Review: Monarchs of the Sea by Danna Staaf

Monarchs of the Sea: The Extraordinary 500-Million-Year History of Cephalopods [2017/20] – ★★★★

This book is about the magnificent, enigmatic and elusive cephalopods (a class of molluscs to which octopuses and squid belong), their origin and 500-million-year history. Danna Staaf, a marine biologist, traces their evolution from the very origins of life on Earth in the sea, to the demise of some cephalopods in the Cretaceous period and our modern age. From the causes of the “Great Dying” that happened in the Permian period (when up to ninety-six percent of all marine species perished) to our present day threat of global warming and dangers that face nautiluses, Dr Staaf explains clearly the many issues that concern cephalopods, as well as introduces a whole variety of weird and fascinating sea creatures: from the first sponges and worms, to now extinct ammonoids and a variety of curious present-day octopuses and squid (for example, the pygmy squid and the mimic octopus). This well-illustrated book, which is written with surprising humour and succinctness, will completely delight all those who are interested in marine evolution and curious about the history of present-day cephalopods.

Monarchs of the Sea was published as Squid Empire in 2017, and it has now been revised and reissued as Monarchs of the Sea. This relatively short book is a very good one in terms of explaining the evolution of many sea creatures, making the point that it is not such a straightforward concept: “evolution is not a single thread – it’s the interweaving of many, many threads, some cut short, others so quickly changed you can hardly follow them through the cloth” [2020: 47], explains Dr Staaf in her book. Driven by the desire to survive at any costs, many creatures were forced to adapt quickly in the past to either the changing environment or the changing creatures around them (or both). This means that, in time, fish got their teeth and, while some sea animals got their shells, others abandoned them (or substituted them for internal shells). Monarchs of the Sea then explains the quirks of the cephalopod’s jet propulsion, and elaborates on that exciting time when cephalopods were the super-predators of the sea.

One of the great elements of the book is that the author talks much about the scientific debates and contentious issues that concern cephalopods, presenting both the “crazy” arguments (including their rebuttals) and more or less “sound” arguments. Dr Staaf definitely does not shy away from mysteries, and goes to the very crux of current debates. It was indeed very surprising to find out that there is so much speculation about much information that concerns cephalopods in the current scientific community. While Dr Staaf debates in her book how big the giant squid actually was, the reasons why ammonoids disappeared and why nautiluses have survived for so long and against all odds, we are also introduced to the works of such undoubtedly great marine biologists/palaeontologists as Alexander Arkhipkin, Margaret Yacobucci, Neale Monks and Kenneth De Baets.

The cover of the audio version of Staaf’s book published in 2017 – Squid Empire.

Near the end of her book, Dr Staaf talks about our present time and how hard it is to find fossils of cephalopods because many of them were jelly-like and did not leave behind much by way of evidence that can shed light on their composition/structure. She also talks about the human dangers that many marine animals face today. This is largely as a result of the speed in which these changes are introduced and are happening in the marine environment, meaning that many sea animals cannot adapt sufficiently quickly to survive: “changes wrought by humanity are now being felt on every level, from the deepest ocean trench to the most remote mountain glacier” [Staaf, 2020: 164].

The only downside of the book is that its approach may be considered as too “relaxed”. Everyone wants to read a non-fiction book that is entertaining and engaging, but surely we do not want to read too much slang, street talk, informalities, etc. I am also sure that today’s readers are capable of maintaining their attention without the author mentioning such unrelated people as J. K. Rowling and M. C. Escher, and other trivialities. Thus, we find such phrases in the book as “rough luck for the squid”, “now that that’s taken care of…”, ”it sounds a bit goofy”, “shell trade is…a real doozy”, etc. The good thing, though, is that Monarchs of the Sea finishes on a very uplifting, positive note. It is true that we face losing nautiluses and humans continue to endanger the planet’s fragile ecosystem, says Danna Staaf, but the cephalopods’ population is also on the rise, and there are plenty of young people around who are curious and interested in studying, and promoting the interests and history of cephalopods in future.

Overall, Monarchs of the Sea is a wonderful book that filled the gap that needed to be filled in this genre of popular non-fiction books; the unique creatures that many cephalopods were deserve to be better known since their history goes much further than that of the dinosaurs, and their diversity and resilience to survive still astound many.


18 thoughts on “Review: Monarchs of the Sea by Danna Staaf

  1. “Squid Empire” was a more effective title, I think — “Monarchs of the Sea” just makes me think of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s book on whales, which used that same title. Our ignorance of the ocean’s life — now and in the past — is staggering. This one sounds like one to pursue, but I have a title on octopii to tackle first!

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    1. Staaf actually opens her book with the quote from Cousteau, so I guess that explains her title. “Squid Empire” may sounds more effective, but my guess is that it was also deemed misleading. The word “squid” in the title presupposes that the book is almost entirely about the squid (and I also thought the 2017 book would be), but the 2020 book definitely talks about the cephalopods in general, paying equal attention to ammonoids, nautiloids, octopuses, etc.

      And, yes, Monarchs of the Sea is definitely an enjoyable read! Which book on octopuses (octopi) are you planning to read, if no secret?


        1. This one sounds really compelling and interesting thank you Diana for this wonderful review. Cephalopods are so fascinating and alien-like in the body but also supremely intelligent beings. I will definitely keep a look out for this one. I find the slang language in these types of non-fiction books to be a bit distracting at times too, it’s almost like the author is trying to dumb it down or something, but that’s really unnecessary.

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          1. Thanks for reading! The book is definitely worth reading and cephalopods are even more curious creatures because apparently we haven’t yet even measured the full extent of their intelligence. Maybe they are even more intelligent than we assume, scary!

            “The author is trying to dumb it down” is an accurate observation. I realise that no one wants to read a textbook and I respect the author’s eccentricities, humour and quirks in personality, but there is surely got to be a limit in number and nature of slang and conversational talk you can put in a popular science book. I thought Danna Staaf really went overboard with her informal “talk” (I cannot say “writing”, even). I mean, some talk in the book I’ve only heard before in one or two American stand-up comedy shows 🙂

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            1. Yeah I know what you mean with the slang thing. I don’t know why but even listening to history or science podcasts when people are really casual and swear or say umm or use slang it also really puts me off, I get too distracted and agitated by the casualness with how they are treating the subject…no even sure why that is? Perhaps it’s that we desire to be fully immersed in the world of that subject without being constantly reminded that we are being told the story by a (distracting) person. I am not sure? I have read an amazing book which I think you will love too, it’s by naturalist Sy Montgomery called ‘How to be a Good Creature’ it has a lot of heart and soul to it, but also delved into the soul of each animal including a giant octopus named Octavia. This was really incredible, less science-focused and more memoir but the writing is incredible and it’s very heart-felt. Will review it soon, I think you would love it though 🙂

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              1. Thank you for this, “How to be a Good Creature” sounds great! And I see from the synopsis, – very personal and also eye-opening. I will definitely add it to my TBR and will await your review!

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  2. I won’t say I’m that interested in learning more about cephalopods in particular, but I have always been interested in all the secrets the ocean hides. As a child, I was fascinated with dinosaurs, but there is pretty good evidence that no dinosaurs exist on land. But on the sea, it’s a complete mystery. Anything is possible in some of the deep ocean trenches. Plus, giant squids are kind of awesome! I really enjoyed reading this review!

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    1. Thanks for reading, and definitely! I am also sure that oceans hide secrets. Some say more than 80% of the oceans is completely unexplored, and others say we’ve only explored so far 5% of the oceans. These figures are shocking. There is a popular joke going around that we know much more about the universe and distant galaxies than our own Earth’s oceans. That is saying something.

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  3. My fascination of cephalopods began as a young child with Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues. I recently watched an documentary called “The Octopus Teacher” which explores the life in a year of an octopus, up close and personal! Thank you for sharing this book by Danna Staaf-it will be my next read!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the comment and I hope the book won’t disappoint! As a child I also loved Verne’s 20.000 Leagues Under The Sea. Now that I think about it, it may also explain my obsession with cephalopods. And, The Octopus Teacher documentary sounds great too!

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