Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne
17 May 2020
Written for Paperback
Insects are so numerous, not just in the number of species, but also in terms of the number of families, that all too often even keen naturalists give up on getting to grips with insects as a whole. Instead, the common strategy is to focus on a few groups such as butterflies, moths and dragonflies. In countries like Britain other groups which have a manageable number of species and are also attractive such as bees, wasps, hoverflies and ladybirds are also becoming a focus of attention.
To pack in a continent’s insect diversity into a pocket-sized book of a length of 176 pages is a bold undertaking. Peter Rowland and Rachel Whitlock have done an admirable job. One of the wonderful things about this book is that as you idly thumb through the book, many people, especially those with an interest in natural history will begin to realise that they have a better appreciation of insect diversity at the level of orders and families than they may have realised. Despite it being a book on Australian insects, I suspect many aspiring naturalists in tropical and subtropical countries around the world will find this a very good photographic introduction to orders and families.
For example, starting on page 57 which I picked randomly, in 10 pages we pass through thrips, tube-tailed thrips, spittlebugs, leafhoppers, cicadas, plant hoppers, broad-based bugs, water bugs, bed bugs, squash bugs, water boatmen, pond skaters and seed bugs; a gallop through 13 families in ten pages. As you thumb through this book, even if you are living in a temperate latitude (as I am now, as a Londoner), you cannot but help think ‘Oh I have seen insects like that’. Many tropical naturalists will find they do not have a decent guide to insects for their home country and a book like this which at least helps to recognise insect orders and some of the families is a helpful start. It develops a sense of confidence that at least at the level of orders and the more distinctive families, insects can be a manageable project.
In the end sections of the book is a checklist of Australian insects at the level of families with a tabulation of genera and species for each family. For anyone who has avoided insects as too much to take on, the checklist is a good place to start to making sense of the bewildering diversity. The checklist shows that insects which are a class, have two subclasses; the wingless insects with two orders (bristletails and silverfish) and winged insects. In Australia, the subclass of winged insects has 23 orders. They include familiar orders such as dragonflies (Odonata), stick insects (Phasmida), grasshoppers (Orthoptera), true bugs (Hemiptera), and so on, including the beetles (Coleoptera) whom it has been remarked that the creator was inordinately fond of. No less than 119 families of beetles are found in Australia and only a handful of families can be introduced in a book like this. The front section provides a thumbnail introduction to the 25 insect orders found in Australia. Thus, one learns or is reminded for example that the forewings of beetles are hardened into elytra or wing cases. Beetles are not the only insects who have lost a pair of wings, the other being the Two-winged Flies (Order Diptera).
The end sections provide a list of useful websites and references. The bulk of the book is made up of the species accounts in the usual format of this series with a photograph per species and text under the headings of Description, Distribution and Habit and Habitats. Although species accounts are in the vast majority of cases identified to individual species, where many similar species occur, a user will be doing well to narrow down a species they have seen, even to generic level. More generally the strength of the book lies in providing a good flavour to Australian insect diversity at the level of orders. This will make it useful to many people working as ecologists in parks and reserves with a public outreach role, in Australia as well further afield in the tropics. Those with non-scientific interest will find a variety of groups eliciting different emotions. Dragonflies, butterflies and jewel beetles will be beautiful. Cockroaches, lice, mosquitoes and fleas may be loathsome. The text is informative. The Oriental Rat Flea transmitted the feared Bubonic plague in the Middle Ages. In the Honey Ant, major workers have their abdomens swollen with honey after being fed by minor workers. Indigenous people catch these ants and suck the honey out.
I suspect the broad reach of the book may be attributed to Peter Rowland who has authored other titles in this series to popularise wildlife, collaborating with Rachel Whitlock who is studying systematics and taxonomy. Over 70 individuals and institutions have contributed images which show that despite it being a little book, this has been a massive project. Affordable, portable, accessible books like this play an important pathfinding role to grow future generations of scientists who will go on to write more scholarly and larger volumes that may bask in the limelight of being frequently cited. But future scholarly works may have their beginnings in books such as this that inspire and recruit future entomologists.
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