Handbook of the Mammals of the World, an interview with the series creators

The final volume in the Handbook of the Mammals of the World series will be published in October 2019.

The first volume was published over a decade ago and Volume 9: Bats completes this hugely important reference series to the mammals of the world.

 

We asked publishers Josep del Hoyo and Albert Martinez to share their thoughts about the conception, production and fruition of this and the earlier Handbook of the Birds of the World series.

1. What inspired you to embark on the Handbook of the Mammals of the World series?
JOSEP: Well, in this case, our inspiration was very clearly the series’ predecessor: the Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW). When we started on the Handbook of the Mammals of the World (HMW), we had already published 12 volumes of HBW and the results were encouraging, both in terms of enthusiastic reviews and commercial success. So, we thought it would be worthwhile to try to produce a sort of “sister series” covering all the mammals of the world. We saw it as natural that there should be a Handbook to properly treat all the animals forming part of the same Class to which we, as humans, belong. We were aware that while the number of professionals dedicated to mammals were high, that the number of amateur people interested in the group would be much lower than the equivalent public in birdwatching, so the series would be commercially riskier. But we were convinced of the project’s importance for science and conservation, so we decided to look for some support to make it happen.
We were extremely fortunate to find this support in the form of two Chief Editors for the series that were essential for its success. On one hand, celebrated primatologist Russ Mittermeier joined the project, bringing his own knowledge to the series, as well as achieving important funding, most notably from Conservation International, to get the project off its feet. Russ also enlisted the involvement of IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature, further emphasising the importance of conservation in the series, and drawing from the expertise of many of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Specialist Groups.
On the other hand, Don Wilson, at the time Chairman of the Department of Vertebrate Zoology and Curator of the Division of Mammals at the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution, generously volunteered his time and effort to help the project, and this continued throughout the series in many different facets. For example, Don’s help was especially useful for finding and contacting the specialists to author the chapters, as well as for providing a strong taxonomic base with his book Wilson & Reeder (2005), Mammal Species of the World. A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed).
We are very grateful to both Russ and Don, and to the other Chief Editors and external supporters who made the project possible.

2. Volume 1 was Carnivores, a very charismatic order of mammals; when this was published in 2009, did you already know how many volumes the series would contain, and in what order they would be published?

ALBERT: We proposed Carnivores as an exploratory volume to study the viability of the project as we felt that it could be one of the volumes with the greatest interest for the readers.
When the first volume was published and once it was proven that the series was viable, we agreed shortly after with the Chief Editors, Don Wilson and Russ Mittermeier, on the total number of volumes in the series—eight—and their order. In the first preparatory meetings it was quickly decided not to follow a strictly phylogenetic sequence, and so, for instance, walruses, seals, and sea lions were treated along with the rest of sea mammals and not in the Carnivores volume.
The most important departure from the original plan was the need to split rodents into two volumes: Volume 6 and Volumes 7, in order to maintain the level of detail that had characterised the previous volumes. This decision was made after direct consultation with HMW subscribers (of 1840 respondents, 92% favoured two volumes). So, the series was extended from eight to nine volumes.

3. Could you provide a rough idea about how much hard work goes into publishing a single volume in the series?
ALBERT: The work is immense and summary numbers for the series are impressive (c.8000 pages, 443 colour plates, 5300 photos, 6400 range maps, 10,000s of references), as is the number of the people involved: 312 authors of texts, 10 artists, and more than a thousand photographers from all over the World.
The editing process for a single volume lasts between one-and-half and two years, it begins with the commission of the different families to the authors of texts and the plates to the artists. The in-house editing phase has lasted about a year in the last volumes. The first three volumes appeared with a cadence of two years, but from HMW4 on we have managed to publish a volume per year without fail.

4. Is there a certain family or order of mammals you are particularly fascinated by?
ALBERT: It is difficult to choose, but maybe Carnivores, Hoofed Mammals, or Primates. Also Marsupials as they are really exotic and give us a very clear idea of the big conservation threats that face island species or species with reduced ranges. Looking at the distribution maps you become very aware of the high number of species with tiny distributions and those that only survive thanks to strict conservation measures.

5. What challenges did you face along the road to completion of this series?
ALBERT: During the 11 years of editing the HMW series (2009–2019) and with so many people involved, we have faced all kinds of difficulties with authors, artists, and editors (illnesses, accidents… and even Brexit at the end!). Especially complicated has been the instability in the taxonomy with habitual last-minute changes in the final stages of the editing process (e.g. new species described, rearrangements in the sequence of the species due to improvements in the knowledge of phylogenies, etc), which have forced us to completely redo already laid-out families many times. Despite such challenges, I want to highlight the impressive enthusiasm and dedication which all the participants have shown for this project.
It is very rewarding to see the commitment and effort that many experts have put into the project, having themselves seen in the HMW series an important achievement in their field of work. The selfless collaboration that we have received from a multitude of specialists not directly involved in the project has helped us in many ways, like providing material to allow the artists to draw rare species.

6. What do you hope will be the legacy of the Handbook of the Birds of the World and the Handbook of the Mammals of the World series?
JOSEP: Since we finished the HBW series some years ago (2013), we now have a better perspective on what this legacy may be. We have some indications that show that HBW, which covered all the birds of the world for the first time ever, represents a “before and after” in knowledge and interest in birds. It is true that before HBW there was a good deal of interest in birds in parts of the world like Europe, North America, Australia or South Africa, but in many other parts of the world, including in Tropical Regions with the richest biodiversity, there was a clear lack of even the most basic information. So we think the existence of the series has helped a bit to balance this situation, and has been an influence so that now many more people are interested not only in birds of their own country, region or local patch, but also at the global level, which we are convinced is good, eventually, for conservation.
With the HMW series, which we are just finishing now, we think similar effects will appear. While with birds the interest across the families was more or less regular, mammals have an added complication that some groups receive much more attention than others. So we think that the volumes dedicated to groups like rodents and, especially, the last one dedicated to bats, will be important for bringing together the knowledge that was much more disperse and less accessible, in a single, comprehensive treatment. This will also show where there are still gaps in the knowledge to encourage further study.

7. How do you feel about the imminent fruition of over ten years of publishing the Handbook of the Mammals of the World series – do you have any new projects in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
JOSEP: Well, we have several big projects that we are studying carefully, but we are also aware that the number of people interested in other groups of biodiversity is many times smaller than those interested in birds and even in mammals. But a number of good possibilities do exist, particularly if there is an awareness that such coverage gives a push to the knowledge and conservation of the group.

Meanwhile, we are still very busy with birds and mammals. For birds we published the HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World in two volumes and we are already working on the equivalent illustrated checklist for the mammals. Also, given the important patrimony we hold of the illustrations of all the birds of the world, we have started the Lynx and BirdLife International Field Guides Collection, which is producing good results, and we hope we can pursue a similar line with mammals. In this way, the two Handbook series can help us create field guides to countries for which they are none, thus, raising awareness and knowledge, which in turn can lead to greater local conservation.

HWM, Volume 9: Bats and the complete Volumes 1 to 9 are available at a special pre-publication price until the end of September

Handbook of the Mammals of the World, Volume 9: Bats
Oct 2019 *124.99 £144.99
The final volume in this monumental series profiles the world’s bat fauna.

*Pre-publication price applies to orders until 30th September 2019

 

Handbook of the Mammals of the World, Volumes 1 to 9
Oct 2019 *999.00 £1250.00
The whole set for under £1,000: this offer is available for a limited time only..

*Pre-publication price applies to orders until 30th September 2019

 

Browse all volumes in the Handbook of the Mammals of the World series

Browse all volumes in the Handbook of the Birds of the World series

 

Author Interview: Caleb Compton

Caleb Compton, the creator of the hugely popular @StrangeAnimals on Twitter has recently released A Book of Rather Strange Animals – a collection of one hundred remarkable animal specimens from around the world. We recently asked Caleb some questions to learn more about his inspiration about this project and more. Caleb’s book has also been featured on the 2019 Summer Recess Reading List for Parliamentarians.

  1. Tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in the weird and wonderful?

My interest in the natural world started from a young age. As a child, I used to read books about unusual animals and watched a lot of nature documentaries (my favourites were those narrated by Sir David Attenborough). I started researching strange lesser-known animals after I finished school, and had the idea of creating a Twitter account to showcase these fascinating species. So I set up the @StrangeAnimaIs Twitter account in 2013, where I posted facts and pictures of these obscure creatures, pointing out any conservation issues associated with them. I started my biosciences degree the same year, at the University of Exeter, and specialised in animal biology in my final year. My modules included marine biology, ecology and animal psychology, and my dissertation title was based on the decline of pollinators and the government’s response to this ecological crisis. I was fascinated learning about these topics and it grew my passion for the subject.

  1. Your book is full of very different animals – how do you come across such an eclectic group of animals?

I originally started the research for my book back in 2013, when I first created my Twitter account. Over the years, I have discovered many animal facts and pictures, which I post on @StrangeAnimaIs. When I started planning my book, I went through all my previous tweets and picked out what I thought were the weirdest animals. I wanted a range of species in the book, including an even mix of amphibians, fish, birds, reptiles, mammals and arthropods. After making a list of all the species I wanted to write about, I set about finding as much information as I could on each animal, trawling through websites, books and scientific papers. Using the reference material, I compiled notes on these animals and then typed them up in the format of my book.

Lesser Hedgehog Tenrec by Steve Priest
  1. What was the biggest challenge in writing the book?

My biggest challenge was staying focused whilst writing. About halfway through the book, I was struggling to carry on and lost my motivation. By this point, I had been writing in my free time for almost four months and it was getting too much, and I didn’t have much time to myself. I decided to take a break, and didn’t do any writing for a few months. That was what I needed and when I went back to it later, I was a lot more motivated, and managed to finish the rest of the book over the next couple of months.

  1. Many of the oddities that depict a strange animal are useful adaptations, what is your most memorable of these adaptations?

There are quite a few animals in the book that have some really fascinating adaptations. My three favourites are probably the Suriname toad, aye-aye and the isopod Cymothoa exigua.

The Suriname Toad is a unique amphibian from South America, which has developed a rather interesting method for raising its young. After mating, the male implants the fertilised eggs into the female’s back, where they settle into pockets. Skin grows over the eggs, keeping them safe until they hatch weeks later as fully formed frogs.

The Aye-aye is an endangered primate from the island of Madagascar. They have an incredible adaptation for finding food, where they tap their elongated middle finger on branches and listen out for the vibrations. When they detect a grub, they will bite a hole in the bark with their rodent-like teeth, and insert their finger to skewer the grub. This foraging method is called percussive foraging and it’s extremely rare in mammals.

The parasitic isopod Cymothoa exigua has a horrifying lifecycle, where they enter the gills of fish as males. Here, one of them will develop into a female, and travel through the fish into its mouth. Then the isopod causes the fish’s tongue to atrophy and fall off, and then attaches itself to the newly formed stump. From now on, the isopod acts as the fish’s tongue (it’s the only known parasite to completely replace a host’s organ), grinding up food for its host and feeding on scraps of food.

Bush Dog by Steve Priest
  1. Your Twitter feed is full of great information, do you have any advice for anyone wanting to start up a successful twitter profile?

I would say the best way to grow an account on Twitter is to come up with a good theme for the account and then post regular content that fits in with that theme. Go for something that you are passionate about, because if you’re not interested in it, then others won’t be either. Interacting with followers and similar accounts is also a great way to increase engagement. Another piece of advice I would give is to stick with it, even if the audience growth is slow! My account had just 200 followers for a good part of a year, but I kept going and eventually this audience grew to over 40,000. Combined with my other accounts @NatureIsWeird and @Extinct_AnimaIs, I now have a combined reach of 200,000 people.

  1. Do you have any future projects or aspirations?

I have actually just started writing my next book, which is going to be about lesser-known extinct animals. This is going to be based on my other Twitter account, called @Extinct_AnimaIs and will feature a range of obscure animals (not just dinosaurs) that once roamed the earth. There are so many bizarre creatures, it’s actually hard to believe that some of them actually existed. After doing some research into extinct species for my Twitter account, I have become fascinated by them and I would love to share this with people. I think this is a perfect time to get another book out there, after the success of A Book of Rather Strange Animals.

I am also looking at getting into a career in conservation, and hope to secure a role in this area soon.

A Book of Rather Strange Animals: Highlighting the Wonders of Evolution and the Extraordinary Diversity of Life

With fascinating descriptions of nasty feeding habits, bizarre mating rituals and shocking defence mechanisms, you will marvel at both the splendour and gruesomeness of nature.

£12.99

Author Interview: Kate Bradbury

 

If you want to attract more bees, birds, frogs and hedgehogs into your garden, look no further than Wildlife Gardening for Everyone and Everything. Award-winning author and journalist, Kate Bradbury offers tips on feeding your neighbourhood wildlife and explains how you can create the perfect habitats for species you’d like to welcome into your garden.

Kate kindly took some time out to answer our wildlife gardening questions, to help us get our gardens wildlife-friendly for summer!

(c) Sarah Cuttle

Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in the natural world?

I grew up in a house with half an acre of garden out the back. I spend my early years out there, grubbing around in the soil looking for worms, watching the birds. I started gardening from a very young age and the natural world has always been a part of that, for me.

What interests you about gardening for wildlife?

I’ve always been a softie and I’ve always championed the underdog. I love garden wildlife but I’m also passionate about looking after it, and can see the potential our gardens have for saving so many species. Wildlife gardening is all about the power of the individual. There are so many things going on in the world we might feel powerless to change, but simply by planting flowers and caterpillar foodplants we can make a difference for local wildlife species.

I get particularly excited if I find a slow worm in the garden. What animal gives you the most pleasure if you see it visiting, or making a home in your garden?

I couldn’t pick just one! In my new garden I’m desperate to see a toad. They’re so rarely seen these days – I’d be honoured if they found their way to my garden. I’m lucky enough to have hedgehogs so I love seeing them. And a grass snake would be pretty special!

If you could pick just a single thing or activity anyone could implement in their garden that would benefit wildlife, what would it be?

Grow a few native plants. Just one native tree can support hundreds of different species – providing flowers for pollinators, leaves for caterpillars and then seeds or fruit for birds in autumn. Not to mention shelter! Non-natives have a great role in gardens – especially for pollinating insects. But it’s the natives that attract the leaf munchers – the caterpillars, leaf miners, things that need leaves to breed. And, being at the bottom of the foodchain, these are hugely important to anything from hedgehogs to frogs, toads, newts, birds and bats.

What can cause the greatest harm or damage to wildlife living in, or wanting to live in your garden?

Erecting new fences and walls. If wildlife can’t get in to your garden, you’re closing off feeding and breeding habitat to them and potentially blocking off more gardens, too. Make sure wildlife can access your garden and chat with your neighbours so they know this too. Hedgehogs need just a four inch gap beneath or cut into a fence.

If your outdoor space is very small, what are the best ways to make even a tiny outdoor space a home to wildlife?

Grow a mix of nectar- and pollen-rich plants for pollinators, plus native plants for caterpillars. In a small garden you might have room for only one tree – try a Silver Birch or standard Hawthorn, which are great for wildlife. In courtyard gardens and balconies grow forget-me-not, primroses and foxgloves. These provide nectar and pollen for pollinators but also leaves for caterpillars to eat.

Do you have any new projects in the pipeline that you’d like to tell us about?

I’ve got an exciting project coming up that I can’t talk about yet – you’ll have to wait and see!

Kate Bradbury has authored many popular gardening books and the wonderful The Bumblebee Flies AnywaySee below for a list of her books available at NHBS.

Wildlife Gardening: For Everyone and Everything  £14.99

With handy charts tailored to the needs of every size and style of garden, this easy-to-use book also includes practical projects such as making bee hotels or creating wildlife ponds, compost corners and wildflower meadows, as well as fact files for the UK’s most common garden species.

 

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway: A Year of Gardening and (Wild)Life From £9.99

Finding herself in a new home in Brighton, Kate Bradbury sets about transforming her decked, barren backyard into a beautiful wildlife garden. She documents the unbuttoning of the earth and the rebirth of the garden, the rewilding of a tiny urban space.

The Wildlife Gardener £16.99

The Wildlife Gardener is a book which helps you to create wildlife habitats in your very own garden, and is very handily split into sections on shelter, food and water.

 

We have also made a collection of our favourite wildlife gardening books and equipment to get your garden a wildlife haven.

Curlew Moon: An interview with Mary Colwell

Mary Colwell is an award-winning writer and producer who is well-known for her work with BBC Radio producing programmes on natural history and environmental issues; including their Natural Histories, Shared Planet and Saving Species series.

Her new book, Curlew Moon, documents her 500-mile journey from the west coast of Ireland to the east of England to raise awareness and funds for the Curlew, now one of the UK’s most threatened birds. Part travel diary and part natural history, the book is also a beautiful exploration of the way in which the Curlew appears in local myths, culture and language.

We were delighted to chat with Mary about the book and about her fight to save the UK Curlew population before it’s too late.

Curlew MoonI guess I’ll start with the obvious question – why Curlews? What is it about them that captivates you and has made you dedicate so much time and energy to raising awareness for their conservation?

That’s perhaps the most difficult question. I honestly don’t know why Curlews in particular, other than I love the way they look, how they sound and where they live. Those calls over wetland and meadow or over mountain slopes are soul-grabbing. W S Graham described the Curlew’s call as a ‘love-weep’ a melancholic, yearning, beautiful sound. I grew up in the Staffordshire Moorlands and back then, in the 70s, they were common, so perhaps they infiltrated my brain! What I found on the walk is that many people feel the same. To know them is to love them. And over the last few years, as I became aware of what was happening not out on the savannah or in a rainforest, but right here under our noses, I decided to try to help. A contract with the BBC Natural History unit came to an end and the next day I started to plan the walk.

Curlew MoonWhere I live in North Wales, on the banks of the Menai Straights, the sight and sound of curlew are very common. Living somewhere like this, you could easily believe that they are both abundant and thriving here in the UK. Do you think that this, along with a lack of understanding of their complete natural history (e.g. the types of habitat they require to breed, food sources and predator pressures) contributes to masking the problems they face?

For sure that is the case. The UK and Ireland population of Curlew are boosted by winter visitors. From August to March as many as 150,000 Curlews rest up and feed ready for the breeding season. But come the warmer months most disappear back to N Germany, Scandinavia or Finland, leaving our own breeding birds thinly scattered. Also, as Curlew don’t breed until they are at least 2 years old, juveniles may well spend all year on the coast. The story of loss is in the fields and meadows. A Curlew’s life is complicated, and we are only just getting to grips with that. It needs whole landscapes to feed, roost, nest and over-winter. They bind the coast to the mountains and country to country. It’s hard to understand, but worth the effort. They really are fascinating.

Curlew MoonPoetry features heavily in the book and I absolutely loved how you explore the myriad ways in which the curlew features in the myths, legends and cultures of the areas you passed through. (I am currently in the process of moving to Clynnog Fawr so I was particularly thrilled with the tale of St. Beuno!). Why did you choose to style the book in this way rather than writing a more prosaic natural history and travel diary?

I think being a producer on Radio 4’s Natural Histories for two series deepened my understanding of just how much the life around us has contributed to art, literature, poetry, science, folklore and spirituality. For all of our time as humans on earth we have looked at the natural world and forged connections. We still do that today. Part of the reason for the walk was to discover how curlews have inspired us. I had known about the lovely story of St Beuno and the Curlew for a long time – enchanted by it – so I knew there must be more out there. And there certainly is!

Particularly at a time where it seems that we are encouraged to value wildlife primarily for how it can benefit us, and ‘ecosystem services’ type approaches aim to put a monetary value on our wild spaces and creatures, do you think the arts have an important role in highlighting and championing those species that might otherwise fade away without notice?

Yes of course, anything that helps us to re-engage with nature is vital, be that through arts or science or economics. People are complicated – each of us has so many facets, rolled into one being. We are consumers, parents, children, lovers, friends. We are both rational and irrational, emotional and calculating, loving and full of division. Spiritual, religious, atheist, agnostic, often all at the same time. The arts understand this complexity and great art touches all those facets. The role of the arts in our lives is incalculable, so it isn’t surprising it doesn’t appear on a financial spreadsheet. I’m not sure I could write a straight natural history of any animal, bird or plant. I will always want to delve into its connection to our lives.

Curlew MoonWith any conservation work, it can sometimes feel as though you are swimming against the tide, with every move forward followed by two moves back. Especially with a species such as the Curlew, where there seem to be so many challenges to overcome, how do you maintain the hope required to keep fighting and how do you prevent yourself from succumbing to despair?

I touch on this a bit in the book – in the section where I walk though the middle of England with a friend who is an ex- Dominican friar, a gay activist and a writer, Mark Dowd.  He helped put my feelings into context. This wasn’t a walk that will necessarily produce tangible proof of more Curlews on the ground within 5 years. Rather it is in the realm of hope –  that something good will emerge at some point. It was a walk of trust, that if you put yourself on the line, people will respond. And so I didn’t walk with the aim that there would be a 20% increase in curlews in the UK and Ireland by 2020 (although that would be great), rather it was underpinned by a hope that people will be more aware of what needs to be done and will act on it. The series of workshops I organised with help from so many good people also gave me hope. We may fail, we may yet lose curlews from large areas, but, as David Attenborough once said, “As long as I can look into the eyes of my grandchildren and say I honestly did what I could, then that is all I can do.” I agree with that.

My final question is of a more practical nature, as I’m fascinated by people who take time out of their lives to undertake challenging journeys. Are you a seasoned long-distance walker or is this the first walk of this length you have undertaken? How did you prepare for it, both physically and mentally?

I used to do a lot of walking, but then children came along and life changed. So for 20 years I didn’t do much. But determination takes you a long way – and going to the gym. I just felt ready for the challenge and was so sure it was the right thing to do. But I did suffer from blisters! Still, a small price to pay and a good excuse to buy new boots for my most recent long distance walk – 230 miles through the Sierra Nevada in California along the John Muir Trail. That was tough, it made 500 miles along footpaths look like a stroll in the park.

Curlew Moon by Mary Colwell is published by William Collins and is available from NHBS. You can read more about Mary and her work at www.curlewmedia.com.

Signed copies of the book are available while stocks last.

 

Manta: Interview with Guy Stevens

With their horn-shaped cephalic fins and large, gaping mouths, manta rays have long been the source of mariners’ myths and legends. Today, we know much more about these curious creatures, although many features of their lives and behaviours remain a mystery.

Marine biologist and co-founder of the Manta Trust Guy Stevens has spent many years researching mantas in an effort to understand their lives and to promote conservation practices that will ensure their continued survival. In Manta he has joined forces with National Geographic photographer Thomas Peschak to create a visually stunning and informative tribute to these animals.

To coincide with the re-release of the book, we recently spoke to Guy about his work with Mantas and the conservation challenges that they face.


Your life as a researcher and CEO of the Manta Trust must be incredibly varied and exciting. I’m curious what a typical day in the life of Guy Stevens looks like. Or, if a ‘typical’ day is unheard of for you, can you describe a recent day for us?

My days tend to be dictated by where I am. When in the field I am usually diving or freediving with manta rays on a daily basis, collecting data or guiding tourist expeditions. However, increasingly the majority of my time is spent on my computer behind a desk responding to emails, having Skype calls, writing papers, applying for grants and managing an ever increasing manta team.

Setting up an NGO must require an immense amount of work and passion. What did you find most challenging about the process and, as an extension of this, what advice would you offer other conservationists who are hoping to travel a similar path?

The most challenging part of the process, which still remains the main challenge today, is ensuring there are funds to enable the charity to carry out its mission. My advice to anyone wishing to follow a similar path would be to ensure you diversify your revenue streams.

Manta: Secret Life of Devil RaysThe work conducted by yourself and other researchers around the world has contributed a huge amount to the body of knowledge about manta rays. What do you think are the next big questions that need to be addressed and how do you think new technologies (e.g. satellite and acoustic tagging / genetic techniques) will contribute to these?

From a conservation perspective one of the next big focus areas is to try and quantify the extent and impact of bycatch fisheries on the high seas (such as purse seine tuna fisheries) to manta rays and their close relatives, the devil rays; how many are being caught, which species, where, when and how many survive release after capture? Using post-release mortality tags can help us to estimate how many of the rays are likely to survive being captured after release, while the implementation of better management practices can hopefully reduce bycatch.

It is clear from your book that the problems facing mantas are incredibly complex and, as such, will require complex solutions. The final message I took from your book, however, appears to be one of hope. What significant changes would you like (or hope!) to see happen within the next five years in the arena of manta ray conservation.

I would like to see a world shifting away from industrial fisheries which employ unsustainable fishing practices; such as drift nets, long-lines, gill nets, etc. The oceans are rapidly being depleted and we need to protect much greater areas of this common resource from fishing if we want to stand any chance of safeguarding the world’s charismatic species like manta rays from extinction in the next few decades.

Finally – and I appreciate that you must have hundreds to choose from – is there a single encounter with a manta ray that really stands out in your memory and that will stay in your heart forever?

Yes, certainly the encounter which stands out the most is the one I describe in the book with the manta Slice, who I rescued from fishing line back in 2008 in Hanifaru Bay….there are lots of detail on this encounter in the book and here’s a link to the story on our website (although it is a bit outdated now); http://www.mantatrust.org/amazing-experiences-entangled-manta-rescue/


Manta: Secret Life of Devil Rays is available from NHBS.

To find out more about the work of the Manta Trust and how you can support them, go to www.mantatrust.org

 

The Sensory Ecology of Birds: Interview with Graham Martin

The Sensory Ecology of Birds is a fascinating new work that explores the sensory world of birds from an evolutionary and ecological perspective. The author Professor Graham Martin gives us some insights into his inspiration, the incredible diversity of avian sensory adaptations, and how studying sensory ecology can help in developing practical conservation solutions.

 

Professor Graham Martin – Author of The Sensory Ecology of Birds

How did you first become interested in bird senses?

Through owls. As a child I used to listen to tawny owls calling all through the night in a nearby wood and I wanted to know what they were doing and how they did it. My father took me round the woods at night and that experience led me to wanting to know more about the eyesight of owls.

What inspired you to write the book and what kind of readers do you think would find it useful?

I have been studying bird senses all of my working career. Nearly 50 years ago I started to get paid for looking into bird senses; it has been a strange and exciting way to spend my time. After such a long time of investigating the senses of so many different birds I wanted to bring it all together, to provide an overview that will help people understand birds from a new perspective. I think anyone interested in birds will enjoy the book and find it useful. No matter which group of species intrigues you most, this book will enable you to see them from a new perspective. Understanding bird senses really does challenge what we think birds are and how they go about their lives.

Sensory ecology is a relatively new field of research; could you explain a little about what it is and what makes it particularly relevant today?

Sensory Ecology is basically the study of the information that birds have at their disposal to guide their behaviour, to guide the key tasks that they perform every day to survive in different types of habitats.  Different habitats present different challenges and to carry out tasks animals need different sorts of information. Birds have at their disposal a wide range of different sensory information, they are not just reliant upon vision. However, each species tends to be specialised for the gaining of certain types of information. Just as each species differs in its general ecology, each species also has a unique suite of information available to them. Sensory ecology is also a comparative science. It compares the information that different species use and tries to determine general principles that apply to the conduct of particular behaviours in different places. For example how different birds cope with activity at night or underwater.

Sensory adaptations to overcome the challenges of being nocturnal in two species, the Kiwi (Apteryx mantelli) and Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) – photo credit: Graham Martin

Sensory Ecology also looks at why evolution has favoured particular solutions to particular problems.  I think the major result of this kind of approach is that it certainly challenges our assumptions about what birds are and also what humans are. We do not readily realise that our view of the world is very much shaped by the information that our senses provide. We are rather peculiar and specialised in the information that we use to guide our everyday behaviours. My hope is that people will come to understand the world through birds’ senses, to get a real “bird’s eye view”. In doing so we can understand why birds fall victim to collisions with obvious structures such as powerlines, wind turbines, motor vehicles, glass panes, fences, etc. We can then work out what to do to mitigate these problems that humans have thrown in birds’ way.

An understanding of how a species perceives its environment can be very useful in designing practical conservation measures. Could you give us some examples?

Yes, I have been involved in trying to understand why flying birds apparently fail to detect wind turbines and power lines, or diving birds fail to detect gill nets.  These investigations have led to a number of ideas about what is actually happening when birds interact with these structures and what we can do to increase the chances that birds will detect and avoid them.

How do you think that studying avian sensory ecology can enhance our understanding of our own sensory capabilities and interaction with the world?

It gives a fresh perspective on how specialised and limited our own view of the world is. We make so many assumptions that the world is really as we experience it, but we experience the world in a very specialised way. Sensory ecology provides lots of new information and facts about how other animals interact with the world, what governs their behaviour, but equally importantly sensory ecology questions very soundly our understanding of “reality”, what is the world really like as opposed to what we, as just one species, think it is like. This is quite challenging but also exhilarating. We really are prisoners of our own senses, and so are all other animals. Sensory ecology gives us the opportunity to understand the world as perceived by other animals, not just how we think the world is. That is really important since it injects a little humility into how we think about the way we exploit the world.

Could you give us some insight into how birds can use different senses in combination to refine their interpretation of the world around them?

Owls provide a good example. Their vision is highly sensitive but not sufficiently sensitive to cope with all light levels that occur in woodland at night, so owls also rely heavily upon information from hearing to detect and locate moving prey. The nocturnal behaviour of owls requires these two key sources of information but even these are not enough. To make sense of the information that they have available to them the woodland owls need to be highly familiar with the place in which they live, hence their high degree of allegiance to particular sites.  Other birds, such as ducks, parrots and ibises rely heavily upon the sense of touch to find food items. The degree to which this information is used has a knock on effect on how much the birds can see about them. So a duck that can feed exclusively using touch, such as a mallard, can see all around them, while a duck that needs to use vision in its foraging cannot see all around. This in turn has implications for the amount of time birds can spend foraging as opposed to looking around them, vigilant for predators. In many birds the sense of smell is now seen as a key source of information which governs not just foraging, but also social interactions.

Are there interesting examples of species that are specialists in one particular sense?

Usually birds rely upon at least two main senses that have become highly specialised and which are used in a complementary manner. For example, in ibises it might be touch and vision, in kiwi it is smell and touch, in some of the waders it is touch and taste, but in other waders touch and hearing.

White-headed vulture – photo credit: Graham Martin

Probably the most obvious single sense specialisations are found among aerial predators such as eagles and falcons, they seem to be highly dependent upon vision to detect prey at a distance and then lock on to it during pursuit. However, we really don’t know anything about other aspects of their senses and there is a lot left to learn about them.

Can you tell us about any species that you have studied that you find particularly fascinating?

Oilbirds; they are really challenging to our assumptions about what birds are, how they live and what information they have available to them.

Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) – photo credit: Graham Martin

Oilbirds are the most nocturnal of all birds, roosting and breeding deep in caves where no light penetrates, emerging only after dusk and then flying over the tropical rain forest canopy to find fruit. But they are a form of nightjar! In the complete darkness of caves they use echolocation to orient themselves and calls to locate mates. When searching for food in the canopy they use their sense of smell to detect ripe fruits, they have long touch sensitive bristles around the mouth. And their eyes have sensitivity close to the theoretical limits possible in vertebrate eyes.  They seem to rely upon partial information from each of these senses, and use them in combination or in complementary ways. They really are marvellous, but in truth the senses of any birds, and how they are used, are fascinating and intriguing, it is a matter of delving deep enough, and asking the right questions.

In what kind of direction do you think future sensory ecology research is headed?

We now have available a lot of techniques to find out about the senses of birds, from behavioural studies, to physiology and anatomy. Armed with these techniques, and also with ways of thinking and measuring the perceptual challenges of different tasks and different environments, there are so many questions to investigate. We have some fascinating findings but we have only just scratched the surface with regard to species and it does seems clear that senses can be very finely tuned to different tasks. I like to compare the diversity of the bills that we find in birds with the same diversity in the senses in those species.

Every bill tells a story about form and function, about evolution, ecology and behaviour. The senses of birds show the same degree of diversity and tuning. So to me sensory ecology is a wide open field with lot of questions to investigate. To appreciate the world from a bird’s perspective will, of course, give us a much better understanding of how to mitigate the problems that humans have posed to birds by shaping the world for our own convenience.

The Sensory Ecology of Birds is available now from NHBS

CCTV for Wildlife Monitoring: An interview with Susan Young

susan-young
Susan Young – Author of CCTV for Wildlife Monitoring

Susan Young is a writer and photographer with a background in physics and engineering. She is the author of the fantastic CCTV for Wildlife Monitoring published earlier this year. This great handbook provides lots of practical information on the use of CCTV for survey and research.

Your book on CCTV for Wildlife Monitoring, published earlier this year, is packed full of practical information for the researcher or amateur naturalist interested in using CCTV to monitor wildlife. Could you explain a little bit about your professional background and how you came to write this book?

I have had a very varied career and have always tended to look for new ways to do things. After graduating, I worked using applied physics in the manufacture of aero engines, and later, after a Masters in Engineering Management, worked in a large electronics company. For the last 15 years I have been a writer and (mainly) wildlife photographer, and found my experience of great value with the more technical aspects of photography.

After using various photographic systems for recording wildlife, I came to believe that CCTV had many applications for both the amateur and professional naturalist. As I have always enjoyed doing something different, I spent the last few years researching CCTV systems for use with wildlife.

I wanted to test CCTV in more formal environments and thus I volunteered for Natural England and the Wildlife Trust. With Natural England I have been researching the use of an underwater system for studying fish in rural rivers, and have also developed a system for monitoring rock pool life. With the Woodland Trust I have developed a portable CCTV system for bat monitoring, which is being used for a research project at the moment, and which can greatly reduce the need for night emergence surveys.

With this research I became convinced that there were many applications where CCTV could be of great benefit, but that the lack of clear, relevant technical information was a barrier to wider use. The more I discovered about CCTV, the greater my enthusiasm for the subject, and the greater the number of applications that became apparent. For this reason I decided to write CCTV for Wildlife Monitoring with the aim of encouraging wider use of what I believe is a valuable tool.

Do you feel that there is a need to bridge the knowledge gap between manufacturers/engineers and the individuals using field equipment? As an extension of this, do you feel that it would improve the quality of research or survey data if people had a better understanding of the functions and limitations of their kit?

In meeting both professional and amateur naturalists, I have often heard it said that manufacturers/engineers do not understand their problems. Without that understanding, they are unable to advise on the areas of use. In addition, the biological sciences are not generally taught with an emphasis on technology, which can leave graduates unfamiliar with technical language. Companies such as NHBS and, hopefully, books like mine, can help to bridge what is a very large gap in communication.

I feel very strongly that there could be great steps forward in research and survey methods if people were more aware of the possibilities of their equipment, together with an understanding of the limitations. For the keen naturalist, there is also a great number of applications for filming for pleasure.

We have found trail cameras to be extremely popular both with amateur naturalists and researchers. How do you feel these compare with CCTV systems and in what types of situations would you recommend each of them?

This is a difficult question to answer briefly!

I have used trail cameras for many years and without doubt they are of great value for indicating the presence of wildlife, especially in remote areas, but their short filming time makes them less practical for monitoring. CCTV is much more flexible and responsive, and has the capability of giving higher quality images, especially at night. CCTV can be used with underwater cameras, and with cameras that fit into small spaces such as bird or mammal boxes.

One of the main advantages of a CCTV system is that it can be set up to record at certain times as well as being triggered by motion or event. The wide range of CCTV cameras means that variable focus lenses can be used, allowing one to zoom in to the subject, noise reduction can produce clean images and features such as ‘smart IR’ prevent over exposure of nearby objects, a problem with night images with trail cameras.

If mains power is available, the advantages of CCTV become more apparent. Recent technology means that HD cameras can be used, giving high quality HD videos, and images can be viewed live on a monitor. If the internet is also available, images can be viewed remotely by smartphone, tablet or PC.

HD analogue video (AHD or, more recently, HD-TVI) is an amazing step forward in CCTV, giving videos of great quality at a reasonable cost and without the complexity of more traditional HD methods which require some knowledge of computer networks.

You have a vast amount of experience in the field using CCTV and must have collected huge amounts of footage from this. How does it make you feel when you are reviewing your videos and come across something amazing? Do you have a single favourite video or image?

There is nothing to beat the excitement of coming across a video of something unexpected. The otter swimming underwater was caught by accident while filming fish and is very short, but still very exciting, and something I never really expected to get, although I was always hoping. I try to plan a CCTV session to reduce the number of ‘empty’ videos and to make sure that I review small numbers without letting them build up over days. That way, the excitement is always there.

Finally – if you could set up a CCTV system anywhere in the world, where would you choose?

I would choose the UK. UK wildlife is very elusive and offers a great challenge. I am an ‘otterholic’ and would love to set up cameras on the Shetland islands. I have photographed otters with a DSLR, but there is nothing to beat the excitement of filming otters in action.

CCTV for Wildlife Monitoring is available from NHBS.

 

Supplier Interview: Fraser Rush of Third Wheel Ringing Supplies

Fraser-RushTell us a little about your organisation and how you got started.

Third Wheel Ringing Supplies has been trading for about two years and comprises myself and my wife, Mary. We make a small range of equipment for ringers, specialising in traps and particularly trying to fill gaps in the market. Traditionally much of this sort of equipment has either been knocked together by ringers themselves or imported (expensively) from Europe or North America.

Our range is still very small, but it is gradually expanding as we develop more products. Product development is very slow however as, with bird safety being so important, any new product has to be extensively tested before it can be offered for sale. Nevertheless a slightly expanded product range should be launched in the coming months. Our manufacturing ethos is based on quality; never knowingly making sub-standard equipment in the quest for cheaper production costs. Hence our products are not the cheapest available, but they might be the best.

The business started when I took voluntary redundancy from my job. Having worked for (among others) The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and Local Authorities as a nature reserves manager for 30 years, I was ready for a change. I’ve always liked making things and have a good grounding in engineering which, together with my interest in bird ringing, led onto me making various bits of ringing equipment for my own use and thence onto a small business, making equipment for other ringers.

Why Third Wheel? Well, we had to call it something and, having a slight obsession with classic motorcycles, particularly those with sidecars, the name seemed to fit us as a family.

What challenges do you face as an organisation working in the ecology sector?

One of our biggest challenges has been to persuade ringers not to rely so heavily on mist nets all the time. Although mist nets are very effective for many species and situations, they still have their limitations and traps can often be just as effective or, for some species, the only method of capture. Increasing numbers of ringers are starting to appreciate the value of different trap designs and, as traps form the mainstay of our business, we see this as a good thing!

High Flier Mist Net Support System
Third Wheel’s High Flier Mist Net Support System

What do you consider the most important achievement of your organisation in recent years?

On a purely personal level, Third Wheel’s most important achievement has been that, after only two years of trading, it seems to be working as a business. Although I have a passion for what I do, it still has to pay the bills and, for the time being at least, it is doing just that.

It has also been particularly gratifying to have our equipment used to great effect in a number of research projects worldwide. In addition to various projects in Europe, Third Wheel traps are used for chickadee research in Florida, grey jay research in Alaska and snow bunting research in the Canadian Arctic.

Nearer home, highlights have been a customer who caught a dunnock within 7 minutes of the postman delivering one of our traps and another who, on taking delivery of a new prototype, caught 55 linnets on the first morning.

What is your most memorable wildlife encounter?

Having been pursuing wildlife for nearly my whole life, I’ve been lucky enough to have many memorable wildlife encounters, which makes choosing a favourite rather tricky.

I’ve visited Svalbard (what we used to call Spitsbergen) in the High Arctic many times, as a leader of study tours. Here the memorable wildlife moments come thick and fast with polar bear, Arctic fox, beluga whale and countless breeding auks, wildfowl and waders against a stunning scenic backdrop.

On the bird ringing side of things, my best and most memorable ringing sessions have been catches of wigeon, teal and other wintering wildfowl as part of a cannon netting team. Wigeon are amazing little ducks and to ring one in Devon which probably breeds in central Russia is a real privilege.

Getting the knowledge: the top 25 easy to forage wild foods

Clare Cremona and children - ready to forage
Clare Cremona and children – ready to forage

Foraging for wild food is a world away from the trolley-push through the supermarket.

Those brightly-lit aisles barely cut it when you imagine gathering wild garlic in springtime, blackberries from late summer hedgerows, or sweet chestnuts as the tired old year begins to cool.

Clare Cremona wants to remind us how easy foraging for wild food can be, and it’s perfectly possible to start at home. “You would be surprised what is coming up on a bare patch of earth in your back garden,” she says.

And as an unusually mild winter slowly gives way to spring, she adds: “Right now there is actually quite a lot about. I think everything is coming out quite early, like pennywort, that is very good in a salad.”

Pennywort – the distinctive round leaves at their best and juiciest before flowers appear, usually in May – is just one of the wild foods she has chosen in the most recent of the Field Studies Council’s handy fold-out charts.

Guide to foraging: top 25 edible plants, written by Cremona, with illustrations by Lizzie Harper, highlights some of the easier wild foods to forage for, chosen to span most of the year.

“I agonised over the 25, that was the hardest thing,” she says. “Twenty-five is not very many, that took longer than actually writing it, deciding what to leave out.”

Among those that made the cut are common sorrel, one of the earliest green plants to appear in spring; jack-by-the-hedge, another harbinger of spring, which can be used to make a slightly garlicky sauce for lamb; wood sorrel, a woodland plant, once recommended by John Evelyn as suitable for the kitchen garden; fat hen, a very old food plant, its remains have been found at Neolithic settlements throughout Europe; and wild garlic, a good addition to salads and soups.

Guide to Foraging: Top 25 Edible Plants
Guide to Foraging: Top 25 Edible Plants

There are hints on when and where to look for each plant, identification notes, and suggested uses.

Several of the well known favourites that need no introduction are there, such as blackberry. As is the customary health warning – never eat any wild food unless you are absolutely sure you have identified it correctly.

Cremona includes a few poisonous plants that could be confused with the edible ones, such as hemlock water dropwort, extremely toxic and probably responsible for more fatalities than any other foraged food, and dog’s mercury, highly poisonous, common in woodlands, and easy to inadvertently pick with other foraged plants.

There is a conservation issue too. She advises only picking what you need, never uprooting a wild plant (an offence without the landowner’s permission under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981), and never pick a protected species, such as cowslip, even if you’ve found an old recipe book with the most tempting of recipes.

Cremona, a Forest School and Wildlife Watch leader for the Field Studies Council and Devon Wildlife Trust, says: “Generally people have a go and test something, people generally don’t strip the land of everything.

“For me it is far more important people know what they are seeing, if they don’t we are not going to look after them. And we are losing the knowledge of what you can and what you cannot eat.”

Which brings us neatly to cooking. Cremona makes her first nettle soup of the year at Easter time – it has become a family tradition – and includes a recipe for nettle soup here, and some others, including a mouth-watering wild garlic pesto.

A seasonal tradition in parts of the north of England is to make bistort pudding – sometimes called Easter-ledge pudding, dock pudding, passion pudding, or herb pudding – where foraged bistort leaves are cooked with onions, oats, butter and eggs, although recipes vary from place to place and sometimes other hedgerow leaves go into the mix.

The resulting partly-foraged and wholly distinctive savoury pudding is served as a side dish with lamb at Easter, or with bacon and eggs at other times. Competitions are held to find the best tasting, including the annual World Dock Pudding Championships, at Mytholmroyd, in the West Riding.

So perhaps this Easter is the time to have a go at foraging for wild food?

Guide to Foraging: Top 25 Edible Plants

Guide to foraging: top 25 edible plants is available now from NHBS

Nature Classics Library: an interview with Jon from Little Toller Books

Jon Woolcott of Little Toller
Jon Woolcott of Little Toller at the publisher’s office in Dorset

Little Toller Books was established in 2008 as an imprint of Dovecote Press with the aim to revive lost classics of nature writing and British rural history. The success of their Nature Classics Library, has allowed them the independence to follow their inspiration in terms of the projects they pursue and they are now a leading voice in nature publishing. We asked Jon Woolcott of Little Toller Books about the Nature Classics Library.

The books are beautifully designed – what was the original inspiration behind the Nature Classics Library?

Thank you, that’s nice to hear – we work really hard at the design of the books, it strikes us that a book should be a beautiful object, and reflect the quality of the writing. The founders and co-owners of Little Toller, Adrian and Gracie Cooper, moved to Dorset but when they wanted to explore more about the country around their new home they found many of the books they wanted to read were no longer available. That inspired them to republish the great classics of nature writing – books like The Making of the English Landscape by W G Hoskins and The South Country by Edward Thomas. So Little Toller Books was born. The list has grown from there.

The Making of the English Landscape - W G Hoskins

With introductions by big name authors giving them great general appeal, are you hoping to bring these classics to a new audience?

Indeed – we’re not the first generation to rediscover these great books – and bringing authors like William Boyd, Robert Macfarlane and Carol Klein to them makes a big difference. We also use artists to complement the writing – the obvious example is Ravilious on our edition of The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White, but we use artists to illustrate our monograph series.

Eric Ravilious illustration fromThe Natural History of Selborne
Eric Ravilious illustration fromThe Natural History of Selborne

How do you choose the books that end up on the list?

We’re a tiny team (there are just four of us at Little Toller) so we work together but ultimately Adrian chooses the books – it’s based on his taste and a sense of what readers are looking for, but always with the goal of exploring nature and our relationship with landscape.

If you could gain rights to publish any book from the history of nature writing, what would it be, and why?

We’ve always got a wish-list on the go! We’d love to publish Tarka the Otter of course (we already publish Williamson’s Salar the Salmon) but a really exciting project would be to publish an anthology of Darwin’s letters recounting his explorations into his local area, and his relationship with his family. As yet, this remains in the pipeline though!

Salar the Salmon - Henry Williamson

Do you remember the first natural history book that you enjoyed?

At Little Toller we all have our favourites, books that made an enormous difference to the way we felt or thought about nature. Speaking just for me I would highlight a book we don’t (yet!) publish – Bevis by Richard Jefferies. It’s not really a natural history book – ostensibly it’s a children’s book in the Swallows and Amazons tradition but written earlier. Jefferies brilliantly articulates the feelings of a boy as he explores the landscape. Jefferies was an early exponent of what we now call nature writing and I remember being captivated by his style. Adrian would choose On the Origin of Species because it’s so important, but for pure enjoyment he would have to go for Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals (editorial note: available as part of The Corfu Trilogy).

What do you think characterises great nature writing?

Oh, that’s a difficult question – each writer brings something new – but it’s characterised by a deep understanding of the subject combined with wonderful writing. A sense of the personal reaction to the natural world is imperative – we don’t publish text books but instead those which bring the reader close to the subject.

Little Toller also publishes new writing, with Horatio Clare’s Orison for a Curlew just out. What are you looking for in potential new publications like this?

We look for originality, for subjects which readers will love, and for wonderful writing. It’s led us to publish Oliver Rackham, Iain Sinclair and Richard Skelton this year alone.

The Ash Tree - Oliver Rackham

What does the future have in store for Little Toller and the Nature Classics Library – any secrets you can let us in on?

We’re always looking to expand what we do – for instance we have two short films on our website about two of our books made by the authors – Iain Sinclair’s Black Apples of Gower and Richard Skelton’s Beyond the Fell Wall –  and Andrew Kotting made Iain’s film with him. We’re tiny so we can be really flexible in what we publish but we’re especially excited by In Pursuit of Spring by Edward Thomas – which will have Thomas’ photographs from 1913 taken along the journey, published for the very first time – coming in March next year. We’re also looking forward to Cheryl Tipp’s book on the sounds of the sea. Many of NHBS’s fans will know her – she’s the Wildlife Sounds Curator at the British Library. And we have new books in the pipeline from Tim Dee, Dexter Petley and Horatio Clare, as well as new Nature Classics from R M Lockley and others. We’re also continuing to put our monographs into paperback as we have just done with The Ash Tree. We’re very busy! But we’re enormously heartened by the reaction to our books.

Browse the full list of books in Little Toller’s Nature Classics Library at NHBS