Outstanding Academic Titles 2021: Wildlife & Botany

Enjoy these five selections from the Choice Reviews 2020 Outstanding Academic Titles list. This week we highlight titles related to wildlife and botany.

1. Flames of extinction: the race to save Australia’s threatened wildlife
Pickrell, John. Island Press, 2021

Pickerell is well known in Australia as a science journalist focusing on climate change and wildfire. His extremely timely book differs from most North American literature on wildfire effects. The text is part post-fire personal journey, written during the 2019–20 bushfire season, and part scientific fire ecology study of Australia. Eleven chapters describe contemporary wildfire effects on mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, and endangered plants, documenting an environmental journalist’s perspective on the disastrous wildfire impacts on endangered species. Australian geography reflects tens of millions of years of wildfires and multiple cycles of species extinction. Each essay is a powerful presentation on how a well-known endangered species (e.g., koala, wombat), which had already experienced a crash in population prior to the 2019-20 bushfire season, was affected by the wildfire. Pickerell’s tone is sober and personal but also optimistic. The dual narratives contrast tragic descriptions of endangered animals like koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, and cockatoos dying by the millions with vivid accounts of people responding to the crisis to mitigate damage where possible. View on Amazon

2. Great adaptations: star-nosed moles, electric eels, and other tales of evolution’s mysteries solved
Catania, Kenneth. Princeton, 2020

Catania’s educational formation, travels, mastery of laboratory technologies, relationship with mentors, and unique subjects provide the raw material for a voyage of discovery in this interesting account of a life of scientific nature study that began with a job at the National Zoo. From mapping the sensory cortex of the star-nosed mole’s brain to tactile receptors in its fleshy tentacles, to illustrating the unique behavioral capabilities of the electric eel, tentacled snake, water shrew, and jewel wasp, each species description reveals a compelling story of evolutionary adaptations in anatomy, physiology, and/or behavior. Catania (Vanderbilt Univ.) aptly conveys his wonderment at finding out how an organism interacts with its environment, a project that became his life’s work. Each example is traced from Catania’s first recognition of the problem of how to explain the phenomenon to posing the questions that led to finding answers, a process that has often required elaborate and imaginative experimentation. Most stories relate the investigation of the sensory structures of an animal’s brain in relation to its behavior. View on Amazon

3. The complex lives of British freshwater fishes
Everard, Mark. CRC Press, 2020

A welcome addition to the available number of books on fish, Everard’s work adopts a non-technical approach to describing the fish of Britain. Straightforward descriptions bring the species into view, along with information on other regions where the same fish are found, the aquatic ecosystems where they flourish, and various conservation efforts that have sought to protect them. Everard specifically avoids jargon and scientific names to the extent possible in the text, offering a glossary of such terms to help interested readers as needed. The text is presented in 14 chapters, each addressing a specific topic to engage the perspective of the true amateur, thus: “What Have Freshwater Fishes Ever Done for Us?” (chapter 3); “Knowing Your Way Round a Fish” (chapter 4); and “Sex Lives of the British Freshwater Fishes” (chapter 7). Chapter 10 charmingly illuminates the mysteries associated with European eels in both science and popular culture. Featuring stunning color photographs contributed by Jack Perks as well as color distribution maps, this book will make a great reference not only for fisheries researchers and professionals, but also for anyone interested in the freshwater habitats of Britain. View on Amazon

4. The multifarious Mr. Banks: from Botany Bay to Kew, the natural historian who shaped the world
Musgrave, Toby. Yale, 2020

More than half a century before Darwin sailed as naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle, Joseph Banks set sail in that capacity on the first of Captain Cook’s famous voyages to circumnavigate the globe. Wealthy and well educated, Banks had a native curiosity about the natural world, especially botany. The specimens he brought back later formed the herbarium collection now preserved in London’s Natural History Museum. In 1772 the King of England appointed Banks as scientific advisor at Kew Gardens, which he fashioned into the world’s leading center for practical botany. In 1778 Banks was elected President of the Royal Society of London, a position he held until his death in 1820. Of several books recently published to mark the bicentenary of Banks’ death, this is by far the most compelling, drawing on his widely dispersed correspondence as well as records of his voyages and many contemporary accounts. As Musgrave notes, Banks was at once “compassionate yet controlling, enlightened yet exploitative, humane yet opportunistic,” and these paradoxes in part make him an interesting topic of study.
View on Amazon

5Barn owls: evolution and ecology
Roulin, Alexandre. Cambridge, 2020

Barn owls, with their heart-shaped facial discs, are one of the most recognizable of owl species, although most people have probably seen them only in pictures. Along with a few other closely related species, they are cosmopolitan, found in many regions around the globe, and often associated with humans. Roulin (biology, Univ. of Lausanne) has conducted research on barn owls for 30 years, resulting in 240 published research papers. Here he examines what has made these owls so successful and discusses aspects of their biology, including morphology and physiology, natural history, behavior, conservation, and evolution of their plumage patterns. Barn owls have some unusual characteristics that make them attractive model organisms for research: acute hearing, ability to fly almost silently, high reproductive potential, asynchronous hatching of chicks coupled with peaceful sibling interactions, plumage variability, and high population fluctuations. This volume is profusely illustrated and includes reproductions of paintings and drawings, photographic images, and charts. A “Further Reading” section at the end of each division includes references to scholarly literature. View on Amazon.

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