June 29, 2013 | 15
I feel guilty about the fact that I haven’t been able to keep up with book reviews lately. It typically takes me – literally – months to years to read a book and then write a substantive review, and pressures of work, domestic life, research and other commitments make it very hard to find the time for this sort of thing. In desperation (hm, how often have I used those two words together on Tet Zoo?) I’m using this article to mention the books I’ve recently obtained and which I aim to review at length here soon, just so you know what’s going on, and also so that the respective authors and publishers know that I haven’t forgotten their various publications. In no particular order…
There aren’t enough good books on amphibians and non-avian reptiles, but the good news is that – when new ones appear – they tend to be of excellent quality. Bo Beolens, Michael Watkins and Michael Grayson recently published The Eponym Dictionary of Amphibians (Pelagic Publishing, 2013). This is a ‘niche’ book that provides an enormous quantity of information on the people (and, where appropriate, places, mythological references and so on) who have been referenced in the popular and technical names of amphibians. If you know your herpetological history, or want to know it better, this is a really impressive and fascinating reference.
Trevor Beebee has just published Amphibians and Reptiles (Pelagic Pubishing, 2013), number 31 in the Naturalists’ Handbooks series. It’s a compact, well illustrated volume on British herps, covering ecology, conservation and field research: I haven’t read it yet but it mostly seems to be a handbook designed for those who want to study, survey or conserve British amphibians and reptiles. I imagine it should be used in conjunction with Beebee and Trevor Griffiths’s New Naturalist volume Amphibians and Reptiles (Beebee & Griffiths 2000) since that work contains an enormous amount of natural history data not covered here.
Sea monsters and mystery big cats
Among the most curious of new books I need to cover is Chet Van Duzer’s Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (The British Library, 2013). This nearly quarto-sized book is beautifully illustrated in colour throughout (there are colour pictures on virtually every page): it charts and documents the history of sea monsters on maps from the oldest to the youngest. People interested in maps, cryptozoology, folklore, and arcane zoology and zoological history will want to check it out. Remember that I’ll be reviewing this book – and many others mentioned here – in full at some point!
Also on the subject of cryptozoology and folklore is Rick Minter’s Big Cats: Facing Britain’s Wild Predators (Whittles Publishing, 2011). Any volume devoted to the possible reality of non-native large felids living wild in the UK is bound to be controversial: Minter acknowledges this early on but, rather than trying to convince readers that ‘British big cats’ are real, he mostly aims to do something arguably more interesting. Namely, to ask several under-explored questions: if these animals are real, and lurking about the British countryside, what might it mean for our attitude to our wildlife, for the ecological landscape of the country, and even for the evolution of the cats themselves? The frustrating lack of an index makes it hard to use this book – I and colleagues cited it in our recent paper on the British lynx from c. 1903 (Blake et al. 2013) – but it’s very well illustrated (in colour throughout) and certainly thought provoking.
A similar topic is explored in David Waldron and Simon Townsend’s Snarls From the Tea-Tree: Big Cat Folklore (Arcadia, 2012), though this book focuses on the situation in Australia. I haven’t read it yet: it appears to be a sceptical analysis of the Australian big cat phenomenon that discusses it within the framework of folklore and sociology. I don’t think there’s any doubt that ‘cultural transmission’ – friend of a friend stories, tall tales and all that – plays a major role in the persistence of ideas about non-native big cats (and, indeed, other mystery animal accounts from around the world). What also gets covered here is the fact that at least some material evidence means that we cannot just dismiss the entire phenomenon as a cultural event, however. Another recently published volume also reviewed the Australian big cat phenomenon (Williams & Lang 2010).
So many great new bird books!
An extraordinary number of great books on birds have appeared recently, but then I think this is true of just about any time. Among those I’m reviewing, most are readable, octavo-size works but others are dense reference works and one is a gigantic, sumptuously illustrated quarto-size masterpiece. I’ve been reading John Marzluff and Tony Angell’s Gifts of the Crow (Free Press, 2012) for some months now. If you’re seriously interested in crows, it’s a must-read, even if you don’t like or agree with everything they say. I like Angell’s illustrations (they appear throughout) and the numerous anecdotes about crow behaviour and stories about interactions between crows and humans, and crows and dogs, are fascinating. There’s substantial discussion in the book of brain anatomy and function. Again, this should be required reading if you’re really interested in that sort of thing.
Steve Bodio’s An Eternity of Eagles: the Human History of the Most Fascinating Bird in the World (Lyons Press, 2012) is a highly readable, extremely well illustrated tour of the world of eagles. Bodio takes us through eagle diversity and biology before concentrating on eagles in mythology, eagles as enemies, and eagles as hunting partners. Partly this is more about our own attitude to, treatment of, and relationships with eagles than about eagles themselves. Inspiring and sometimes upsetting, such stories are persistently fascinating and Bodio is certainly the right man for the job. The book includes numerous accounts (and photos, and remarkable illustrations and paintings) discussing the incredible Berkutchis of Central Asia, and about modern American and European people who have taken to flying Golden eagles. The end of the book came all too quickly and I’m seriously thinking about reading it again. I get name-checked a few times and Steve even reproduced the ‘evil bastard killer eagles’ Christmas card I sent round a few years ago!
Fitting somewhere within the same general area of bird-themed adventure and danger is Tim Gallagher’s Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre (Atria Books, 2013). Gallagher’s efforts to learn as much as possible about the remarkable – and probably extinct – giant known as the Imperial woodpecker make exciting reading. Black and white photos appear throughout the text and there’s a colour plate section. I’m still reading this book and am really enjoying learning about the history of the Sierra Madre as much as I am about Gallagher’s quest for the elusive giant woodpecker. Incidentally, Gallagher’s book has comments from Bodio on the back cover; Bodio’s book has comments from Angell on the back cover. Everything’s connected.
Margaret Kinnaird and Timothy O’Brien’s The Ecology & Conservation of Asian Hornbills: Farmers of the Forest (University of Chicago Press, 2007) is a real tour-de-force: a gigantic monograph that reviews the evolutionary history, biology, behaviour and conservation status of these amazing birds. This is a technical volume, fully referenced and containing a huge amount of technical data, much of it covering issues of habitat degradation and loss, wildlife management and changing patterns in biodiversity that go well beyond hornbills alone. The book is required reading for those seriously interested in hornbills, but it really needs to be consulted by anyone who works on the ecology or biology of tropical forest birds, or in avian conservation.
Also in the technical camp is Guy Kirwan and Graeme Green’s incredible Cotingas and Manakins (Christopher Helm, 2011), a data-packed, 624-page guide to some of South American’s most fascinating birds. Umbrellabirds, fruitcrows, plantcutters, bellbirds, capuchinbirds, pihas and so many others… they’re all in here. And what about the juvenile of the Elegant mourner Laniisoma elegans? It might be the weirdest bird on the planet (it’s been seen just once: there’s a specimen at Tring). As expected for a Helm guide, there are colour plates showing all the species (as well as variants, sexual dimorphs and juveniles, where known) – but there’s so much more! In fact, of all the Helm bird guides, this is the one that’s closest to a definitive monograph on the birds concerned: the sections on specific taxa include colour photos (many showing species that have hardly ever been photographed before) as well as huge amounts of new data on ranges, voice and behaviour. I don’t think there can be much doubt that this is the new standard work on these birds.
In visual terms, the most impressive of recent bird books – or even of all recent books – is easily Katrina van Grouw’s beautiful quarto-sized The Unfeathered Bird (Princeton University Press): 287 gigantic pages of incredible artwork and anatomical observation. Birds are shown perching, walking, flying and so on, yet are illustrated as moving skeletons, or as living studies in musculature. Numerous additional illustrations show the finer details of skull, wing or foot anatomy. There’s a huge amount of text too: this is not just a picture book! I cannot recommend The Unfeathered Bird highly enough – it’s sumptuous and wonderful and should be obtained by anyone interested in birds, in anatomy, or in zoological art.
Vertebrate palaeontology: evo-devo, fossil mammals, a field guide to fossil birds, and Mark Witton’s Pterosaurs
Finally, I have several new books on vertebrate palaeontology to review. Marcelo Sánchez’s Embryos in Deep Time: the Rock Record of Biological Development (University of California Press, 2012) is a readable review of what we know about animal embryology from the fossil record. Don’t be daunted; it’s a surprisingly easy read, tying what we know from the fossil record to what we know about the development of living animals. Wow, I managed to say all that without using the term ‘evo-devo’. Despite substantial interest in this subject and its value for our understanding of evolution, a popular volume devoted to it has not appeared before (to my knowledge).
Hannah Bonner’s When Dinos Dawned, Mammals Got Munched, & Pterosaurs Took Flight: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life in the Triassic (National Geographic, 2012) is brilliant: a fantastically well-illustrated review – written for kids – of Triassic life and the evolution of Triassic plants and animals. The text is concise and fun to read, and amusing cartoons appear throughout the book. I love Bonner’s meticulously researched artwork (she clearly did her homework on getting the details right), much of it depicting such animals as rhynchosaurs, drepanosaurs, croc-group archosaurs, sauropterygians and so on. The book might be designed with children in mind, but any adult seriously interested in Triassic life will cherish it as well.
Spectacular fossil-bearing sites require spectacularly well-illustrated books. Lance Grande’s The Lost World of Fossil Lake: Snapshots from Deep Time (The University of Chicago Press, 2013) does not disappoint. This massive book is both a dense technical review of Green River Formation fossils (citations appear throughout) as well as a gorgeous, full-colour ‘catalogue’ of the often incredible fossils. Everything is showcased, from leaves, fronds and coprolites, to complete or near-complete tetrapods. I will be using this book for its great technical data on the vertebrates but anybody who likes or appreciate great images of fossils will want it.
Books devoted to Cenozoic fossil mammals are few and far between: Donald Prothero’s new Rhinoceros Giants: the Paleobiology of Indricotheres (Indiana University Press, 2013) is thus especially notable. Paraceratherium (also known by its various synonyms, including Baluchitherium and Indricotherium) is one of the most famous and awesome of fossil mammals, yet the extensive literature on it is scattered and obscure. Prothero – dynamic publishing machine that he is (I’m not kidding; he seems to publish a few books every year) – brings it all together in this extensively illustrated volume. Carl Buell did the cover art. I’m certainly not sold on the idea that these animals had big, floppy ears, but Prothero does explain the reasoning behind it.
Bones, Clones, and Biomes: the History and Geography of Recent Neotropical Mammals is a multi-authored volume (edited by Bruce Patterson and Leonora Costa; The University of Chicago Press, 2012) that brings together 16 contributions on South American mammals and their history. There’s a lot of useful stuff in here, ranging from studies of recently extinct Caribbean mammals to reviews of Cerrado and Caatinga mammals, the role of the Andes in mammal evolution and so on; already I’ve used it several times when writing about South American primates, carnivorans, rodents and other mammals.
Many of us have toyed with the idea of producing a ‘field guide’ to fossil animals, and by ‘field guide’, I mean a book that has the same format as a real field guide, not one that merely uses the term ‘field guide’ and then fails to deliver. I, in fact, wasted considerable time with colleagues some years ago in producing such a volume on Mesozoic dinosaurs (Steve White was among the artists to produce draft plates), only for it to fail due to lack of publisher interest. Anyway, Matthew Martyniuk has recently produced exactly such a volume: A Field Guide to Mesozoic Birds and Other Winged Dinosaurs (Pan Aves, 2012). Laid out in true field guide style, this is a brilliant visual guide to Mesozoic birds and their relatives. Inevitably, there is of course a substantial amount of speculation involved in his depictions of the live animals, but there is also careful consideration of, and reference to, what we actually know about the life appearance of these animals. As in All Yesterdays (Conway et al. 2012), a consistent theme throughout is that many of the tropes and popular ideas about the appearance of Mesozoic birds and other feathered dinosaurs are simply inconsistent with what we now know. Like it or not, oviraptorosaurs, dromaeosaurs and Mesozoic birds all looked far more ‘birdy’ than long thought, so those scaly faces, naked hands and skinny, sparsely feathered bodies, limbs and tails are all out the window. The book is not just a collection of pretty pictures: the cladograms, discussions of biology, nomenclature, anatomy and so on are all useful reviews.
Finally, I’ve recently received Mark Witton’s Pterosaurs (Princeton University Press, 2013): a large, near-quarto sized volume that’s richly illustrated throughout with technical diagrams, colour photos and colour reconstructions. It’s written as an encyclopaedic tour through pterosaur diversity. This really is the ultimate guide to pterosaurs, providing us with a richer view of pterosaur diversity and behaviour than allowed in the two previous great volumes on the group (Wellnhofer 1991, Unwin 2005) and containing a substantial amount of review and analysis of pterosaur ecology and functional morphology.
And I shouldn’t need to say this, but here I go: a particularly problematic amateur researcher who insists on denigrating the research of others while promoting his own arcane and erroneous alternatives has been trying his hardest to be downright rude about Mark’s book. His several articles that criticise Mark’s book are out there, I presume, as a cheap and dirty tactic to get more hits for his blog (we’re referring to the same person who uses numerous meta-tags in the source code of his articles in order to cheat search engines). This individual has truly become the Immanuel Velikovsky of palaeontology: technically qualified researchers (Mark Witton included) mostly don’t bother to deal with his stuff because it’s such obvious nonsense. A key article on this individual was featured here on Tet Zoo.
Anyway, longer reviews of at least some of the books mentioned here will appear in time; I feel less guilty now that I’ve said at least something about them. For previous articles relevant to some of the material discussed here, see…
Refs – -
Beebee, T. & Griffiths, R. 2000. Amphibians and Reptiles. HarperCollins, London.
Blake, M., Naish, D., Larson, G., King, C. L., Nowell, G., Sakamoto, M. & Barnett, R. 2013. Multidisciplinary investigation of a ‘British big cat’: a lynx killed in southern England c. 1903. Historical Biology doi:10.1080/08912963.2013.785541
Conway, J., Kosemen, C. M. & Naish, D. 2012. All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. Irregular Books.
Unwin, D. M. 2005. The Pterosaurs from Deep Time. New York, Pi Press.
Wellnhofer, P. 1991. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs. Salamander Books Ltd., London.
Williams, M. & Lang, R. 2010. Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers. Strange Nation, Hazelbrook, NSW.