass toileting, indicating control, and also strengthening social bonds. Interestingly, urban rabbits don't do this in the same way, and the author examines why.

Animals as intelligent as whales show how different groups within the same species change their communications. Some killer whales keep communications quiet to sneak up on prey such as seals, who also have excellent hearing. Others, chasing salmon, can be noisier. People are included; the different levels of communication of different parts of Germany make for an amusing anecdote.

The author includes some of her own charming black and white illustrations - some people are just too talented!

I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who has listened to birds in the bush, and wondered what the sounds mean. After reading Ziege's work, we'll also be listening for the sound of insects driven mad by fungi, and be more attuned to possible communication through smell.

  • Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier.
This story Listening to the endless cacophony of nature first appeared on The Canberra Times.