International Zoo News - Vol. 57, No. 1 (2010), pp. 26—33

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International Zoo News Vol. 57, No. 1 (2010), pp. 26-33

HANDBOOK OF THE MAMMALS OF THE WORLD: Volume 1 - CARNIVORES edited by Don E. Wilson and Russell A. Mittermeier. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 2009. 727 pp., 36 colour plates, 561 colour photos, hardback. ISBN 978-84-96553-49-1. £150.00, €160.00 or $250.00.

HANDBOOK OF THE BIRDS OF THE WORLD: Volume 14-BUSH-SHRIKES TO OLD-WORLD SPARROWS edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott and David Christie. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 2009. 893 pp., 51 colour plates, 657 colour photos, hardback. ISBN 978-84-96553-50-7. £185.00, €212.00 or $300.00.

[Both books are available from specialist bookshops or directly from the publishers, Lynx Edicions, Montseny, 8, 08193 Bellaterra, Barcelona, Spain (Tel: +34-93-594-7710; Fax: +34-93-592-0969; E-mail: lynx@hbw.com; Internet: www.hbw.com). (For prices in other currencies, instalment plans and special offers, please check with the publishers.)]

It is so long now since the Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW) was launched (in 1992) that it is hard to think back to the time when it wasn’t around. How did we manage without it? The answer is, of course, that back in that Dark Age of ornithology no one dreamed that such perfection could possibly become a reality. And now mammal enthusiasts are witnessing the birth of a comparable project. The long-anticipated first volume of the Handbook of the Mammals of the World (HMW) will not disappoint the many people who have been eagerly awaiting the launch of the series.

Those familiar with the bird series will find HMW reassuringly similar in its appearance and layout. Once again, each chapter is devoted to a particular family, with an introductory overview including numerous informatively-captioned colour photographs: these illustrate particular aspects that are mentioned in the text, such as a serval in mid-pounce or a margay going headfirst down a treetrunk. Then follow individual species accounts illustrated with plates normally showing a male of each nominate subspecies, together with any important gender, subspecific or morph variations. An advantage of the large page size (240 x 310 mm) is that it assists comparison of such variations — the size difference between Sumatran, Indian and Amur tigers, for example, or between sand cat subspecies (the Central Asian F. m. thinobia is noticeably larger than the F. m. margarita familiar to zoo visitors).

Unlike with the birds, individual HMW volumes are not appearing in standard taxonomic order. It was certainly a wise choice to start with the charismatic carnivores — whatever their charms, monotremes and marsupials would not have had the same commercial pulling power. (Ungulates will come next, in 2011.) Within the volume, though, systematics reign supreme, with the dramatis personae running through from the African palm civet (now removed from the Viverridae) to the Mustelidae. (The walrus, seals and sea lions, now included in the Carnivora, are omitted and will appear in a later volume on marine mammals) In general, the classifications follow Wilson and Reeder’s Mammal Species of the World (2005), but with modifications which may be relied on as authoritative — after all, Don Wilson is one of HMW’s editors. (The other is Russell Mittermeier of Conservation International, which emphasises Lynx Edicions’s strong commitment to conservation.) Many taxonomic problems remain, and these are fully discussed in the family accounts. A familiar zoo species, the red panda, is a particularly puzzling case whose position has been debated ever since it was scientifically described in 1825, but has not yet been resolved: its morphological resemblances to the giant panda are now known to be the result of adaptation to a similar diet. For many readers, the most surprising taxonomic revelation will probably be the placement of all eight Madagascan carnivores in a new family, the Eupleridae; the implication is that the group’s present-day morphological diversity results from ‘an adaptive radiation nearly unparalleled amongst living carnivorans’. Madagascar has been isolated since a period before the evolution of carnivores began, so an advantage of the new theory is that only one ancestral colonization — presumably by means of a natural ‘raft’ of some kind — has to be postulated instead of two or more. A minor disadvantage is that names like ‘Malagasy civet’ and ‘ringtailed mongoose’ are now inappropriate; the author of this chapter, Steven Goodman, therefore proposes new, Malagasy, vernacular names — it will be interesting to see whether they catch on.

As with the bird series, HMW’s comprehensive species coverage is one of its greatest strengths. There’s a ‘taxonomic democracy’ about the species accounts, with the same basic plan whether for tiger or for Hurnboldt’s hog-nosed skunk. They don’t get an equal length of text, admittedly — there’s simply so much more known about tigers. But there’s no feeling that the skunk has been short-changed. And the attention lavished upon little-known groups — the eight South American canids other than maned wolf and bush dog, for example — shed light on aspects of biodiversity that most of us are scarcely aware of.

The latest volume of the bird series doesn’t really need any recommendation from me or anyone else. The reputation of the Handbook of the Birds of the World is now so unassailable that praising it is rather like saying that Shakespeare wrote some good plays — it’s true, but doesn’t need to be said. These books will be collectors’ items a hundred years from now: there aren’t many modern works about which one can confidently make such a prediction. A few general comments, though, may not be out of place. Before the series was launched in 1992, its success seemed far from certain. How could an unknown, foreign publisher possibly produce the definitive English-language work on birds? (I have heard that one of the HBW team’s big worries pre-1992 was that they would be preempted by a British publisher.) Initially, just 3,000 copies of Volume 1 were printed; they had sold out by the end of the year, and from then on success seemed assured. (Today, a starting print run of around 20,000 for each volume is standard, an enormous number for a work selling at nearly £200.) Still presided over by the man whose vision started it all, Josep del Hoyo, Lynx has grown into a world-beating publisher of natural history works including numbers of other titles as well as the flagship Handbooks. Moreover, recognising that new knowledge starts to make any book incomplete from the moment it is published, del Hoyo is planning a future, continuously updated, Internet version of HBW. And since 2002 Lynx has run the Internet Bird Collection (http://ibc.lynxeds.com), which makes freely available around 40,000 video clips, 20,000 photos and 4,000 sound recordings currently representing about 80% of bird species (and growing daily). One waits with pleasant anticipation to see what Josep del Hoyo, and Lynx Edicions, will come up with next.


Nicholas Gould