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Book Review: The Wolf's Tooth
Enuja, Inkscape
Eisenberg, Cristina. 2010. The Wolf's Tooth: Keystone Predators, Trophic Cascades, and Biodiversity. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

I read this book on the recommendation of my twin, and we both enjoyed reading  it, and got a lot out of it. But, after reading it, I couldn't figure out who the audience was supposed to be, and I didn't think it was well written. Obviously, the audience includes my twin and I, but we alone aren't enough. And the audience was really more my twin than I. I took an ecology course in graduate school, so I was already familiar with the idea of top-down versus bottom-up regulation of ecosystems. Bottom-up regulation is the idea that water, sun, and nutrients control how much photosynthesis occurs in an ecosystem, and therefore what the ecosystem looks like and how it functions. Top-down regulation is the idea that predators eat herbivores, giving the plants a chance to grow instead of being consumed into nothingness. Top-down regulation is also called "trophic cascades," because in a many-level food chain, the top predator reduces the abundance of the trophic level below it, which increases the abundance of the trophic level below that one, which decreses the abudance of the trophic level below that, and so on. Top level predators which control trophic cascades are called "keystone predators." My twin was also familiar with bottom-up versus top down regulation of ecosystems, but from a very different perspective. Having a history of natural area management (she worked for the Florida State Parks), she was familiar with bottom-up regulation, but thought of top-down regulation as a novel hypothesis under a large amount of controversy. I'd missed the controversy, assumed that both top-down and bottom-up regulation are happening in ecosystems all around me, and didn't quite get why anyone would argue about it.

The Wolf's Tooth is organized in a way that seemed strange to me: an introduction and basic information about ecology and the history of ecology, the basic mechanisms behind trophic cascades, a chapter about aquatic cascades, one about terrestrial cascades, and a chapter about old-growth rain forest food webs, followed by three chapters about biodiversity, restoration, and ecosystem management, using the information previously supplied. It was those three central chapters, separating evidence about trophic cascades in different categories of ecosystems, that really surprised and confused me. Why separate this data out? And it was further subdivided, with sections in chapters about rivers versus lakes versus the rocky intertidal and so on. It seemed like repeating the same sorts of experimental outcomes in different ecosystems was wasteful of space and a boring, annoying organization.

But my twin solved two of my problems with this book: the audience is land managers, who have heard of how well established the theory of keystone predation is in the rocky intertidal (when you get rid of sea stars, you lose diversity and productivity), but have heard great controversy about wolves as keystone predators, and are very skeptical about whether keystone predation is important on the land they manage. So the ecosystem-by-ecosystem approach works for them. I was also frustrated by the fact that Wolf's Tooth seems to be a summary for lay readers, with lots of definitions of terms and history of ecology, and then words like "palynologist" (a person who studies fossilized pollen) pop up undefined. Part of that is just poor editing, but I think that that sort of poor editing matters less to land managers (who are probably OK with looking up the occasional word they don't know, but appreciate having a lot of terms defined) than to the general public reading simply for enjoyment.

One of the things I think a lot about when reading and reviewing non-fiction is the difference between an author who is primarily a writer or a journalist, who researched the subject in order to write about it, and an expert in the field, who is writing about something very near and dear to their hearts, that they have encyclopedic knowledge about. I really enjoy reading nonfiction from authors in both categories, but they are often different. Usually, books written by professional writers have more finely crafted prose, and books written by experts have better information. Unfortunately, Wolf's Tooth has the uninspiring prose of an expert, without the incisive opinions of most experts. Eisenberg actually seems to be obscuring her personal expertise and opinions much of the time. She studies wolf trophic cascades, collaring wolves and quantifying tracks in the snow and herbivory on aspens. But then she uses the phrase "some researchers" think, both when it's what (reading through the lines) she thinks, and when it's what she vehemently disagrees with. I think that Eisenberg has fallen for the lie of objectivity, and wants to convince readers that she's presenting the data correctly by convincing them that she's an objective researcher. She's not. She loves wolves, and thinks that many ecosystems cannot survive without them, or can't thrive long term without humans at least killing herbivores to make up for the missing effect of the predators we've killed. I think Eisenberg should own her biases, and not deprive her readers of her special perspective. Yes, mention the people you disagree with, but don't pretend you agree with them, or that you have no opinion.

Suffice it to say that this book is a good read for anyone who wants to know about the research, from the beginning of the field until 2010, on trophic cascades. Readers without any particular interest in the subject, or with strong knowledge in the field, should skip it. Which I think is a shame. But that doesn't make this book useless. Just not for the general public, and not for ecologists.


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