In Conversation with Becky Crew

by Morgan Pettersson

Becky Crew is the former Cosmos Online editor and author of the recently published Zombie Tits, Astronaut Fish and Other Weird Animals. Credit: Becky Crew

Cosmos Online

Former COSMOS online editor Becky Crew talks science communication, how she started writing about weird and wonderful animals, and which animal would reign supreme in a post-apocalyptic world.

BECKY CREW IS THE AUTHOR OF the recently published Zombie Tits, Astronaut Fish and Other Weird Animals, a book that details some of the strange and wonderful animals that exist on our planet. Her blogRunning Ponies was named Best Australian Science Blog in 2010 and she now blogs for Scientific American.

COSMOS sat down with Becky to find out more about what makes a former archaeology student write a book about some of the world’s most intriguing animals, and if she could be an animal for a day, which one would it be?

COSMOS: How did you come up with the idea of using fictional narrative to introduce an animal for each chapter in the book?

Becky Crew: The narrative came from the blog, I would do it in some form in every blog post just because it was fun and I love writing fiction as much as I love writing non-fiction. Plus with blogs, there are no rules, and I was new to science writing, so I could do it any way I wanted. I think this was something that the editor from NewSouth Press who originally asked me to submit a book proposal thought was important. It’s important to keep thinking about the way we communicate science and to keep coming up with new ways to engage laypeople especially.

You studied archaeology at university, how did you come to start writing about science on your blog?

It started out as a blog about anything with a friend. She’d write about snowboarding and art, and I’d write about ridiculous animal stories I’d heard in the news. Very gradually each of my posts became more and more based on scientific papers, because I figured why bother with the bare bones news stories when you can go the source? I’d challenge myself to write posts that were more and more like real science writing, and the blog transitioned into a science blog.

How did the progression from blog writer to published author come about?

It was really thanks to an anthology that started in 2011 called The Best Australian Science Writing. One of my blog posts had been included in that anthology, and one of the editors of NewSouth Press read the post and emailed me out of the blue saying, “Have you ever thought about writing a book?”

What is your favourite animal discovered through your research?

I stumbled on the pearlfish quite late in writing the book and the more I read about it, the more I couldn’t believe this thing actually exists. Here’s a fish that chooses to live in the anus of a sea cucumber. Here’s a fish that taps on the sea cucumber to see if any other pearlfish are home in its anus before it goes inside. Here’s a fish that wriggles its lower half out of the anus opening of the sea cucumber to relieve itself in the ocean so it doesn’t soil its anus home. And then I read that its nickname amongst the scientists that study it is ‘assfish’. You seriously couldn’t make that kind of stuff up.

In saying that, many of the animals were weird. What has been the strangest animal that you came across in the research for the book?

I was reluctant at first to include the naked mole rat, because it’s not a totally obscure animal. Most people who know a bit about animals have heard of it, plus it’s in [Disney cartoon] Kim Possible. But, like the pearlfish, the more I read about it, the more I realised that this is one of the strangest mammals in the world and absolutely had to be included in the book.

The naked mole rat is unique, because it lives in underground burrows with a carbon dioxide level of 10%. Our atmosphere has a carbon dioxide level of 0.04%, so what the naked mole rats are living in is toxic to us. They live in insect-like colonies of hundreds with a single queen. She causes so much stress to the other females in the colony, that their reproductive organs don’t develop, so the queen is the only one that can reproduce. With such limited breeding, the naked mole rat’s sperm has become weird. It’s malformed, only 1–15% of the sperm can swim, and only 1% can swim fast. By comparison, 70% of a dog’s sperm is healthy and good at swimming. But the naked mole rats have plenty of healthy offspring despite this! And then there’s the resistance to cancer, even if cancer cells are literally injected into them, the insensitivity to acid on the skin. It’s insane.

If you could be one animal for the day what animal would you choose and what would you do?

If I was going to be an animal for a long time, I’d be a dog, because they’re just the happiest animals. Yet given I only have one day, and I’ll probably want to just sleep in, I’d be a cat. I’d wake up at 7am, annoy the bejesus out of my owners so they give me breakfast, then I’d go back to bed till 4pm, stretch and have a bath till 5pm and then demand my dinner of fresh beef cubes the minute my owners get home. Then I’d go back to bed again.

In a post-apocalyptic world where the human species has been wiped out, which animal would do you think would reign supreme?

Well I reckon the naked mole rats would probably do a really good job at staying alive. They could just remain underground forever and occasionally come up to catch a bunch of cockroaches to eat. If these guys can defy weird, slow swimming sperm, they can survive an apocalypse.

What’s next for Becky Crew?

I’m going to be nervously hoping the book does okay, and I just want to keep writing about animals and expanding my freelance writing even further. And I’ll of course be blogging all the time.

 *This article was originally published on COSMOS online. You can read it here
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