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Two books explore the weirdest life on Earth

Zombie Birds, Astronaut Fish and Other Weird Animals by Becky Crew and Weird Life by David Toomey

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Even on bad days, humans don’t have their tongues eaten by crustaceans. Fish in the English Channel are not so lucky, reports Crew, a science writer. Neither have human males evolved into little more than mobile genitals that attach to females for life, as have some anglerfish. Putting our own species’ vexations in perspective may be a big part of the fun of reading about other life-forms. Whatever drives biodiversity gawking, it’s persistent. So is, thank goodness, the stream of books that satisfies it.

Crew’s Zombie Birds stands out for its rowdy zest and fine choice of creatures. As in her acclaimed blog Running Ponies, chapters pair brisk explanations of phenomena with fictional interludes. The chapter on pearlfish, for instance, titled “At Home in Someone Else’s Anus,” ends with gambits to help the parasite through awkward conversations about where it lives.

None of her characters, though, is unusual enough for Weird Life, a book that’s both the polar opposite of Zombie Birds and its secret twin. Toomey, an English professor, could read his prose in Sunday school without offending. But he sets the standard for oddity even higher than Crew does. Tongue-eating crustaceans, anglerfish and humans at least descend from a common ancestor at the same origin of life, but Toomey chronicles the search for life from some entirely separate event, perhaps with unimagined chemistry. So far no one has found it, but humankind feels the need to keep looking. — Susan Milius

Zombie Birds: Adams Media, 2013, 240 p., $15.95; Weird Life: W.W. Norton & Co., 2013, 268 p., $25.95

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