For all their popularity as the subject of dedicated books, cats, dogs, bears and their relatives have never previously been the focus of a single, field guide-style volume that treats all of them together. Luke Hunter and Priscilla Barrett’s A Field Guide to the Carnivores of the World (published 2011) is a beautifully illustrated, comprehensive book that treats all 245 or so living carnivoran species in turn. The book is compact (16 x 24 cm) and designed with text on the left-side pages and illustrations on the right-side pages.

Regarding the book’s title, I really wish that people would universally switch to the term carnivoran when referring to members of the group Carnivora. Calling these animals ‘carnivores’ is a frequent source of confusion and ambiguity. Having said this, I fully realise that a great many biologists have no plans to change things, so that needless ambiguity is destined to remain for now.

The book contains >hundreds< of Priscilla Barrett's excellent illustrations. Here, the plate featuring Uncia and Neofelis.

An introductory section depicts an up-to-date carnivoran phylogeny before summarising the history, biology and distribution of the 13 ‘family’-level groups covered here. The up-to-date-ness is demonstrated by the inclusion of separate sections for Mephitidae, Nandiniidae, Prionodontidae and Eupleridae. One minor quibble I have with the book’s layout is that the species are not arranged in the phylogenetic order prompted by the shape of the cladogram. Cat-line carnivorans are treated first, but we go through felids, hyaenids and hespestids before we get to Nandinia, the linsangs or the viverrids. Look, if you’re going to promote tree-based thinking at least be consistent!

And the biggest quibble? Pinnipeds are not included! This is par for the course on books about carnivorans (e.g. Macdonald 1992): I know that authors typically think of the (mostly) marine pinnipeds as somehow being in a separate evolutionary ‘realm’ from the (mostly) terrestrial remainder of Carnivora, but it no longer seems appropriate to ignore pinnipeds when their close relatives within the caniform branch of Carnivora are covered at length. The justification for the non-inclusion of pinnipeds given here is that “pinnipeds are covered in many excellent field guides to marine mammals” (Hunter & Barrett 2011, p. 7). Admittedly, I can see their point: the aim here was to create a field guide for an assemblage of species that didn’t previously have one of their own.

A look inside. One of the three spreads on genets.

On to the main section of the book... the illustrations are beautiful, being highly accurate, depicting realistic life poses, and showing numerous taxa (and variants) not illustrated often, if ever. That’s right: there are good illustrations here of the Central Asian form of the Striped hyaena* Hyaena hyaena, the thin-furred, Saharan form of Cheetah Acinonyx jubatus, as well as such species as the Abyssinian genet Genetta abyssinica, Pousargue’s mongoose Dologale dybowskii, Libyan weasel Ictonyx libyca, Indonesian mountain weasel Mustela lutreolina, and… well, you get the impression: all the others. Barrett’s distinctive illustrations (the book mostly features colour images of the carnivorans, but there are black and white vignettes as well) will look familiar (I mean in style) if you know your mammal books. Some people might buy the book for the pictures alone.

* I am absolutely inconsistent on my use of this term: you will find (if you’re inclined to check, which you’re not) both ‘hyena’ and ‘hyaena’ in the Tet Zoo archives. There is still not an international standard, and I wish there was.

Malabar civet (Viverra civettina) skin obtained in 1990. Despite efforts, this species (endemic to the Western Ghats) has not recently been photographed in the wild, if at all (so far as I can tell). Image by Zoological Survey of India, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Camera-traps and the intrepid efforts of researchers, film-makers and photographers mean that many species or variants of species typically missing from books have been captured on film for the first time in recent years. This all means that the number of species as yet unphotographed in the wild is diminishing. A few select rarities remain on the list, however, including Pousargue’s mongoose (no new records since the 1970s), Leighton’s oyan Poiana leightoni (known from old museum specimens and two skin collected in the late 1980s), and (I think) the Malabar civet Viverra civettina (rediscovered in 1990 due to the retrieval of a fresh skin), though let me know if you know otherwise.

The species accounts provide facts and figures relating to dimensions and weight, brief reviews of distribution, ecology, social behaviour and conservation status. Well-studied species (typically the ones for which various regional forms have been named) get longer accounts, so the Cheetah, Leopard, Jaguar, Lion, Grey wolf, American black bear, Brown bear and several others get pages all to themselves.

Surprisingly, maps showing the ranges of the respective species are absent; this is something of a failing for a book that calls itself a ‘field guide’. “Constraints of space” is the main reason given for the absence: I’m not convinced, since every single colour plate in the book includes empty white areas that could easily have contained miniature maps perhaps but 20 or 30 mm wide. However, specially produced maps can be downloaded from

Stripe-necked mongoose photographed at Karnataka, India: image by Yathin sk, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The text does a brilliant job of summarising key information on the species, with many little-known and recently discovered snippets of natural history and behaviour being mentioned. The occasional ungulate-killing behaviour of the Striped-necked mongoose Herpestes vitticollis [adjacent image of this species by Yathin sk], the possible semi-aquatic habits of the Short-eared dog Atelocynus microtis, a case where an Arctic fox Vulpes lagopus cached over 500 eggs and observations of Banded linsangs Prionodon linsang scavenging on tiger kills, co-operative hunting behaviour in Fossa Cryptoprocta ferox and arboreal hunting (15 m up in a tree!) in a Black-legged mongoose Bdeogale nigripes are among many highlights included in the entries.

The book is also really strong on the information it provides on current conservation status, as you’d expect from a volume produced by the president of the conservation organisation Panthera. Consider supporting Panthera and their work if you can. By focusing on big cats as ‘umbrella species’, they aim to conserve tracts of habitat that are inhabited by thousands or even millions of other species.

Canid phylogeny from Lindblad Toh et al. (2005). Lots of things to note, but look how the Arctic fox is deeply nested within Vulpes foxes.

The use of the name Alopex for the Arctic fox invites comments on how up-to-date the taxonomy is (Alopex is mostly recovered as part of Vulpes these days: Zrzavý & iánková 2004, Bardeleben et al. 2005, Lindblad-Toh et al. 2005). As we all know, things are frequently in flux as new phylogenetic hypotheses seemingly trump older classification systems. In short, the volume is fantastically up to date, with recent taxonomic splitting and generic reshufflings being accounted for and alluded to where required. As one random example, the Small Indian mongoose Herpestes auropunctatus and Small Asian mongoose H. javanicus are treated as separate species in view of recently published molecular data that places them far apart (Veron et al. 2007; but see Patou et al. 2009 and Agnarsson et al. 2010). Elsewhere, it is noted that Durrell’s vontsira Salanoia durrelli was described as the book was going to press, and hence couldn’t be given a full-length section of its own.

There are a few places where Hunter & Barrett (2011) either opted for conservatism, or missed taxonomic changes that probably should have been included, however. Hunter & Barrett (2011) get round the unresolved species-level classification of the olingos (Bassaricyon) by illustrating the different morphs and referring to all of them in passing in the same, single entry. Those molecular studies of mongooses alluded to above find the Long-nosed mongoose (conventionally Herpestes naso) to be distinct from the Herpestes species and, instead, especially close to the Marsh mongoose Atilax paludinosus (e.g., Patou et al. 2009, Agnarsson et al. 2010). Hunter & Barrett (2011) hint at this placement by putting the Long-nosed mongoose on the same page as the Marsh mongoose, but they don’t use the name now mooted for this species (Xenogale naso).

One of the many, many pages of skull illustrations from the volume. Brilliant stuff.

Similarly, it now seems that the Asian mongoose species previously lumped into Herpestes are not close kin of the African Herpestes species (the Egyptian mongoose H. ichneumon is the type species for the genus) and hence need a different name. Urva Hodgson, 1837 is available. Less well known is the suggestion that even the reduced, African Herpestes clade should be split to recognise Galerella for the Cape grey mongoose G. pulverulenta and Common slender mongoose G. sanguinea (Patou et al. 2009, Agnarsson et al. 2010).

Among other areas that might warrant mention in future, some (but not all) studies indicate that the Black-backed jackal Canis mesomelas (and maybe Side-striped jackal C. adustus too) is not a member of Canis at all, but is instead outside the canid clade that includes dholes, African hunting dogs and Canis proper (if this is valid, the generic name Lupulella Hilzheimer, 1906 is available for it) (Zrzavý & iánková 2004, Bardeleben et al. 2005, Lindblad-Toh et al. 2005, Agnarsson et al. 2010). In their treatment of Eurasian badgers (Meles), Hunter & Barrett (2011) do allude to ideas that the Asian badger M. leucurus and Japanese badger M. anakuma might warrant species-level distinction relative to M. meles, but they presumably weren’t aware of Del Cerro et al.’s (2011) suggestion that M. canescens of south-west Asia should be recognised as well.

For no particular reason, here's a stack of books on carnivorans.

As for errors, this book is so comprehensive and authoritative that I certainly didn’t spot anything that I regarded as incorrect (I am not, however, a carnivoran expert). One minor thing: the Golden jackal Canis aureus is not, within Europe, restricted to the south-east (Hunter & Barrett 2011, p. 104). Believe it or don’t, it now occurs as far north as Sweden (thanks to Markus Bühler for this information), though how it got here and how long it has been living this far north doesn’t seem to be known [UPDATE: be sure to read the comments below!]. I should also note that the reclassification of some African Golden jackals as part of Canis lupus only affects the long controversial ‘subspecies’ C. aureus lupaster.

References are not cited throughout the text (which is fine, this is a field guide) but a bibliography lists most volumes on extant carnivoran diversity and biology. A glossary and index are included, and the volume ends with numerous (as in hundreds) illustrations of skulls and footprints.

I was consistently impressed with the style, editing, content, quality and up-to-dateness of the book. It is a world first and a truly impressive, comprehensive and highly attractive volume. Everybody interested in carnivorans will want to obtain a copy and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Outstanding.

Hunter, L. & Barrett, P. 2011. A Field Guide to the Carnivores of the World. New Holland, London. Hardback, colour, 240 pp, ISBN 978-1-84773-346-7. Here on Panthera; here on amazon; here on

For previous Tet Zoo articles on carnivorans, see...


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Agnarsson, I., Kuntner, M. & May-Collado, L. J. 2010. Dogs, cats, and kin: A molecular species-level phylogeny of Carnivora. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 54, 726-745.

Bardeleben, C., Moore, R. L., & Wayne, R. K. 2005. A molecular phylogeny of the Canidae based on six nuclear loci. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 37, 815-831.

Del Cerro, I., Marmi, J., Ferrando, A., Chashchin, P., Taberlet, P. & Bosch, M. 2010. Nuclear and mitochondrial phylogenies provide evidence for four species of Eurasian badgers (Carnivora). Zoologica Scripta 39, 415-425.

Hunter, L. & Barrett, P. 2011. A Field Guide to the Carnivores of the World. New Holland, London.

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