Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne
4 May 2020
Written for Hardback
To anyone interested in biodiversity, evolution, island biogeography, speciation, tropical ecology, etc. the island of New Guinea is a magical land. Given the well-known scientific output of Beehler, I expected a book in the vein of the wonderful Kenya: A Natural History
by Stephen Spawls and Glenn Mathews, which is midway between a popular book and a technical publication. This book is overtly different with a much larger shape, a larger font with generous line spacing, and is a beautiful designed coffee-table book leaning towards the populist end of the spectrum. It has accessible text which assumes a lay reader and stunning imagery by Tim Laman. It fits the mould of a book that is designed to be in the bookshop of the Natural History Museum in London as it ticks all the boxes for catering to a wide audience. However, this is not to in any way underrate the content which is first class and the coffee table format may take away from the fact that the book is very informative. Beehler writes in the tradition of several great names in zoology who have worked in New Guinea who have also been great science communicators writing in an accessible style to enthuse others. I think of such luminaries as Ernst Mayr, E. O. Wilson, Jared Diamond and Tim Flannery. Many publishers over the years have published (and continue to publish) books or series which introduce the natural history of a country. This book follows the general tradition but a notable departure is that the text in the earlier chapters has a strong educational direction to them. The early chapters introduce many key contemporary scientific discoveries and theories in layperson’s language.
The Overview chapter is preceded by a useful two-page map of the New Guinean Region, which also marks out the subregions (Trans-Fly, Southern Lowlands, etc.) which I returned to many times when reading through the chapters that follow. The chapter on Biogeography is an especially good example of science communication. In very light and accessible language, the author skilfully provides a flavour of what is meant by ecological biogeography, panbiogeography, cladistic geography and then dissects some of the key concepts in island biogeography. The distinction of Land-Bridge islands versus Oceanic Islands, Tramp Species versus High-S Species, Virtual Islands-Mountaintops, Diamond’s Drop-Out Model of Speciation, etc., are discussed. The popular science communication is supported by good design with key concepts boldfaced in green headings that mark the beginning of concept paragraphs. Some sections of text, for example the ones on environments and important native fish groups have keywords with boldfaced black text. These design elements such as boldfacing keywords within the text are commonplace in modern school textbooks and can also be seen in natural history publications such as in the journal British Wildlife
in their section on Wildlife Reports. I have not seen this used in a coffee-table format book before, but it works well and I suspect other natural history publishers may adopt some of these design elements. The 18 chapters as expected, span major taxonomic groups such as birds, reptiles, mammals, invertebrates and plants. These are well-written to provide a good overview in a few pages of text. It is not surprising that as Beehler studied birds, the ornithology chapter is lengthier than the one on mammals. But this may just as well be because mammals are harder to see and study in New Guinea. Sadly, we read that many of the larger mammals have been extirpated over large areas of their range by subsistence hunting using dogs which track down the last remaining individuals. The images of displaying birds of paradise are insightful and part of a portfolio of images for which Laman has received wide recognition.
The introductory chapters on Overview, History, Geology, Climatology and Biogeography are equally rich in detail and provide an all-important context for what makes New Guinea so biologically rich. In fact, these chapters will be of interest to any field biologist as past geological events are often the key to the present distribution of plants and animals. Such an enormous span of topics would typically be a multi-author work. But such is Beehler’s breadth of knowledge of the island with over fifty trips and thirty expeditions with other specialists, he has written an admirable single-author work whilst generously and conspicuously acknowledging his principal sources. Equally, Tim Laman’s time on the island with thirty trips and his training as a field biologist shines through with images covering a wide range of subjects on an island where conditions are often not conducive to photography. I should know; I have had camera bodies and lenses written off during fieldwork in the tropics.
The author’s voice also comes across in many of the chapters drawing on his own field experience which makes the chapters more interesting to read. The first known example of a chemically defended bird is told of the Hooded Pitohui and parallels drawn with the poison arrow tree frogs and why Beehler missed this important discovery despite important clues. Sometimes, scientific discoveries need the hand of chance. The accessible tone of writing can hide the enormous coverage of topics, often in bite-sized paragraphs within the 18 chapters. The eight pages of references in the end sections of a book, provide a clue to the enormous span of technical papers which have been consulted at one time or the other by the author. The excitement of being a modern biological explorer is palpable in many chapters. The point is made that many species, even hundreds of vertebrate species remain to be discovered. New Guinea also fascinates anthropologists as the physical barriers have resulted in over a thousand traditional societies with their own language and culture. Topics related to people are covered in chapters on People, In the Village and The Future. The excitement of biological discovery and how local people live, come together in an exciting narrative on Beehler’s first visit to the little-explored Foja Mountains. The chapter In the Field recounts a path-breaking expedition which took over a decade to organise. In the opening pages of the chapter there is a reference to A.B. Meyer describing a new bird of paradise in the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists Club
(BOC). This brought a smile to my face as the BOC continues to thrive and I have enjoyed attending many of its meetings held in London which are followed by a collegiate meal.
This is a book which will inspire aspiring field biologists anywhere in the tropics and is a brilliant example of accessible science writing that presents a cohesive view of a country’s natural history and the key evolutionary drivers behind it.