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Handbook of Mammals of the World, Volume 1

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The Handbook of Mammals of the World

Series Editors Don E. Wilson and Russell A. Mittermeier
Published Lynx Edicions, 2009

Overview of Series

Right at the outset, it must be clearly understood that this is a magnificent and visionary undertaking: the first comprehensive account of all the known mammals of the world. And if the first volume is anything to go by, it will be lavishly illustrated, with comprehensive data.

But the purpose of a review, particularly of an ongoing series should not be simply hagiographic, but point out faults and failings and offer a genuine critique, and hope that improvements can be made as the series progresses  I should also declare an interest, in that around 20 years ago I was closely involved in a very similar project to publish a comprehensive encyclopedia of mammals of the world. Despite putting in a lot of work, I remained unconvinced that it could be accomplished in a really meaningful way.

Reveiw of Volume 1: Carnivores

The first volume in this series is carnivores, and there is no doubt that they lend themselves to the encyclopedic treatment, with every species illustrated. It remains to be seen if this is a worthwhile approach for rodents, bats and insectivores -- the overwhelming number of species of mammals – which do not readily lend themselves to being individually illustrated. While the plates are beautiful to look at, their accuracy can only be ascertained by experts; and there may be faults – for instance the text for  the wolf states the tail is curled, but illustrations of 6 animals all are straight. The fact is that while birds generally have marked  (or even slight) visible differences and are ideal for ‘field guide’ type illustrations, a huge number of mammals do not have any easily discernable external differences; some can only be distinguished by dentition, while others only by chromosomal differences.

Who is the volume for?

My main criticism is that I am not entirely clear as to whom this volume is aimed,  as it is written in pretty technical language, and access to a very comprehensive library is really essential to make much use of it. But since references are not cited in the text, is it really aimed at scientists? 

The distribution maps are all of a standard size (very small) which means that any species which has a fairly wide distribution, is  extremely hard to interpret (the more so, since no political boundaries are indicated -- the usual reference point for most of us).  As an example, the Brown bear map is almost impossible to interpret, as the scale of Europe is so small. Another issue with the maps (together with the accompanying text), is they are undated -- do the distributions refer to contemporary distribution or do they include historic data? Certainly the lions and tigers do not contain historic distribution -- which would have been useful. And the introduced ranges of species are not included. It is also a pity that the species are not named on the plates, for no obvious reason.

Accuracy of information

A further problem with any publication, is that if a reviewer spots a serious mistake almost immediately, they then have a tendency to be cautious about overall levels of accuracy. And I opened the page on the Puma, and found the map showed it entirely absent from the eastern half of Argentina, which I know from my own field experience, is certainly not the case. The section on Tigers cites Mazak & Groves 2006 in the bibliography, yet makes no mention in the text that this paper actually suggests that there are three distinct species of tiger. Simple, glaring errors.

Perhaps one of the most scientifically contentious issues will be the lists of subspecies. Subspecies are listed as being recognised, but never stated by which taxonomists, and do not appear to follow any particular standard listings or checklists. For instance the Cheetah is said to have five subspecies recognised, but then it is stated that there is a very high level of genetic homogeneity (in fact most mammalogists do not think there is sufficient variation to recognise subspecies). Furthermore the text distributions given for subspecies are very difficult indeed to understand or relate to the maps of the species; it would have been much more helpful if the subspecies were indicated on the maps. Some, such as the puma are highly debatable – why does the cougar have some 30 rather indistinct, and even extinct, subspecies listed, whereas other equally dodgy subspecies (such as those of the bears and wolf) are not listed? The problem seems to be that different authors have different opinions concerning the validity of subspecies, and there is no consistency.

The Stoat (referred to in this volume as the Ermine -- a very misleading name since over much of its Old World range it does not turn white in winter), has 34 subspecies 'recognised’, but some of these are hardly widely recognised, and why some of the British subspecies are recognised and others not, is not explained. Nor are any of the widespread introduced subspecies assigned subspecific names. In fact the taxonomic issues thrown up in this volume will only get more complex. The carnivores are a relatively well studied group, and I wonder how any degree of similar detail will be possible with the larger less well studied groups, such as bats or rodents, will be dealt with.  But this is perhaps churlish, because this is only one aspect of the text. However, taxonomy is a fundamental issue when compiling an encyclopedia, and it would have been helpful to have a more readily understandable approach – particularly, as I wrote above, the problems are relatively simple for large carnivores. Subspecies are usually contentious, and generally, in a work that does not go into great detail, best left alone.

Inclusion of information

One of my more serious criticisms of the sister book to this one on birds, was the lack of information on domesticated forms of birds -- and this applies here even more so. Felis catus the domestic cat barely gets a mention, except in the general introduction to the family, and it is almost impossible to find in the index -- the main entry on domestic cats (p106) does not appear in the index. Why? It is a mammal, and it is actually an extremely important part of the wild fauna of England and many, many other parts of the world -- and a serious pest of island species. It is now one of the most important predators of wild animals in many parts of the world. So why is it largely ignored?

Similarly the domestic dog (other than the dingo) is largely ignored, despite the fact that feral dogs are important part of ecosystems. I hope all the other equally important domesticated mammals will not be ignored -- or perhaps the intention is to devote a supplementary volume to them; this would indeed be a very desirable addition.

A related point is that there is little mention of captive populations -- allegedly there are more tigers in the USA now than there are in India, and more captive tigers than wild in China. Furthermore there is only a brief mention of the Bengal cats -- a domestic cat/Leopard cat hybrid that is now widespread in captivity, and no mention at all of the Savannah cat, a serval/domestic cat hybrid -- this would have been invaluable, as while the pet-keeping literature is full of them, there is very little in the scientific literature -- and many biologists are unaware of these developments. The distribution of  feral and introduced species is ignored -- which in the case of well established species such as the Raccoon Dog (and Raccoon) is rather unfortunate, as it is now a very important part of the European fauna, similarly Red Fox in the southern hemisphere is not given. Hopefully an additional volume dealing with introductions, feral and domestic species will be forthcoming.

Concluding comments

I am, perhaps, a perfect candidate for buying a book such as this, and no doubt will, simply to ensure my extremely comprehensive library of books relating to mammalian taxonomy is kept up to date. But I do have serious reservations about its usefulness. The American Society of Mammalogists’ ongoing series  'Mammalian Species' is far more detailed, and easier to use for most scientific purposes, while other taxonomic references  such as Wilson and Reeder are more widely accepted. And most Mammalogists work on a regional fauna, not a global scale, and consequently will normally be seeking more detailed  reference. And costing around £1000 for a set it is difficult to envisage many individual mammalogists wanting to own it.

But, as I wrote at the beginning, this is a visionary undertaking and will help raise the standard of mammalian reference works, and for some parts of the world, will provide the first comprehensive and accessible reference. Lets hope those parts of the world can get hold of copies. 

Review by John Burton

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