Summer is the season for wild tales about weird creatures, whether it's the zombies of "World War Z" or the aliens of "Pacific Rim." But if you like your wild weirdness a little more grounded in reality, summer is the time to hit the books.
Here's a selection of creature features that are firmly grounded in the scientific facts, but also fun enough to take along to the beach or your vacation cabin:
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary: Caspar Henderson's beautiful book is a takeoff on Jorge Luis Borges' "Book of Imagined Beings," but these creatures are totally real, from A (for the creepy but cute axolotl, a.k.a. Mexican salamander) to Z (for the versatile zebrafish).
Zombie Tits, Astronaut Fish and Other Weird Animals: It's hard to pass up any book about "zombie tits" (which are brain-eating birds, and not what you think). Becky Crew offers even more: lizards that shoot jets of poisonous blood from their eyes, vampire spiders that are attracted to smelly socks, and insects that make a racket with their penises.
Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind: Richard Fortey spans the globe in his survey of strange organisms that have survived nearly unchanged through hundreds of millions of years.
Weird Life: The Search for Life That Is Very, Very Different From Our Own: Is it possible that alien life is living right under our noses, in a "shadow biosphere" we haven't yet detected? Could extraterrestrial life be based on a chemistry different from Earth's? David Toomey tackles the questions surrounding life as we don't know it, including the controversial claims about arsenic-munching bacteria.
Zombie Makers: True Stories of Nature's Undead: Last week we took a look at zombie crickets, zombie ants and zombifying wasps. Rebecca L. Johnson recaps all those and more for middle-schoolers. (Grades 5-8)
Unusual Creatures: A Mostly Accurate Account of Some of Earth's Strangest Animals: Michael Hearst introduces the pre-teen set to the hammer-headed bat, the 10-foot-long giant Gippsland earthworm and other odd animals around the world. There's a companion CD titled "Songs for Unusual Creatures." (Grades 4-7)
Slime, Poop and Other Wacky Animal Defenses: Janet Riehecky's 32-page book about offensive defenses is recommended by the Science Books & Films program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Descriptions of each offensive tactic are accompanied by an image of the attacking animal, making the reader feel like they are on the front lines," AAAS' Ginger Pinholster writes. Ewwww! (Grades K-4)
OTHER SUMMER FEATURES
If you're looking for something other than creature features for summertime reading, here are a few suggestions:
Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein — Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe: Astrophysicist Mario Livio reviews the tales behind some of the greatest missteps made by some of the world's greatest scientists — and how some of those missteps led to scientific progress anyway.
What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire: Sigmund Freud is quoted as saying that he was never able to answer the great question, "What does a woman want?" Daniel Bergne takes on that question, and delves deeply into the science of female sexuality. NSFW!
On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson: William Souder's biography shows that there was much more to Rachel Carson than "Silent Spring," her famous book about DDT. Carson's story serves to trace the roots of America's environmental movement as well. For the younger set, there's a children's book titled "Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World."
More about Yeti crabs and other creatures:
- Gallery: The top 10 oddballs of the animal world
- Those bizarre Yeti crabs grow food in their long hair
More about books:
- Winter 2012: Season's readings ... in science
- Summer 2012: Seven books for smarties
- Summer 2011: 10 books for a field trip
Alan Boyle is NBC News Digital's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. To keep up with NBCNews' stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.