Our Beautiful Earth: Part Three: Natural History Books: Animals and Marine Life

Following on from my last post about books on birds and butterflies are publications about other fascinating wildlife in our environment from reptiles to our unique Australian mammals and finally, the wonderful and endlessly fascinating marine life on our coast.

Reptiles

With all their beautiful diversity and colour, it is very difficult to comprehend that birds originated from dinosaurs, but reptiles are much less of a stretch of the imagination! We have a large number of poisonous snakes in Australia, as well as lots of lizards, so a good reptile guide is an important part of any natural history library!

A Complete Guide to Reptiles of Australia by Steve Wilson and Gerry Swan  2003

Our most recent acquisition and a second-hand copy of a book, which we have wanted for a long time, this field guide is a very comprehensive look at the 836 named species of : crocodiles; sea and freshwater turtles; geckoes, lizards and skinks; dragons and monitors (goannas); and a wide variety of sea and land snakes, which live on continental Australia, Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island.

The book begins with notes on using the guide; a glossary; anatomical illustrations; and brief notes on their environment, followed by detailed chapters on each reptile family with general notes, genus notes and species entries. Each of the latter is described on the left-hand page, including the common and scientific name; a distribution map; a description of its physical appearance and length specifications; notes about its behaviour, diet and habitat; and its conservation status. Particular diagnostic features are highlighted in bold type. The right-hand page is devoted to excellent photographs of each species in its natural habitat.

I never knew there were so many different kinds of snakes in Australia, and while I am quite happy to steer a wide berth, they can be very beautiful and they do play an important role in Australia’s ecology.

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Mammals

Mammals are a totally different story! The cuddly koala, quaint wombats and cute little pygmy possums and gliders are iconic Australian animals, much beloved by the general public, though often difficult to see in the wild due to their nocturnal habits. The next two books are excellent identification guides to our unique Australian animals.

The Australian Museum Complete Book of Australian Mammals Edited by Ronald Strahan 1983

This large tome is the coffee table guide, which you consult at home! Here in Australia, we have some fascinating and very old mammalian fauna from the egg-laying monotremes, the platypus and echidna, and the amazing pouched marsupials (carnivorous; omnivorous; and herbivorous), both of which are descendants of the days when Australia was still part of Gondwanaland, to the more modern placental mammals (including bats and fruit bats; mice and rats; marine mammals; and introduced mammals).

Each subclass is described in great depth, with single or double page spreads devoted to each species and superb photographs of each animal in its natural environment, except for the extinct Thylacine and Julia Creek Dunnart.

Each species entry has an italicized sidebar with details on size and weight; identification; synonyms and common names; conservation status (though this information would now be greatly out-of-date, many more species now being in a much direr state with the impacts of habitat destruction, feral animals and now climate change!); subspecies; extralimital distribution; and references.

The main text discusses their physical appearance; history; distribution and preferred habitat; diet; behaviour; reproduction and offspring; and threats to their survival.

They are all such unique and interesting creatures and it is vitally important that we do everything in our power to preserve the rapidly dwindling diversity of marsupial species, which we are currently lucky enough to have here in Australia.BlogEnvtlBooksReszd25%Image (514)

Key Guide to Australian Mammals by Leonard Cronin 1991/ 1997

A much more compact field guide, ideal for the bushwalker and naturalist! In the front is a basic visual key, which refers readers to the pertinent pages. Animals have been categorized into subheadings: monotremes; carnivorous marsupials; bandicoots; wombats; koalas and possums; kangaroos; bats; rodents; sea mammals; and dingoes.

Each double page spread has text on the left, covering two species, with a distribution map for each and colour illustrations on the right, with the scientific name of each species.

The text includes information on the common and scientific names; physical appearance, size and weight; behaviour; development; food; habitat and conservation status.

Ross has used this book a lot, judging by all the notes he has scribbled on his sightings throughout the book!

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It is also worth looking out for books on specific Australian animals, which are part of the Australian Natural History Series, originally published by New South Wales University Press and now produced by the CSIRO. See: http://www.publish.csiro.au/books/series/48. They cover a wide variety of Australian animals from birds (kookaburras; magpies; cockatoos; bowerbirds; herons; albatross; scrub turkeys; bustards; tawny frogmouths and wedge-tailed eagles) and sea mammals (whales, sea lions and fur seals) to dingoes; kangaroos; tree kangaroos; potoroos and betongs; native mice and rats; echidnas; platypus and wombats.

We love our local wombats, such bumbling, amiable trundle-buses, so vulnerable to fast-moving night traffic, and were thrilled to watch platypus, feeding  in broad daylight, at a local stream recently, so both the following books are valuable additions to our natural history library.

The Wombat: Common Wombats in Australia by Barbara Briggs 1988/ 1990

This small publication contains everything you want to know about wombats from their evolution and early history; their classification; physical characteristics; burrows; behaviour and daily life in the burrow and above ground; its life cycle from birth to old age; the risk factors wombats face from disease to environmental (predation; flood; drought; fire) and man-induced hazards (poisoning; land clearing; and road deaths); and finally, raising orphaned wombats.

I love the pencil sketches by Ross Goldingay of these endearing creatures, as well as the many black-and-white and colour photographs. In the back are appendices of growth and development tables and the dos and don’ts of hand rearing orphaned wombats, as well as an excellent bibliography.BlogEnvtlBooksReszd30%Image (668) - Copy

I was fascinated to learn the following facts about wombats:

Wombats evolved 100 Million years ago, the oldest fossils being 24 Million years old;andthe largest wombat ever was Phascolonus gigas, weighing up to 100 Kg (at least twice the size of modern wombats!)

There are currently three species: the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat Lasiorhinus krefftii, which is critically endangered and is confined to a small colony in Epping Forest National Park, Central Queensland; the Southern Hairy-Nosed Wombat Lasiorhinus latifrons, now confined to the Nullabor Plain and a few semi-arid areas of South Australia; and the Common Wombat Vombatus ursinus, the subject of this book and found in South-Eastern Australia and Tasmania.

It is the only marsupial to have two incisor teeth in its upper jaw and their teeth are continuously growing throughout its life, which is reassuring, given their diet of tough grasses, sedges and even bark and dry leaves.

Burrows can be up to 30 metres long and are used by a number of wombats on a time-share basis. They can live up to 10 to 15 years old in the wild and 20 to 25 years old in captivity.

Wombats enjoy dust baths, known as wombat wallows, and slide down steep river banks and snow slopes. They are also efficient swimmers over short distances, dogpaddling silently with their short legs under the water with no splashing at all! I would love to see a wombat gliding silently through the water, however platypus viewing is much more likely! On a recent visit to Bombala and Delegate, we watched 4 platypuses in two different streams, such a thrill given they are more commonly seen at dawn and dusk!

The Platypus: A Unique Mammal by Tom Grant 1989.

Another excellent publication, which covers their physical characteristics; taxonomy;  and distribution and status in the first chapter, after which the book is divided into seasonal chapters:

Winter : Diet and Body temperature regulation;

Spring : Floods; Reproduction; and Social organization and the crural system

Summer : Milk; Burrows and their use; Adaptations to burrowing and diving; growth; location of position and of food; and the environmental impact of dams.

Autumn : Population studies; disease and mortality; age; juvenile dispersal and movements.

In the back is a species profile and bibliography and again, the book is full of excellent photographs, and diagrams and pencil sketches by Dominic Fanning.BlogEnvtlBooksReszd30%Image (667) - Copy

Mammal Tracks and Signs: A Field Guide For South-eastern Australia by Barbara Triggs 1984

Because many Australian animals are nocturnal, we often don’t see them in the wild unless we are out and about, spotlighting at nighttime, but we often see signs of them in their scats, tracks and evidence of foraging activities, as well as unfortunately the all-too- often and disastrously plentiful road kill!

There are four keys provided : a key to tracks at the beginning of the book; a key to scats; a key to skulls; and finally, a key to shelters. Each key refers to the pertinent pages for each species.

There is an introductory chapter concerning where to look; the structure of feet; gaits; scats and their analysis and the identification of animals from their bones.

The rest of the book is divided into the different mammal types, including their tracks, scats (including diagnostic features), shelters, bones and skulls and species. There are distribution maps, including preferred habitat; black-and-white photos; excellent illustrations of tracks, scats and skulls; and useful tables specifying the lengths of the hind foot, toe print, and stride when hopping and punting, essential for separating out large kangaroos from large wallabies, small wallabies and rat-kangaroos!

It is a very detailed and complex field and this book is invaluable! At the end is a list of useful books and journals for further reading.BlogEnvtlBooksReszd40%Image (525)

Whales, Dolphins and Seals by Hadoram Shirihai and Brett Jarrett 2006

A must, given that we now live so close to the coast and an excellent lead-in to my next category! We always get so excited when we see a whale spouting or breaching close in to our local coastline or a pod of dolphins surfing the waves or encounter a seal unexpectedly on a wild deserted beach.

Every year, Humpbacks and Southern Right Whales migrate north from the Antarctic Ocean, up the eastern coastline of Australia, to the warmer subtropical waters of Queensland from June to August (Winter), then return home with their calves from September to November. Their annual migration covers a journey of 10 000 km. See: http://www.environment.gov.au/resource/humpback-whales-eastern-australia and https://www.wildaboutwhales.com.au/whale-facts/about-whales/whale-migration. The latter site even has a Whale App, which records the latest sightings. See: http://www.wildaboutwhales.com.au/app.

In our area on the Far South Coast of New South Wales, Green Cape is a particularly good spot to see them, as it juts so far out into the sea and the path of the whales, that it is possible to get a really good look at them up close. They are such beautiful, huge, gentle and highly intelligent mammals, so it is great to have a field guide, not only for our Australian species, but all the different types of whales around the world!

Each entry has a feature box covering basic information to aid identification, like scientific name; range; maximum size and physical appearance and typical behaviour on surfacing, as well as notes on variations (age/ sex/ individuals); similar species; distribution and population; and ecology (behaviour, breaching, diving, diet, reproduction, immatures and life span), all accompanied by superb photographs and maps.

The dolphin and seal sections have a similar format. I never knew there were so many different types of dolphins, including estuarine and river dolphins (Amazon River, South America; Ganges River, India; Yangtse River, China and the Irrawaddy Dolphins of South-East Asia). This book also explains the differences between dolphins and porpoises, which are closely related, but have different teeth, patterns and pigmentations, range and behaviours.

I also learnt that not all seals are the same! Fur seals (our type of seal) and sea lions are eared seals (external ear flaps), while true seals only have a small ear canal with no earflap. Their anatomy and agility on land is also very different, but you will have to read the book to learn more!

There is so much information in this book about the 129 species of marine mammals worldwide! It even covers the old mermaids of delirious sex-starved sailors : the dugongs, sea-cows and manatees of tropical waters , as well as arctic animals like walrus, otters and polar bears. It finishes with a list of prime marine mammal sites for viewing all these animals in their natural environments and a conservation checklist for all the different species.

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Now for more on marine life…!!!

Having lived in the country for most of our lives, we feel so lucky here in Candelo to have excellent access to the coast, especially one with such natural unspoilt beauty, protected by National Park status. Having grown up in Tasmania, it is so lovely to be able to still experience beaches in their natural state without a house or building in sight, an increasing rarity these days, with the increased population and urbanization of our coastline, especially on the mainland.

Marine Life

When I was a teenager, my parents developed our interest in natural history by encouraging collecting as a hobby. I collected Tasmanian shells, which I swapped with fellow conchologists in New Zealand and Queensland, while my sisters collected gemstones and butterflies and my brother, rocks. I had a set of special narrow drawers, lined with cotton wool, as well as a glass display cabinet, to store my shells, which I labelled with their scientific names and sorted into family and genus groups.

We spent many fascinating hours, head down and walking slowly along beaches, searching for the best example of a particular shell, as well as marvelling at the rich rock pool environment. Along the way, I learned so much about their natural history, as well as that of their fellow marine life: the seaweeds , algae, coral and plankton; sea tulips and cunjevoi;  the sea slugs and sea hares; the sponges, sea anemones, starfish and chitons and all the tough survivors of the littoral zone, not to mention the fish, larger sea mammals and sea birds. I love the fact that the sea can still astound and surprise us with new discoveries constantly being made! These books were indispensable to my education.

What Shell is That by Neville Coleman 1975

A good all-rounder for an appreciation of shells as living animals, it covers 750 common species of Mollusca, which are divided up into the different types of environment, in which they are found, including mud and mangroves; rocky reefs; coral reefs; sand and rubble; continental shelf and ocean pelagics.

It contains photographs, both of the shells and the living animals in their natural environment, which makes for easy identification. Each species entry contains its family name; common name and scientific name, as well as a brief description of its physical appearance, distribution and abundance. As you can see, it was a very well-used book!

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Australian Shells by BR Wilson and K Gillett 1971

This subtitle of lovely book is ‘Illustrating and Describing 600 Species of Marine Gastropods From Australian Waters’ and it certainly delivers!

Gastropods are just one of six classes of the phylum Mollusca, but it is the largest with over 90 000 living marine, freshwater and terrestrial snail and slug species. The other classes are : Monoplacophora (only 2 to 3 very deep water limpet-like molluscs); Amphineura (chitons; several hundred species); Bivalvia (bivalves; 15 000 species); and Cephalopoda (octopus, squid and nautilus; several hundred species).

Gastropoda is divided into three subclasses: Prosobranchiata; Opisthobranchiata and PulmonataProsobranchiata includes most of the marine and a large number of the land snails. They have gills in the mantle cavity and most are able to seal the aperture with an operculum. Opisthobranchiata includes marine snails and slugs like bubble shells, sea hares and nudibranchs, where the shell is commonly reduced or absent and all are hermaphroditic.  Pulmonata includes all the hermaphroditic land snails and slugs, which lack an operculum and gills and breathe by means of a lung, which is a modified mantle cavity. All the molluscs in this book are marine prosobranchs.

There is a large section on gastropod anatomy; feeding; and reproduction and development, followed by an examination of its shell – the composition; shape; colours and patterns; and growth and age.

The book then describes the different geographical distribution zones: Northern Australian; Southern Australian; Eastern and Western Overlap zones and their affinities with certain gastropod species ; discusses shell collecting practices and gives a list of relevant books and journals.

The majority of the book is devoted to the different gastropod families, with the left page covering general notes, then entries about specific species, including a description; date discovered; size; abundance and distribution; and the right page featuring photographs of each species. Throughout the book are also photographs of the living creatures with the most amazingly patterned feet, especially the volutes (the Amoria genus in particular)! The underwater world is endlessly fascinating!BlogEnvtlBooksReszd25%Image (575)Australian Seashores by W. J. Dakin 1976

The original Australian seashore bible!

Part One covers the physical elements: the sea, the tides and ocean waves; the sculpture of the coastline; the pasture of the sea, plankton; and  luminescence, camouflage and living colour!  and

Part Two looks at the seashore life : the zones of animal and plant life; seaweeds and sponges; jellyfish, anemones, blue-bottles and corals; worms and worm-like creatures; sea-mats and sea-mosses; crustaceans (lobsters, crabs, prawns, sea slaters and sandhoppers);  and barnacles; molluscs, including sea hares, nudibranches and sea slugs; echinoderms (starfish, sea urchins and sea cucumbers); sea squirts (cunjevoi and ascidians) and finally, flotsam and jetsam.BlogEnvtlBooksReszd30%Image (516)

WJ Dakin’s Classic Study: Australian Seashores by Isobel Bennett 1987

This revision of Dakin’s book has many more photos and maps, which support the text admirably. For example, the chapter on The Sculpture of a Coastline, with its original diagrams illustrating coastline features, zones and rock platforms, comes alive with the new addition of photographs of concrete examples from different coastlines around Australia. The different zones of the seashore and all the different plants and animals are even easier to understand with all the supporting photographs.

The other big advantage of this book, especially when it comes to identification of the latest new discovery, is its use of colour photographs, compared to the black-and-white photos of the old book. So, this is definitely the version to get!BlogEnvtlBooksReszd30%Image (519)Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells by Helen Scales 2015

A very readable paperback, which brings the seashore to life with all its wondrous diversity, randomness and infinite possibilities.  The author’s enthusiasm and passion for her subject shines through – she must have had so much fun doing all the research for this book!

She explores a wide variety of shell-related topics from their prehistory and anatomy; shell architecture and building; human use of shells (currency; funerals; jewellery; symbolism; and seafood); the oyster industry; hermit crabs; spinning sea-silk (of which I had never heard , but found fascinating!); ammonites and argonauts; shell mania; the coral triangle; nautilus fisheries; shell collecting; the venomous cone shells; and the sea butterfly effect!

I hope I have whetted your curiosity for further reading of this interesting little book!

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Next week, I am featuring some excellent general reference guides to life on earth, covering the geology and soils, the weather and climate and lastly, the amazing night sky!

5 thoughts on “Our Beautiful Earth: Part Three: Natural History Books: Animals and Marine Life

    1. Thank you! We certainly do! I have just seen my first echidna train! Apparently, their mating season is now (July to August) and one female will be followed by 2 to 10 males in a long line until she tires and the first one gets lucky! Though it could be pretty prickly too!!!

      Liked by 1 person

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