Willy Ley’s Exotic Zoology


This is the first of what I hope will be many posts on books that have brought me joy over the years.
I am writing it for the selfish pleasure of remembering what it was like to read this book for the first time.
But I hope that someone may, as a result of reading this post, find that book, read it, and feel something of what I felt.

The Back Story

If you are a nerd of a certain age, you may know Willy Ley (1906-1969) from his writings on space flight.
He was influential in creating a rocketry fad in Germany during the 1930s, and is remembered for the imagination and technical brilliance he brought to the subject.
In some ways he was too good.  As a young man he served as technical advisor for a science fiction movie about a trip to the moon. The technical details were so accurate that the Gestapo later confiscated the spaceship models and seized every copy of the film.
In 1935, horrified by the rise of Nazism and personally endangered because of his political views, Willy Ley fled Germany for Great Britain and then to the US, where he became an influential and beloved writer and popularizer of science.

Not just a rocket boy

This book is actually a “best of” collection, drawing from Dragons in Amber, Salamanders and Other Wonders and The Lungfish, the Dodo and the Unicorn. Willy Ley later wrote a history of natural science, Dawn of Zoology. Clearly, space was not his only interest. Yet he acknowledges in his foreword that he is typecast. “So what is a man who is known as an advocate of space travel … doing writing a book on animals, extinct, rare or unknown?” In fact, Willy Ley’s first love was natural history. “I grew up, so to speak, in the shadow of the Museum of Natural History in Berlin.” He remembers wandering the museum as a boy and coming across two fossils: one real, the other a reproduction. They were under dusty glass in an out-of-the-way back room with hardly enough light to make them out, but they were two of the most important fossils in the world — Archaeopteryx.
Young Willy knew, without the need for any signage, that he was in the presence of something deserving awe.  As he tells the story of the fossils’ discovery, he weaves into it the struggle for priority between London and Berlin (much like the bone wars of America), the developing understanding of how flight arose, and the family history of winged reptiles and feathery dinosaurs. This mixture of legend, science and personal history flavors the book, and it is a gripping read.
Much of Ley’s personal reminiscences took place in what was then East Berlin. In 1992, I went with the family to the reunified city and saw, in the Pergamon museum, the reconstructed Sirrush of Babylon’s Ishtar gate.
Ley talks for a bit about the odd dragon in the bas-relief, renders it as if it were a real animal, and discusses animals found in the Middle East in Nebuchadnezzar’s time. Then he moves with hardly a pause to the legendary mokele-mbembe of the Congo basin. Could this be the Sirrush, survived into modern times? Ley had a fascination with the interface between legend and science that informs every chapter of this book.

Was he, then, a sucker for Bigfoot and ancient astronauts? Not on your life. Even when venturing into Yeti territory, Ley took pains to explore each legend as legend, and to illuminate it with the best science available. Decades after the writing, that science is still pretty good.

So what else is good about this book?

It’s interdisciplinary. For example, you can find out about the coco-de-mer, so incredibly rare that it was worth more than its weight in gold, and also about the French engineer who learned to his sorrow that it were better for him if Econ 101 had been taught in engineering school.
It gives perspective to the reach of time. The American eel and the European eel swim down the Mississippi and the Danube, respectively, to the Sargasso Sea, where they lay their eggs. The hatchlings then swim back to their destined continents, taking three years to do it in the case of the European eels. The two species have different numbers of ribs, never interbreed and seem never to get lost. They diverged back when North America and Europe split apart — during the Jurassic, 150 million years ago. That’s a long time to be doing that lonely swim.
Did ichthyosaurs give live birth? For years, some paleontologists insisted that fossils of ichthyosaurs with little ichthyosaurs inside were examples of cannibalism — until a fossil turned up of an ichthyosaur considerate enough to be fossilized while giving birth.
All this only scratches the surface, there is so much to be found in this wonderful book. You might think you know about the discovery of the coelacanth. OK; but do you know what it is like when it is cooked? You’ve heard about the moa — would you know how to hunt one (not that you would) if they weren’t extinct?
Willy Ley’s Exotic Zoology is a book that radiates its author’s inexhaustible joy in the natural world from every page. Over the decades since I first read it, I have come back again and again, and found some new treasure every time. It has been out of print for many years, but used copies are abundant.
What more can I say? This is a book that will be liked by those who like this kind of thing — and by those very much.

One Response to “Willy Ley’s Exotic Zoology”

  1. mom Says:

    Fascinating! !!!! Wonder-full of you to post it on the web.
    Just got back yesterday from Italy – great trip … you’ll hear/see more about it!
    love !!!! MOM

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